Hand-Stitched Memories

Words by Ashley Locke
Photos by Ann-Marie Wyatt

Coulter Fussell recently found herself on the floor of her studio cutting up a 1950s Filipino wedding dress. “Cutting up a vintage handmade wedding dress is… something. I sat there with the scissors, poised to make the first snip for a good long while,” she said. “It's like cutting your bangs for the first time––you just gotta do it. Don't look back! No regrets!”  

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Coulter is from Columbus, Georgia, an old textile town. Textile mills became the heartbeat of the local economy, beginning in the 1870s and lasting for over a hundred years. Thousands of citizens worked to produce goods ranging from yarn and denim to linen and blankets. In Coulter’s family, the craft was passed down as an heirloom. In Columbus, she learned to stitch a quilt just as her grandmother used to sew––but also not like that at all.

As a kid, Coulter was surrounded by the arts. Her father, Fred, was an arts museum curator, and her mother, Cathy, was an educator and a quilter. She was one of four kids––the only girl––and like her brothers, she was more interested in biking and climbing trees than in quilting. “Going to Hancock Fabrics with my mom was torture, and the only reason I would agree to go was because Baskin Robbins was next door in the strip mall,” she said. “But, eventually, I started to pay attention to her work.”

She would watch her mother on the sofa with a huge hoop propped up on her lap. “She's a little person, so all you could see was a mountain of fabric, a big hoop, and one tiny foot that was too short to touch the ground, poking out from beneath the quilt,” she said.

By her late teens, Coulter assumed the same position on the sofa while her mom taught her the careful technique of hand stitching. “She let me be experimental and weird about it, and that is where I learned that method and technique matter,” she said. “And not only do they matter, but they are also to be admired and respected.”

After graduating from the University of Mississippi with a bachelor in fine arts in 2000, Coulter moved to the nearby town of Water Valley. The town had a low population and even lower rent, and in 2010 she rented space on Main Street and turned it into an art gallery she called Yalo Studio. Not long after, she opened an experimental textile studio and supply store. “I opened YaloRUN in 2015,” she said. “My best friend, Megan Patton, had learned to quilt from her grandmother, and she was getting super into it. She and my own mother were corresponding all the time about it, and I got jealous! I wanted to be in on their conversations and making stuff too!”

The thing about small towns is that everyone knows everyone’s business, and everybody knew Coulter was in the business of quilting, so something funny started happening. Trash bags stuffed full of fabric started showing up at YaloRUN’s front door. “I'm not sure when the locals started leaving bags of old fabric at my door, but I love it,” she said. “In the beginning, I may have considered the hand-labeled damask tablecloth from Damascus, Syria in 1977 to be a good donated piece––or the fluorescent neon chiffon from an artist's studio in New York to be the best. And don't get me wrong, they are. But I've also learned to really love a T-shirt from a local car shop, a little league football jersey, or a Care Bears print from the 1980s.”

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Her studio is full of unconventional fabrics, well-worn and well-loved. She likes seeing the fingerprints of previous owners––the fade of a worn-out elbow from a mechanic’s work shirt, or the tear in a pair of jeans from a climb through barbed wire. She doesn’t just give the pieces new life; she immortalizes them.

Coulter’s time-honored tradition of hand-stitching combined with her modern use of paint, embroidery, and natural dyes makes some of her quilts more suited for hanging on a wall than draping over a bed, and lots of folks like it that way. Commissions have been steadily coming in. “I've loved all my private commissions made from a loved one’s old clothes. Every time I make one of those, I feel honored to have intimately interacted with the daily materials of a person's life.”

At YaloRUN, Coulter has turned tradition on its head. Her quilting style is modern, but it still pays homage to quilting’s beginnings. The materials she uses are a mixed bag––some used to be heirlooms in their own right, and others were pieces of clothing or cloth destined for the junkyard. When her work is done, the finished product is a piece of carefully stitched together memories, ready to be a part of hundreds more––a new family heirloom.

Coulter is part of a larger grassroots American movement that’s making the old ways of doing things seem cool again. For her, ditching the sewing machine feels like freedom. “Hand-stitching feels like drawing or painting. I want to direct every stroke,” she said. “But I also prefer driving a standard stick-shift over a car with an automatic transmission, so maybe I just like working harder than I need to.”