“I’ve always been interested in making things,” says Ruth Coffey. Ruth uses her hands constantly, often staying up into the early morning to finish an order of dolls, sew an “Around the World” quilt, or put together a jigsaw puzzle. Over the years, she has made quilts, pillows, rock paintings, baskets, broom covers, purses and hand bags, and variety of dolls from Christmas elves to life-sized “hillbilly dolls.” “People who spent their summers in the mountains from Florida would sit those big dolls in their windows to make their houses look occupied while they were gone,” Ruth says. Now in her eighties, Ruth continues to make crafts from her home, and she welcomes visitors who are interested in her work.
Ruth was born in Lenoir, and she lived there until she was about six years old, when her family moved to the Frog Level and then Buffalo communities in Caldwell County, where they farmed. Ruth says that jobs were hard to get at the time, so she stayed around the house. “I was always in the creek fishing or rock hunting,” she says. Ruth learned some of her crafts from her mother, who made willow and split oak baskets and handmade brooms. She has made a few baskets over the years. “I can put them together,” she says, “but they are nothing like my mother’s.”
When Ruth was about twenty-five years old, she broke her arm and could not do her usual chores. She took her passion for making things with her hands and started creating crafts. She saw her first “hillbilly dolls” at gift shops up in the mountains, and she also used a picture of dolls in a magazine to her create her own. “I just started making them,” she says. “Most of my crafts I learned just by sitting down and doing it.” She sold her dolls and other items at Charlie Brown’s craft shop outside Blowing Rock for more than ten years, and later she sold her crafts at the Blue Ridge Gift Shop. As word spread about her work, she started taking custom orders. Today, she sells a few quilts in a nearby gift shop, but she mostly works on custom orders and for her own enjoyment.
One of Ruth’s passions is originality. Instead of making her dolls exactly like the ones she saw in gift shops, Ruth makes Santa Claus dolls at Christmas time and rabbits for Easter. “I tried to spread out,” she says. “I like to do my own patterns.” Ruth’s dolls were so popular that she would get orders from Charlotte for fifty dolls at a time. When asked if her craft became too much like work, she says, “No, I enjoyed making those dolls. It was a pleasure.”
More recently, Ruth has turned to quiltmaking. She will also take some custom orders for other items, such as dolls, but the customer has to bring her all of the materials. “I’ve got a car sitting out in the yard here,” she says with a hint of humor. “But I let my license run out and never renewed it.”
Ruth Coffey sells her quilts and other crafts, and will accept limited custom orders.