China Pettway, Revil Mosley and Louisiana Bendolph all came to Vancouver from Gee's Bend, Alabama accompanied by Matt Arnett of Tinwood Media. Maiwa invited them to give lectures and workshops as part of their 2011 Textile Symposium. I've been trying to figure out a way to share these two days with you and it's sort of difficult. I could just say: 15 of us gathered in the Maiwa textile library, cut and ripped up fabric and sewed it back together again. Because that's essentially what we did.
Or, I could describe my expectations for the workshop, which were not much more than to make a quilt in the style, and spirit, of the many, many quilts I have admired from the quiltmakers of Gee's Bend. Which would mean making something with bold lines, without a plan, out of old clothes.
Louisiana and I, with my 'bricklayer' quilt in progress
There were several experiences I didn't count on. For one, I NEVER expected to use Brown Fabric. Those of you who've spent any time around here know that in the past, I've referred to this colour as evil brown. Well, you won't read that here again. Louisiana has cured me of my aversion and she predicts it won't be long before I'm wearing it. I told her not to push it.
Each day started with song (with plenty more throughout the day). Matt told us all gatherings start with singing and praying. China is a preacher with a preacher's singing voice. Revil sings sweet harmony. Louisiana doesn't sing, but she prayed. They filled us full up on gospel, then thanked God for waking us up that morning, for being together....and for a lot of other things. I'd only been there for 30 minutes, but already felt like anything I made that day would be the best thing I'd ever made.
There wasn't a plan. There wasn't a schedule. No hand outs. The only instruction (and I mean the ONLY instruction given to the entire group over two days) was "start ripping fabric!". China came over to me and asked "what you gonna make?" I said, a quilt. She asked "you ever made a quilt before?" I said, yes, lots. She tilted her head to one side then, and said "well, I dunno what I'm gonna show you then." I showed her the black pants I had brought with me. She didn't believe me that they didn't fit anymore, but they don't. I asked her to show me how she'd start ripping a pair of pants so that she could use them in a quilt top. So, she did.
Each of the three workshop tables was mounded high with fabric scraps supplied by Maiwa and leftover clothing scraps from the previous day's workshops. I brought my black pants, a pair of my husband's bagged out jeans and some solid yardage & FQ's. The top of some fuschia corduroy overalls on the table caught my eye, so I salvaged the biggest bits by peeling the old interfacing off the bib part. I picked out some pleats. There were scraps of some brown jeans in the pile that looked perfect with the fuschia. A start.
Agatha came with me on Day 2 to help with the sewing
Some of my favourite Gee's Bend quilts are courthouse step variations that the ladies call "Bricklayer". I don't recall making a conscious decision, but this is where I headed. At one point, I heard Louisiana say, "no unpicking your sewing". So when I realized I had broken from the courthouse step and made a black log cabin around the entire centre square, I just let it be. That's what these days were all about. Just letting it be. That is, until Matt came by and told me to get some of that aqua in there to bust things up a bit.
I've never ripped fabric for quilting. I do everything with rotary equipment. There is absolutely nothing on my quilt top measured or squared up. The back is a dog's breakfast of wacky seam allowance and different coloured piecing thread from the 4 different machines that were used in it's construction. The whole thing ripples. The worn knees of the jeans pouf out. I asked Louisiana how they dealt with all that and with a wave of her hand she said "you just quilt that out". Ok.
Lou, me, Revil, China
I thought I was done after adding the jean borders. But China and Revil kept digging around the fabric piles and finding more pieces of that brown corduroy skirt I had cut up the day before. So I added a final border. There wasn't enough to go all the way around, so China handed me a hunk of red and said 'use this'. Who was I to say no? Besides, it went with my shoes.
So, there it is. My Gee's Bend-inspired quilt top. In all it's wonky, ripply, unsquare, brown-bordered glory. It just might be the best thing I've ever made. And I am grateful.
There are a few more photos from the class in my flickr stream. Just click on any photo to get there and you can look around and see what some other participants made. And if you ever see that the quilter's of Gee's Bend are giving a workshop anywhere that you can get to, sign up immediately. You won't be sorry.