As I try to write this post I have trouble articulating how much the Quilts of Gee’s Bend have inspired me. I was first introduced to the beautiful collection of quilts while studying textile design in college. To this day, I start to get butterflies of excitement when I begin to really look at them. The quilts are a perfect example of bold color, pattern, creative spirit and freedom. Last summer, I had the amazing opportunity to meet some quilters of Gee’s Bend. I listened to their beautiful gospel singing, stories and began my first quilt block using old torn jeans of mine. It is a cherished memory I will never forget.
This summer the design team and I turned to images of Gee’s Bend Quilts as inspiration for our Ultra Alpaca MKAL!
Boykin (also known as Gee’s Bend), Alabama is a small community surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River. The town received its name from Joseph Gee who, in the 1800s, established a cotton plantation. The quilts were first made by the women when they weren’t working on the plantations, creating blankets to keep them and their families warm and provide a sense of comfort in the cold winters. This quilting tradition has lasted for decades, holding so many stories – I’m sure both painful and full of love. The quilts are still celebrated today as symbols of family, the Civil Rights Movement, traditional craft and abstract works of fine art.
A beautiful article published in the Smithsonian Magazine, tells the story of the quilts rise to fame.
Collector William Arnett was working on a history of African-American vernacular art in 1998 when he came across a photograph of Young’s work-clothes quilt draped over a woodpile. He was so knocked out by its originality, he set out to find it. A couple of phone calls and some creative research later, he and his son Matt tracked Young down to Gee’s Bend, then showed up unannounced at her door late one evening. Young had burned some quilts the week before (smoke from burning cotton drives off mosquitoes), and at first she thought the quilt in the photograph had been among them. But the next day, after scouring closets and searching under beds, she found it and offered it to Arnett for free. Arnett, however, insisted on writing her a check for a few thousand dollars for that quilt and several others. (Young took the check straight to the bank.) Soon the word spread through Gee’s Bend that there was a crazy white man in town paying good money for raggedy old quilts.
Since being seen by Arnett, the rest of the world has had the incredible pleasure and luck to see a collection of these unique quilts.
To look at more inspiring imagery of these lovely quilts, check out the online catalog from the University of Auburn.
We just released our second block for the Ultra Alpaca MKAL! Take a look here for the pattern.