November 08, 2021
Keeping Traditions Alive with Gee's Bend
Throw away your rotary cutter, your quilting ruler, and your cutting mat. And, probably any rules you use for making a quilt. The rule in Gee’s Bend is to follow all the generations that quilted before you.
And that’s what I did when I had the opportunity to vacation with Loretta and Marlene. I stayed at Lovett’s Place where Marlene and her thirteen siblings were born. The house was built during the Rosevelt administration. There has been some remodeling since then but it still has the original brick steps leading to the front door.
We started the quilt process bright and early on Monday morning by pulling out all different yardage from a bin in the dining room aka work room. I gravitated towards a white with black and yellow flowers. “Let’s keep looking,” said Marlene. She was leaning towards the fabric that we finally chose. This turned out to be the best choice in the end. I have only used quilting cottons in my quilts, they use anything that is the right color. So, we used some bed linens and dress fabric, as well as cotton, that all coordinated with the print fabric.
My first square was a giant H and we went on building from there. We worked through the day ripping fabric; each adding our own squares. I made another H using a bright orange and blue that screamed for attention. It definitely didn’t follow Marlene’s rule of all the colors playing nice with each other so we took it out. But, nothing is wasted and the H was cut up several times after that and used in other configurations. By the end of the day we had a good size baby quilt but the top corner wasn’t quite right. After Loretta and Marlene left for the day, I unsewed a few spots and redid it until I was satisfied with what we had done.
The next day we added borders. Not just plain solid fabric, but more sections with different designs. The baby quilt grew to a lap quilt. For the finishing touch we did add a solid border; a black that we all thought really showed off the quilting. The top or “my baby” as they called it, was done in two days Loretta and I then laid the top out on a bed sheet and sandwiched it with a batting.
On Wednesday, my baby was put into a quilt frame and while Loretta and I toured around Selma, Marlene started the hand quilting.
In Selma we saw the St. James Hotel which was operated by the first African American ever elected to the United States Congress and is reputed to have hosted the legendary outlaw brothers Frank and Jesse James in 1881. Before crossing the famous Edmund Pettus Bridge, the scene of “Bloody Sunday,” we toured the National Voting Rights Museum & Institute. It is good to see that there is revitalization of the historic district.
Back in Gee’s Bend we toured the area and Loretta pointed out where the quilters lived. We stopped at the Quilter’s Collective where I was introduced to two quilters and saw a room filled with quilts on display. I had to chuckle a little because someone had donated a longarm quilt machine that was pushed against a wall. That would definitely go against tradition.
The next two days were filled with hand quilting. I was amazed at how fast and accurately this was accomplished. If it were me, I’d probably still be working on it. I did add some what I call decorative stitching, but Loretta and Marlene did the bulk of the stitching while I practiced on a smaller hoop.
On Friday, my baby was taken off the frame and the top laid out on a bed to square up and get ready for finishing. I use binding for my quilts. Loretta and Marlene cut the top so that there’s room to fold the back around to the front to make what they call a hem. It is then stitched down with the same quilting stitches as the quilt.
When that was done, Loretta and I drove to Camden since we missed the ferry - too busy quilting. This was the road where she was bussed to different locations after Gee’s Bend schools were closed down. I can’t imagine spending two hours each way to get to school. Loretta said that most of the kids slept on the way and sometimes did their homework on the way back. That was also the road that housed the Freedom Quilting Bee where Loretta’s mother worked.
While waiting for the ferry in Camden, we saw the hardware store where Loretta’s father worked as well as the Camden Shoe Shop and Quilting Museum.
For me, I can feel all the generations in every stitch of my baby. I am an improvisational quilter but Loretta and Marlene seem to work magic with the fabric. I am so pleased with the masterpiece that we turned out. Both Loretta and Marlene made sure that I had everything I needed to make it a successful week. The accommodations were very comfortable. I felt like I was part of the community. If I sat on the front porch passers by would wave and beep. I almost hated to leave these beautiful ladies. I can still hear Marlene’s laugh. It was a week I will treasure forever and will carry some of those traditions into my future quilts.
Written by VAWAA guest, Laurel Rudolph
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