What do New York City, Gee’s Bend, Alabama and Eureka, Montana have in common? Beautiful handmade quilts. On a recent trip to the Big Apple, I was fortunate enough to see an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art entitled Souls Grown Deep. Part of this exhibit featured quilts from Gee’s Bend, Alabama. In 1998, folk art collector William Arnett happened to be going through a small town in southern Alabama and noticed quilts on clotheslines. They were so striking, he stopped to get information about them and eventually bought some. Later he arranged for over seventy quilts made by the women in Gee’s Bend to be part of an exhibit that traveled nationally. They were shown in art museums from Washington, DC to San Francisco, from Houston to Boston. There are books and videos about these quilts and the women who made them. In 2006, the US Postal Service even came out with a set of postage stamps that featured images of the quilts. So for me, it was a remarkable moment to stand in the Met and see six of them displayed. I was so tempted to touch them, lift a corner to see what the back quilting looked like, run my fingers over the colors. But of course I didn’t.
Standing there brought so many thoughts and emotions about the women in Gee’s Bend, about the women who sew quilts in the Historical Village, about the fabrics used in all of these quilts, the friendships as quilters sit together sewing, the designs, the stitches, the talk. Especially this time of year as fall sets in and the quilters at the Historical Village begin meeting on Fridays, we get into a rhythm that will take us through the winter and into spring. Here in Eureka, those of us who quilt with this group are ready to start up again. Whether our quilts will ever grace the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art doesn’t matter. Mostly we want our stitches to be even and the knots hidden.
We are working on a quilt with a history. I suppose that isn’t so surprising. Many quilts have history. Do you remember that beautiful one made by an elderly quilter from Gee’s Bend? It was pieced from her husband’s old work clothes. She said every time she got under that quilt, she felt as though her husband was still with her.
The quilt we are working on now came from Kentucky. The brother of a friend sent it to me. The women at the Historical Village think the fabrics are from the 1940s. When it arrived in the mail, the top pieced with colored fabric and squares of plain muslin was stiff with age. Bev carefully washed it and washed it, finally getting it to a point where it could be quilted. We found a large piece of muslin for the back. But how to quilt this slightly irregular beauty? The pieced blocks are delicate and also aren’t exactly square. At the same time the colors and patterns are special enough we wanted to do more than simply tie it.
So Cathryn in her wisdom pointed out that we could quilt the plain squares and tie the remainder. What a perfect plan for this unique quilt! A pattern with small hearts was selected. It is a bit slow as the fabric tends to hold the needle but we are getting there. It might be finished by late spring. It is one of those quilts that has a lot of character although who is to say how long it might last. Still it will easily grace whatever bed it ends up on. Hopefully the person sleeping under it will feel cared for.
Doing this quilt is a reminder how it is not always necessary to stick with the usual plan. Sometimes a dilemma presents itself that requires creative thinking. The solution doesn’t have to be !00% of this. It could be 81% of this and 12% of that and 7% of something else, still getting the job done well. Somebody might have looked at this particular quilt top and thought it wasn’t worth saving for much of anything. But as we quilt and tie it, the women remark on the fabrics and interesting piecing. We figured out a solution and are making it work. Yes indeed, it’s a beauty.