By making what they want to make, these women reveal innovative ways of looking at fabric, design, and format and have produced work that is utterly original and ranks with the finest abstract art in any tradition.
Along County Road 29, many women refer to any quilt dominated by concentric squares as a "Housetop," which reigns as the area's most favored "pattern." Its all-around simplicity hosts many experiments in formal reduction and, at the same time, offers a compositional flexibility unchallenged by other multipiece patterns.
It begins with a medallion of solid cloth, or one of an endless number of pieced motifs, to anchor the quilt.
After that, "Housetops" share the technique of joining rectangular strips of cloth so that the end of a strip's long side connects to one short side of a neighboring strip, eventually forming a kind of frame surrounding the central patch; increasingly larger frames or borders are added until a block is declared complete.
Yet despite the standardized and repetitive process involved in producing the pillow covers, the availability of corduroy, a fabric seldom used before by the Gee's Bend quiltmakers, stimulated a profound creative response.
Rocking, straight or running stitches are commonly used with these stitches being purely functional or decorative.As a category, quilts dominated by a single shape express themselves almost magically, repeating, revising, and rearranging an element in a dizzying number of mutations and variations on themes.Whether arranged into "Housetop" configurations, spotlighted as center medallions with multiple surrounding borders, channeled into lines and stripes of visual energy, or laid out as a "One Patch," the single-form quilts illustrated here conform to compositions traditionally favored throughout the Gee's Bend area.The women of Gee’s Bend—a small, remote, black community in Alabama—have created hundreds of quilt masterpieces dating from the early twentieth century to the present.Resembling an inland island, Gee’s Bend is surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River.In Gee's Bend, this recycling practice became the founding ethos for generations of quiltmakers who have transformed otherwise useless material into marvels of textile art.Until the middle of the twentieth century, the majority of quilts from the area were made from worn-out work clothes, a palette of old shirts, overalls, aprons and dress bottoms whose stains, tears, and faded denim patches provide a tangible record of lives marked by seasons of hard labor in the fields of the rural South.The seven hundred or so inhabitants of this small, rural community are mostly descendants of slaves, and for generations they worked the fields belonging to the local Pettway plantation.Quiltmakers there have produced countless patchwork masterpieces beginning as far back as the mid-nineteenth century, with the oldest existing examples dating from the 1920s.In 1972 the Freedom Quilting Bee, a sewing cooperative based in Alberta, Alabama, near Gee's Bend, secured a contract with Sears, Roebuck to produce corduroy pillow covers.Made of a wide-wale cotton corduroy, the covers came in a variety of colors including "gold," "avocado leaf," "tangerine," and "cherry red." Production of the Sears pillow covers left little room for personal creativity, as labor at the Freedom Quilting Bee was divided to maximize daily output.