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The Perfect Snitch

Dorothy Montgomery, Class of 1984

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It was a dreary winter night, and Dorothy Montgomery ’84 (M.Ed.) had been alone in her Charleston home for a few hours, when, suddenly, she froze.

It’s done. I actually did it, she thought to herself, before the excitement settled in. She stood up, and then started screaming and jumping up and down. If she’d known how to turn cartwheels, she would have done 50 of them. When she eventually calmed down, she picked up her pride and joy – the very thing she’d spent so many months completing – and stared at it in disbelief.

“It was at that point,” she says, “that I called myself a quilter.”

Now, over a decade later, Montgomery has completed more than 50 quilts – some of which have taken just a week to finish. And while some quilters have turned to machines to ensure quicker and more uniform stitching on their quilts, she couldn’t care less about that. 

“I’m not concerned with whether or not it looks perfect,” she says. “The perfection is in the character.”

And if there’s one thing that anyone has said about her quilts, it’s that they are full of character.

Sitting on her couch, her hands folded in her lap and hair pulled back into a tight bun, the retired music teacher describes how she creates her colorful masterpieces. There are fabric and acrylic paints, ink and crayons, embroidery floss, charcoal drawings, dye sticks and appliqués. 

All of these mediums come together to create the vibrant reds, yellows and oranges that radiate off of the fabric, providing illustrations about music influenced by African Americans.

“Instead of making quilts for my bed, I decided to use quilts to illustrate African American music. I just wanted to take it one step further,” she explains. “Before I knew it, I was hooked. There are so many styles of music, I could go on forever.” 

Her work has been widely recognized and praised, but Montgomery has never been concerned with selling her quilts to turn a profit. No, she cares for each one as if it is her own child, and can count on one hand the number of her quilts that are not in her possession: There’s one that was donated to the College’s Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, and another two at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island. Oh, and then there’s another colorful quilt, inspired by a West African song about coming together for a funeral.

“Yeah, that one’s at the Smithsonian,” she mentions nonchalantly, adding that another quilt is on display at the U.S. Embassy in Sierra Leone.

It’s a statement that would catch anyone off guard, and is certainly grounds for at least a happy dance from the self-taught quilter. But Montgomery is unfailingly modest, and prefers not to attract much attention to herself. 

That’s not to say she doesn’t care that her work is on display in the world’s largest museum and research complex or at a U.S. embassy – it’s an accomplishment that she could have only dreamed of when she lugged more than 30 quilting books home from the library a decade ago. But for Montgomery, it’s never been about the accolades and recognition that she’s received over the years.

“I do this because I really just want people to learn their history,” she says, her voice taking the familiar teacher’s tone. “This is just to get the interest started. I’m hoping that the young people will go out and do more.”

And, take it from someone who got started at home in her bedroom, it feels good to say, “I actually did it.”   

– Ashley Lewis Ford ’07