Yet, she still works with those fingers. The artwork they produce still makes it into galleries and museums.
Anna Willis is a quilter, and has been since she was a child. Her mother first taught her to sew when she was 5. Willis was a young lady, in the 1940s, when she completed her first quilt by herself. She still has it, all these years later.
“It’s a sunshine and shadow pattern,” Willis said. “I have never been able to part with it.”
Two folding tables pushed together dominate her living room in her small brick home in Central. On it is a sewing machine. All around it, and underneath it, are sacks of material. Small drawers hold spools of thread of every color.
One couch is stacked with folded quilts.
Some of the quilts are large enough to cover a queen-size bed. Others are made for babies or for hanging on the wall. Some are decorated with beadwork and hand-sewn patchwork.
All have been made by Willis.
Quilting is her art.
Her work is on display at The Arts Center of Clemson and is part of the Upstate Heritage Quilt Trail, a series of wooden, painted quilt squares that are mounted on public buildings, tourist sites and homes in the Upstate. The squares are a form of public art, meant to generate tourism.
“This is what I do now, when I take a notion,” Willis said. “As soon as I retired, I went right into quilting. I don’t have anybody here. I had to find something to do.”
She has been a widow since the 1960s. Her only child, an adopted son, died last year.
Her quilts keep her busy.
She recently worked on a king-size Christmas quilt, one she meant to finish in time for the holidays, but the schedule was delayed when she came down with a cold. Some of her creations will take a couple of months to make. This king-size cover will take three months.
She has taught others her art at local elementary schools, community centers and at Tri-County Technical College.
Willis was raised in Seneca, near the Oconee County Training School. Then, flour sacks, salt sacks and feed sacks were used to put quilts together. Her mother had a large quilt frame that was held up with ropes at the ceiling. She would lower it in the morning and work on quilts until dinner time, Willis said.
“We didn’t have much,” Willis said. “Mama made quilts, and I had to help her. Mama could make anything she wanted. Everything I knew about sewing, knitting and crocheting, I learned from her.”
That started a lifetime of working with fabric and sewing for Willis. She worked for 15 years at Gallant Belk on Seneca. But the longest span of her career was spent in a mill, sewing collars on blouses.
About 23 years ago, she retired.
“The doctor made me stop working because of my heart,” she said.
Her health is not what it once was. Those fingers will ache sometimes, and her arthritis will keep her awake all evening if her joints become too cold.
But many days, Willis is still here, sitting at this table, working on her art.