When I was attending public schools in Alabama in the 1960s, boys took a class called “Shop” and girls took “Home Ec.” I did fine with the cooking part of Home Ec, but not so great with the sewing. The ties fell off of the apron I made, and my sheath dress was higher on one shoulder than the other.
This week, however, I had the good fortune of spending time with two ladies who made me want to try again to master the needle and thread – Mary Ann and China Pettway, two of the quilters from Gee’s Bend, Alabama. They seem to take in stride that their quilts have been described as “the fabric equivalent of a Picasso or Matisse.”
Gee’s Bend is a small isolated community – surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River. The women of Gee’s Bend have been quilting since the 19th Century when female slaves pieced together strips of fabric – scraps from old work clothes, feed sacks, whatever remnant they could find — to make covers to keep themselves and their children warm in unheated houses. The quilting tradition passed down through generations and continues still today.
Around the time I was struggling with a Simplicity pattern in Home Ec class, the quilters from Gee’s Bend were “discovered” by art collectors and museum curators. The starting price on a Gee’s Bend quilt now is around $1000, and at least one of their quilts sold for $27,000.
One of my favorite books in the world is Whitney Otto’s How to Make an American Quilt. I never thought I’d make a quilt, but when Mary Ann and China return to Auburn later this year to conduct a quilt-square workshop, I’ll be ready with my needle and thread, and remnants of corduroy and cotton, velvet and flannel from old garments that have served me well and deserve a place in physical memory.
Marian Carcache welcomes
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