Thursday, September 11, 2014

Amazing Women: The Quilters of Gee's Bend

It was an honor to meet Miss China and the Gee's Bend quilters at Fiber College 2014 in Searsport, Maine. Fiber College is a five-day celebration of creative women and the fiber arts, held at beautiful Searsport Shores on Penobscot Bay.
I wrote about last year's amazing Fiber College in the post  Summer Camp for Adults. Impossible as it seems, this year was even better! I'll be sharing photos and some great new craft ideas from Fiber College in the next couple of posts . . . I learned too much to fit it all into one!

The quilters from Gee's Bend, Alabama were strong, creative and inspiring women, and their quilts exploded with color in the late summer sun.

The Gee's Bend quilters didn't learn their craft from quilting books or classes. Their knowledge about quilting was passed down from generation to generation, originally inspired by the need of women held as slaves to keep their children warm and, in some cases, to tell their stories when not allowed to read or write.

"The Quilts of Gee's Bend are created by a group of women who live in the isolated African-American hamlet of Gee's Bend, Alabama. "The compositions of these quilts contrast dramatically with the ordered regularity associated with many styles of Euro-American quiltmaking. There's a brilliant, improvisational range of approaches to composition that is more often associated with the inventiveness and power of the leading 20th-century abstract painters than it is with textile-making," writes Alvia Wardlaw, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts."
~from Wikipedia

"The quilting tradition in Gee's Bend goes back to the 19th century, when the community was the site of a cotton plantation owned by a Joseph Gee. Perhaps influenced in part by patterned African textiles, female slaves pieced together strips of cloth to make bedcovers. Throughout the post-bellum years and into the 20th century, Gee's Bend women made quilts to keep themselves and their children warm in unheated shacks that lacked running water, telephones and electricity. Along the way they developed a distinctive style, noted for its lively improvisations and geometric simplicity."
~from Wikipedia

"Their quilts have been exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among others."
~from Wikipedia

For five days, twenty-five Fiber College quilters had the privilege of learning from, and quilting with, the quilters from Gee's Bend. And the rest of us had the privilege of meeting, and being inspired by, these remarkable women.

 Forget the rules you learned about quilting. The original Gee's Bend quilters did not have rotary cutters, Ott lights and metric rulers. They made quilts from scraps of old clothing or bedding, under the worst of conditions, using what they had.

They did without and made do.

They tore fabric to make strips, worked by candlelight, "measured" and balanced colors by doing what looked good when the pieces were laid out on the ground.

Their descendants have continued the quilting traditions of Gee's Bend.

The Gee's Bend quilters don't use patterns to measure and lay out their quilts. They let their quilts "grow", adding pattern and color as they work.

  Miss Stella, one of the Gee's Bend quilters, was showing a Fiber College quilter how to balance her pattern as she moved pieces of fabric around on the ground.
No measuring . . . Stella just pointed and said, "The sky should go here".

The quilters of Gee's Bend reminded all of us that sometimes it's OK to ignore the rules to create something beautiful.

 Here are some of the quilters of Searsport Shores...

Working side by side with the quilters of Gee's Bend . . .

Exchanging much more than quilting advice.

Quilting allowed women from very different cultures to form close bonds, old to young, woman to woman, over the five days of Fiber College, and to learn from one another . . .

About much more than just cutting and sewing.

 Could there ever be a Fiber College as moving as this one?

Where creative women had the opportunity to talk together, work together, and sew together across cultures.

To express themselves

Through the work of their hands.

 The quilters of Gee's Bend, led by Miss China, start each day with a prayer, offering up the work of their hands to Jesus. As they work, they often sing. They unselfconsciously shared that tradition with all of us attending Fiber College. One could often hear spirituals loudly, and beautifully, emanating from the quilting tent.

Or from the Art Studio!

 Much thanks goes to all of the people who worked so hard to bring the Gee's Bend quilters to Maine, especially Astrig Tanguay (right below) and her husband Steve, owners of Searsport Shores, who make this event possible each year.

For Fiber College, photographs of the quilts and the women who made them were taken by our friend, Alice Seeger (left in photo above), and bound into a book entitled Gee's Bend Quilts In Maine.
Copies of the book are $22.00; contact Alice or Astrig at this email address to check on availability if you would like one.

 Information on Fiber College 2015, September 9 - 13, is online on the Fiber College blog.

So . . . start singing out loud, forget the rules and . . .

Happy quilting!

This post is stitched to the following blog parties:
I Quilt at Pretty Bobbins
Needle & Thread Thursday at My Quilt Infatuation
Sew Darn Crafty Linky Party at Sew Many Ways
Wow Us Wednesdays at Savvy Southern Style
What's It Wednesday at Ivy & Elephants
Time Travel Thursday at Brambleberry Cottage
Tablescape Thursday at Between Naps On the Porch
Feathered Nest Friday at French Country Cottage
Show & Tell Friday at My Romantic Home



  1. Beautiful quilts and a wonderful way for cultures to collide.

  2. Love the story. It was wonderful to see the beautiful quilts as I only had a chance to view a couple that were shown to us while we felted the Dancing Lady. Thank you for taking the time to write & post the photos. Really enjoy Fiber College and to see how it has grown.

  3. WOW what a wonderful opportunity and experience. I have long admired the Gees Bends Quilters. Thank you so much for sharing.

  4. First, let me say, love that you're so excited by th events that occured at Fiber college, I would have been there.....I had to work. Now, not that I want to be negative, but I was quite struck by the comment, the women of gees bend "working under the worst conditions." Did you ask them how they felt about their conditions? I felt it was a judgement call that hadn't been discussed with the women.... who are we, as priveledged (and I know there are degrees of that) to pass any judgement about how they live? and the conditions that their quilts are made under? Beauty, contentment and satisfaction can be made/found under most conditions. My point is, it
    feeds the negative stereotype of these women's lives and the delusion people have that "quality" art/craft can
    only be made under certain circumstances.
    I'm not trying to single you out, but I had to say this- too many of us assume and pass judgement without even knowing we have.

    1. a.k. - Thank you for your comment. The paragraph you are referring to clearly states that I am describing the conditions under which the original quilters of Gee's Bend, who were slaves, worked (by candlelight, etc.). I was not referring to the Gee's Bend quilters of today, but to their ancesters.. Hope this clears up any confusion. Hope you'll be able to make it to Fiber College next year! Cheryl.

  5. What a beautiful post Cheryl. Thanks for sharing these beautiful quilts and their makers with us. I love the bold colours.

  6. I saw the quilts the first time they were exhibited in Houston and think it wonderful to have them right up the road in Maine.

  7. I went to the exhibit at the MFA Houston and was blown away by the quilts and the stories they told. Lucky you to get to experience the community all the way off in Maine!

  8. Wow not only are these quilts works of arts but the stories they tell are so priceless how could anyone put a price on these magnificent works. thank you for sharing with all of us this remarkable story.Susie

  9. Hi Cheryl, I loved reading your post about your experience with the quilters of Gees Bend that I've featured you on I Quilt this week. Your post was such a beautiful and inspiring read. Thank you for sharing!

  10. Thank you for sharing these wonderful pictures and information with us. I live in Maine and did get to the museum to see their quilts; and cannot tell you how it humbled me. I am guilty of striving for perfection and losing the joy in quilting sometimes; came out of there with a different attitude. I would have loved to met and hugged these women....just amazing!! Thank you, thank you

  11. Hey keep posting such good and meaningful articles.


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