"The descriptive words improvisation, strip pieced, multiple patterns, brightly colored and rhythmic were all true of African American quilts. But these features are also traditional in a number of white communities. The style is ubiquitous in the American South. Historians have found it to be a product of economics, not race, used by both blacks and whites to quickly make warm quilts out of whatever they had."
Most rural Southern women had a difficult life. . .working from sun up to sun down, caring for their family in what was often a meager subsistence living. . .They did the best they could with very little. . .One of their challenges was providing warm coverings for the family beds.
Rural quilts were made for everyday use out of necessity. . .Warm blankets were expensive and fabric was scarce. . .The economic culture that these women were raised in taught them that everything had a use. . .so Southern women made quilts from scraps of fabric, discarded clothing, feed and flour sacks. . .Their make-do attitude reminds us that unimportant, trivial, and meaningless things can be made useful.
QUILT by CATHERINE SOMERVILLE
Traditional quilt making was slow and labor intensive, often taking months to complete. . .Southern women helped to speed the process up by improvisation and using the most primitive of quilting stitches to sandwich the layers together. . .At the same time, the aesthetic wasn't lost. . .There is something within women that they aspire to find beauty and purpose in the most mundane of tasks. . .and so it was with their piecing. . .They made quilts that were not originally created as pieces of art. . .as many are considered today. . .but they were pleasing combinations often compared to JAZZ. . .being described as exciting. . .improvised. . .vibrant. . .movement. . .
COTTON WORK PANTS, Ga 1940s
Before learning about rural Southern quilt characteristics, I saw the old tattered pieces for years at yard sales and flea markets, thinking them of no consequence. . .just a rag-tag bunch of coverings. . .giving them no respect. . .never looking closely at them. . .How many I passed by still haunts me. . .It wasn't until I ran across the quilts of Gees Bend that I gathered a new admiration for the common 'utility' quilt. . .I suddenly had a new perspective for the rural Southern technique of piecing. . .
GEE'S BEND, Alabama
The African American quilting traditions definitely influenced that technique. . .There is no question about it. . .The best known source for documentation of African American quilting are those quilts made by the women of Gee's Bend, Alabama. . .They have experienced many recognitions for their particular style that has remained relatively unaltered. . .They were pretty much cut off from the world, so quilting styles were passed down from mother to daughter. . .friend to friend. . .without outside influence for well over 100 years. . .Because of their isolation, history tells us that this quilting knowledge remained fairly 'pure'. . .documenting the African-American technique without outside influence.
Their creations are distinctively different from our familiar Euro-American styles. . .They are irregular in pattern, color combinations, and fabrics. . .Experts for years called such quilts as 'mistakes in workmanship and design' or deem them as 'unlovely quilts'. . .Only in the last 40 years have these quilts come to be accepted for what they are--not mistakes but distinctive in their own style and loose set of techniques. . . Yet, Gees Bend quilts were not the only ones found in the South . . .My eyes were opened to other similar quilting styles while attending a Regional Farm and Gin Show in Memphis, Tennessee a few years ago, where I met an African-American artist from South Carolina by the name of Floyd Gordon. . .In several of his paintings and prints I found similar quilts to those of Gees Bend. . .
I asked Floyd where he got the inspiration for the patterns of his painted quilts.
His answer was, "From my childhood and what I saw growing up."
I realized these South Carolina women probably never met anyone from Gees Bend, and here they were sharing the same traditions. . .This revelation certainly opened my eyes to the possibilities. . .It seemed apparent that, although Gees Bend quilts are the best known, the type of quilt making found there represents many Southern quilts found in other states. . .The use of symbols, asymmetry, bright colors, and vertical piecing are techniques that are found throughout the South. . .in white, as well as black, communities. . .I also found as I researched the cotton plantation lifestyle, that the piecing style took the same western route of cotton production. . .from the Carolinas to Georgia to Alabama to Mississippi to Arkansas. . .As Cotton depleted the soil of nutrients, landowners were forced to move ever westward. . .taking their slaves with them.
After the Civil War, many freed slaves began sharecropping, following the same landowners for whom they had been slaves. . .Moving from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi Delta and into Texas, so followed the African American style of quilting. . .acquiring the interest of white sharecroppers who incorporated many of the African-American techniques into their own covers. . .It is well documented that black and white sharecroppers often lived side-by-side. . .working close to each other. . .They shared. . .or observed. . .each others ways of cooking. . .of gardening. . .and certainly of quilting. . It appears that by the time farmers and sharecroppers reached this part of the Northeast Arkansas Delta, the rural Southern quilt truly had less to do with race than the economic condition of the maker. . .and that the lines of demarcation in culture were somewhat blurred. . .much like our food. . .To this day, my favorite meal is ham and beans or red beans and rice, cornbread, fried okra and greens. . .all influenced by the Southern black culture.
