Reflection on Two Books on American Quilts

I now have two favourite books on the subject of patchwork and quilting:-

1 Beardsley, J. et al (2002) The Quilts of gee’s bend Atlanta, GA: Tinwood Books in Association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

2 Kiracofe, R. (2014) Unconventional & unexpected: American quilts below the radar 1950-2000. United States: Stewart, Tabori & Chang.

The former concentrates on the lives and quilts of the isolated African American community of Gees Bend, Alabama, USA. The descendants of slaves, this community lived a hard life, working from morning until night in cotton and food production. Originally living in wooden log cabin-style homes, without insulation, quilts were a necessity and were made out of whatever discarded clothing and other textiles they had available. Later, offcuts of corduroy from a nearby factory found their way into the quilts. What strikes you immediately is the asymmetry and non-traditional interruptions and improvisations in the patterns of the quilts. The use of colour and pattern speaks of the makers’ African heritage, but is fused with the American quilt making tradition. Colour combinations, bold florals and plain fabrics, all types of textiles: cottons, polyesters, furnishing fabrics, cords and more, are mixed at will. Simple, fast-to-assemble, patterns such as bars, strip piecing and housetops (a series of concentric rectangles or borders) are used, but with such ‘random’ variations that you cannot help but be captivated when studying the patterns and movement in them.

I put ‘random’ in quotation marks, because although the pattern and colour choices appear haphazard, there is obviously a great deal of thought about the placement of the colours, lines and resulting patterns. Having tried to make my own versions of one of the quilts, I have found it hard to replicate the freedom and spontaneity evident in the original pieces.

gees-bend-quilt-2

Essie Bendolph Pettway Two-sided quilt Blocks and One Patch stacked squares and rectangles variation. 1973. Cotton, polyester knit, denim. 88 x 80 inches.

Source: book mentioned at #1 above

The side of the quilt in blue and white, might have become a chess board pattern in most people’s hands, the artist here has varied the dimensions of the squares and rectangles in a way that resembles the op art paintings of Bridget Riley. If it had been ‘neat’ and regular, it would not have held my attention for long. As it is, your eyes dart about the surface trying to make sense of the way the shapes vary and join to make new patterns. The multi-coloured binding (folded over from the other side) gives an added dimension to the composition.

gees-bend-quilt

Plummer T Pettway Roman Stripes variation c. 1967. Cotton twill, denim, cotton/polyester blend, synthetic knit. 89 x 68 inches.

Source: #1 above.

I found this image so arresting that I attempted to make my own version of it (please note that the two pieces I mention here, were made before I started this course and do not form part of my submission). I cut and pieced squares of black, white and cream cotton and cotton mix fabrics, re-cutting and sewing some at 90 degrees, to give those unexpected interruptions to the pattern seen in the original. It was machine sewn, and hand quilted. I was quite pleased with this piece, but felt it was too stiff, with too many straight lines.

I went on to try a different method of construction for a different variation. I cut templates by hand from newspaper to give more variety to the lines, and introduced more colour. This piece was hand sewn. I felt it was more successful than the piece above, but still lacks the spontaneity of the quilt that inspired it, which I suspect was cut and pieced without templates or rulers. Having the confidence to not make the edges straight is something I need to work on!

Above left: Original Design by unknown maker c. 1930 – 1960. Cotton, denim work clothes, string ties. 81 x 69 inches

Above right: Original Design attributed to Sarah Patric and daughter, Mary Meed. c. 1925 – 1965. Cotton, upholstery fabric, pieced and appliquéd. 74 x 64 inches.

Source: book #2 mentioned at the start of this article

The worn denim quilt has used the natural variations in colour of the clothing: areas of wear, and staining contrasting sharply with the parts where pockets protected the original dark indigo colour. What makes this so successful for me, is the white string ties which add a unifying, yet still variable, layer of pattern to the piece.

The quilt shown above right, started out with the muted, plain fabrics making a simple, understated quilt, but the bright florals and checked blocks were appliquéd on top at a later date by the original maker’s daughter. The heaviness of the quilt suggests that it may contain an even older quilt sewn within, as batting. It is wonderful to think of it passed down the generations, undergoing changes and additions along the way. It reminds me very much of the ‘Boro’ tradition in Japan (that I touched on in my Wabi Sabi research.) It is not known whether the additions were purely decorative or to repair damage.

Kiracofe, 2014 contains a wealth of interesting quilts with essays from experts in the field. The book is unique in concentrating on these later 20th century quilts and on such improvisational and unusual examples. 

Summary

I find the work contained in these two publications very inspiring for a number of reasons:-

  • the creative reuse of found textiles, including mixing different types and textures
  • the exciting handling of colour and pattern (taking traditional patchwork blocks (or no blocks at all) and using them in new and unexpected ways)
  • the asymmetry and ‘liveliness’ conveyed in the designs
  • the stories behind the people who made them
  • the functionality of the quilts combined with artistic aspirations

I am sure I will return to making wall hangings and other items using similar techniques. I would like to explore making works that are not square or rectangular, maybe incorporating abstract landscapes or colours from the landscape.

3 thoughts on “Reflection on Two Books on American Quilts”

    1. Haha! Thank you, Inger – I made these pieces before I started the course, but I mentioned them here, because they were relevant to the books. The black and white one was fairly fast to make, though.

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