The Architecture of the Quilt

It's not every day that you get to advertise an event at the PMA that happens to be about textiles, modern art, southern women and local economies. But today marks the opening of the exhibit of quilts by those famed ladies of Gee's Bend, Alabama who with hardly a thimble to spare have managed to contribute more to 20th century American Art than you or I could dare to dream.

Rachel Carey George, born 1908. "Housetop"--sixteen-block "Half-Logcabin" variation sashed with feed sacks. ca. 1935, cotton sacking material and dress fabric, 86 x 86 inches. The Collection of the Tinwood Alliance via Treehugger.com

Don't even get me started! Literally. I wrote my thesis on the quilters from Gee's Bend, a microscopic community on the Alabama River that was until recently separated from major roads and larger towns by an hour's drive on unpaved back roads. As it is, you'd only find the several dozen houses if you were looking for it with both hands a flashlight, as I did one day back in January 2006. While I wrote mostly on the quality of the women's labor & the character of their craft, their story shines a bold example to fly in the face of large scale production, globalization, and other such western evils, including the notion that only wealthy white women produced art. I find their experience to be one containing many truths about how the rest of us live all bound up inside it.

It's difficult for me to explain to you all the reasons you should see this exhibit without getting all emotional about it. It kills me, KILLS me that it opens tonight at the Philadelphia Museum of Art a mere 30 days after I moved to the opposite shore. If you have any shred of decency, please go see it and tell me what it's like! Truly. If you live within 3 hours drive I'd say you have no excuse and even you people within 5 hours drive ought to make the trip.

Anthropologie made some Gee's Bend-esque home quilts a while back, as did Target and Lord only knows half a dozen other places who know anything about anything. You may also recognize some of the motifs from the special edition stamps put out by usps a year ago. Aside from how catchy those quilts are in the design world, the quilts evoke a serious emotional attachment in all who've seen them. And they are fucking gorgeous. Gorgeous, like made out of beat-to-hell work pants and old laundry sacks and still brilliant blue. Gorgeous like pieced together so the faded knee spots articulate a wholey original pattern when its stitched together. Gorgeous like no two stitches precisely the same. And their style of quilting, distinguished from European quilting for its improvisational style, results in much more variation in quilts even when arranged in a traditional pattern. This unique degree of authorship separates the women from much of western women's art, usually decorative and when textile based, measured by one's adherence to a pattern or norm. The Gee's Bend quilts stand out precisely for their divergence from these norms.

The women, most of whom worked as domestic workers or farm laborers for most of their lives and descended from slaves, worked too as artists though it took some time for even the women themselves to call it that because these quilts hung on the walls only to insulate them from the drafts of Alabama winter nights. Mostly the finished quilts were used every day to keep their families warm.

Photo by Arthur Rothstein for the Farm Security Administration 1939.
Jenny Pettway & unknown with Jorena Pettway, Gee's Bend, Alabama.
Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

This exhibit, which has traveled the country over the past two years is one of several compiled by a group of quilt historians, is titled The Architecture of the Quilt--so named for the quilt patterns. The exhibit sounds unique from earlier exhibitions of the artists' work because it includes newer pieces by the younger generation of quilters and never before showcased works from 1930-1980.

Even if you can't really get into quilts usually, I'd still urge you to go see how something so distinctly contemporary and original (even in its repetition, yes) has emerged from a community with absolutely no tools to achieve what the rest of the world calls progress.

At the time of my visit two years ago, the sole resource for new store bought fabric was a small, poorly stocked, in-the-process-of-closing Walmart; A Super Walmart was set to open an hour away. Everything down to the batting, which was either raw cotton from the fields they worked or old clothes or old quilts repurposed as stuff, was reused. These women are the original recyclers, the original innovators. Without a doubt, I credit them with igniting the spark that encouraged the rest of us to think more closely about what we do with our trash. I'd love to see these women, along with a slew of other so-called outsider artists, usually in fact from very deep within our culture, walk the aisles of our new age craft fairs and handmade boutiques and hear what they had to say about what's happening in American craft right now. Because recycled art isn't new or original but rather classic, traditional, even historic.

Exhibition Catalogue

The exhibit runs through December 14 and this is the last stop on the tour. If you can't make it to those ivory steps on the parkway, a decent amount of information and imagery of the womens' quilts can be found on the internet. Either way, their story is one of those things that will make you a better person for knowing it. For one, you'll realize quilts are much more than antiques. And for another, it will fuel your fire.


  1. I am totally not a quilter, but my heart is beating quite quickly at the moment. I think this one blog post might have changed my life.

    Why quilting hasn't appealed to me:
    1) Go to fabric store and pay lots of money for nice big pieces of fabric
    2) Cut big pieces of fabric into little, tiny, precisely-cut pieces
    3) Sew it all back together again
    4) Take it to a quilter and pay a bunch of money to have it machine quilted.
    !!That is SO insane!! That is not what quilting is about!!

    I love these quilts so much. THANK YOU for introducing me to them. Now I do some deep breathing in an attempt to calm down a bit.

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  3. Thank you for your offhand linguistics lesson re: "outsider artists" actually coming from deep within our culture. It helps me wrap my head around that whole phenomenon.

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  5. jennie--I'm happy to help. I love to learn about new things that jump start my own artful processes, so it makes me happy to know that this has jump started yours.