I would go one step further to say that here in the Dell area, economics didn't play as big a part as did the frugality of the times in which our grandparents lived. . .from pioneering new land to the economic collapse of the Great Depression. . .although sharecropper and tenant women did have a bigger challenge before them.
Possibly GEES BEND
For many years I researched the background history of our untraditional Southern quilts and my appreciation for them grew. . .I was drawn to them. . .and began a collection of my own. . .They are mostly made in Northeast Arkansas, but a few have come via other Delta towns in this state. . .I will be sharing those quilts with you as we journey through this series. . .For this post, I have only included representative quilts from the South, several of which are from Gees Bend. . .The place I started my research.
QUILT by LAVERNA BRACKENS
BLUE JEANS POCKETS BY ESSIE LEE ROBINSON
"The naming of the quilts are as unique as the quilts themselves. . .names such as Mousetrap, Pig Pen, Housetop, Lazy Girl, Everybody, Slap Jack, and Britches. . .are not found in traditional quilts. . ."
THE UNTRADITIONAL QUILT IN NORTHEAST ARKANSAS
Compared to the other Southern states. . .and the Delta plantations in south Arkansas of an earlier date. . .North Mississippi County, Arkansas was a late bloomer. . .Only a handful of families lived in our local area before 1900. . .It wasn't until the swamps were drained and the forests were cleared that the farmers moved in around 1914. . buying up cut-over land for very little cost. . .We became a melting pot of many races and cultures. . .the last frontier of Arkansas. . .Class lines were not as distinctive as in other Southern states, although still present. . .Not taking anything away from the African American aesthetic and their influence on all Southern quilt piecing, I began to see how, through the years and from state to state, these quilts became a staple of many households whether black or white. . .
Quilters from Mississippi were probably the greatest influence of the rural Southern quilt here in the Northeast Arkansas Delta. . .although other states were also represented. . .I had the opportunity to visit Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, where the well-known Tutwiler Quilters craft their version of the Southern quilt. . .They make their quilts in a style reminiscent of the Gees Bend techniques . . .and certainly their choice of colors and combinations for all their quilts are in the Southern quilting style. . .For me, it helped to verify that we have a common history.
Quilt historians have found that, for the most part, black women made their quilts in the same styles that were popular with the general population during any given period. As quilters draw from a common history one cannot look at a quilt and easily identify the cultural background of the artist. There has always been a great deal of overlapping in quilting styles among different communities and cultures.
To add to the confusion, economic status usually dictated the kinds of quilts made by women regardless of their cultural heritage. Poorer women have always had to make do with scraps and discarded clothing. White and black women alike found "string" quilting to be an efficient way to use this fabric.. .Womenfolk
Out of curiosity as to the home state of early sharecropper/tenants, I went to the 1930 U.S. Census of Hector Township, Mississippi County, Arkansas. . .There I found a few of my Grandfather's farms close to the present day Roseland area. . . As a stroke of luck, the enumerator wrote the farm owner's names along the side of the page. . .I was better able to count successfully the states represented on and around my Grandfather's farms. . . the Martin and Magers Farm, the Earl Magers Roseland Farm beside R. C. Rose, and the Harding and Magers Farm. . .I also included that part of the Simmons plantation in the same sections but not belonging to my Grandfather. . .Many of the families working on different farms lived side by side, making it impossible to totally distinguish property lines on the census. . .Only counting the heads of households, it was not surprising that the top three states represented were Mississippi at 54%. . .Arkansas (south) at 16%. . .Alabama at 11%. . .and the remainder 19% from Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, and Tennessee. . .I also found that many of the families from Mississippi had parents or grandparents born in the Carolinas, Georgia, or Alabama. . .following the route of the Southern plantations.
I wasn't surprised. . .
Many Southern quilts have surfaced in the last 20 years across the country and have absorbed the interest of the collectors and the public eye that responds to the arts. . . They are the ones that go way beyond the traditional pattern construction. . .making them interesting and full of surprises. . .These quilts speak to people in a way that a modern painting would if you came across it in a museum. . . The quilts rarely seem boring. . .They usually have movement. . color. . .modern art style. . .rural quilts from the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas. . .
With this little bit of background, in future posts I'll explore and share some of the basic patterns and symbols of the rural Southern quilt. . .and the various techniques. . .We may construct a few lap quilts together. . .as I share some of the actual quilts in my collection. . .TIL THEN. . .ALWAYS REMEMBER. . .
THE QUILTS OF GEES BEND by
GEES BEND: ARCHITECTURE OF THE QUILT by Paul Arnett, William Arnett, Bernard Herman, Maggi Gordon, Diane Mott, Dilys Blum, Lauren Whitley, Amei Wallach, Joanne Cubbs, Tinwood Books, 2006
When the nights became cold each winter, the women would scrounge up what small scraps of fabric they could find and fashion blankets to put on their beds, walls, and floors. . .to help keep the cold, whistling winds of winter at bay. . .