Broken Patterns of Gee’s Bend Quilts

One of the quilts from the Gee's Bend Exhibit at Lehman college
One of the Gee’s Bend Quilts at the exhibit at Lehman College

Seeing the Gee’s Bend Quilt exhibit at Lehman College this weekend, I was reminded of  one the first things I loved about them. That is the way the quilters would often start with a traditional quilt pattern then do something to it to throw that pattern off.  The quilt above, by Leola Pettway, is the perfect example of this idea.  You can see it in all four corners and two of the triangles at the top and right of the center “star”.

I used to wonder about this and how the person who made the quilt made those decisions.  Was it intentional or did they just run out of the right color fabric.   After reading much about it, I found that it is completely intentional.  But the reason behind it is less clear.  Some books say it was an effort to confuse evil spirits.  That the spirit would get confused looking at the strange pattern, trying to make sense of it and whoever was sleeping under the quilt would be safe.

The women of Gee’s Bend that were interviewed seem to agree that the patterns are intuitive and a mark of their individuality.  For some of the quilters their quilts even become an identity.  One that the other quilters can recognize almost as a signature.

After wallowing in the joy of seeing those broken patterns, and revelling in their rebellious attitudes, I realized something else that it does for me.  Those patches of fabric that don’t seem to fit in are like a window to another place.  They blow the expected  wide open, and remind me of the unseen right in front of me. And it’s magical to me, like the wardrobe that opens onto Narnia.  A glimpse into another time or place or whole other world.  Familiar but unknown in the context of the expected.

Later that same day, at MOMA I saw a painting that once again reminded me of this same idea.  I don’t remember who it was by or what it was called.  I can’t even picture the whole thing, just one part of it.  It looked like a rectangle of patterned fabric, totally out of place with the rest of the painting.  It didn’t fit in, but didn’t really stand out either.  But I did feel like it was giving me a glimpse of something else.

Until seeing the Gee’s Bend Quilt exhibit, I had forgotten about this idea that so intrigued me and still does. When I first started making quilt about eight years ago or so, I was always careful to put  at least one piece of fabric in them that didn’t fit.  But as my quilts evolved, and became less Gee’s Bend and more mine,  I left this idea behind.

Now I’d like to revisit it. Not in the way the Gee’s Bend quilters did it, but in the way I would do it. Not that I’m clear on what exactly this would look like yet.  But I do have some ideas on where to begin.  And now I’m eager to try them out.

5 thoughts on “Broken Patterns of Gee’s Bend Quilts

  1. This quilt blew my mind. I believe craftsmanship is essential to good art. This is the essence of craftsmanship and command of the medium, then we get into the intuitive part, but it all is of a piece, to me.

  2. When I look at your and Jon’s photographs of these quilts, they seem to be moving . . . breathing, almost. Are they like that in person? Or is that a trick of computer scrolling?

  3. Maria, I thought about you all weekend and imagined the catch in your breath when you saw all these quilts in person. How did you ever leave ?

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