Quilt No.2 - The Freedom I Learned from the Ladies of Gees Bend

Quilt No.2

When I was first pregnant with Ella and her arrival was fast approaching, several parents gave me their biggest tip for the hospital stay - "Take as many receiving blankets as you can possibly carry out - You're gonna need them!"  So, after bringing two bouncing babies into the world, I had in my possession a big stash of these hospital blankets.  I think the hospital was also in on this little secret blanket disappearance because they always order new blankets every year.

Fresh Receiving Blaniets [Credit:ebay]

Apparently, in 1910, a man named A.L. Mills moved from Arkansas to Illinois where he made his living creating butcher aprons for Chicago's meat-packing industry.  Later, this led to him creating the surgical gowns we know today (as 'scrubs') in the jade green color. (Who knew?)  Ever the innovator, he asked the question of how to 'spice up' the dull beige baby blankets in the early 1950's.

After a few rounds of iterations, the pink- and blue- striped design we all know today was born.  More than 90% of newborns were wrapped in these blankets.  They became a true classic.

Today, sixty years later and now known officially as 'Kuddle-up Blankets in Candy Stripe', these blankets sell over 1.5 million, annually.  Symbolically, these blankets are forever linked with the standardization of childbirth.  Read more about the interesting history of these blankets here.

The Ingredients: Old Blankets & Old Clothes

So, now I have tons of these receiving blankets, and while they have definitely been useful (cleaning up those yucky and messy spills from little ones), I thought it would be a shame to just use them as clean up rags.  Countless other newborn babies were swaddled in these blankets before my girls got to them... and maybe there was a greater purpose for these blankets afterall.

And then, I discovered the quilting ladies of Gees Bend.

As I mentioned before, quilts were daunting to me.  The precision, the detailing, the sewing, the quilting... and all the while, making sure all of the points and edges line up - all of this was intimidating to me.  But then, a new world opened up to me, one where a group of women, who lived during a rough time in the 19th Century in Alabama, created truly beautiful quilts with the freedom of 'coloring outside the lines'. 

They were living an isolated, hard life in an African-American hamlet in Gees Bend, Alabama.  They were inventive - they used what materials they had (old utility clothes, old bedding, used grain sacks), their purpose was clear (make blankets for warmth in their oft unheated shacks), and their inspirations came from their African heritage and life around them.  

Today, after their discovery by William Arnett, an art collector, these ladies and their quilts have their official place in quilting and print-making history.  Their quilts now show in museums and their style has been called "a version of Matisse and Klee arising in the rural South" by Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times. Their quilts were even featured on their own postage stamps.  And if you're ever by that neck of the woods, there's a tour you can take!

The discovery of the Gees Bend quilts has revived the once dying art of quilt making in that area.  The original women of Gees Bend, although now a bit arthritic, are back on their game.  They have formed the Gees Bend Collective (50+ women strong) and their quilts are fetching between $1,000 and $20,000, each. 

I am tremendously inspired by these ladies and so proud to follow in their footsteps through quilt making.  Three of their quilts were the inspiration for my second quilt. 

       Lorraine Pettway, born 1953. Medallion work-clothes quilt, 1974, denim and cotton/polyester blend, 84 x 68 inches.   Credit: Auburn.edu

       Sue Willie Seltzer, born 1922. "Housetop" -- nine-block "Half-Logcabin" variation, ca 1955, cotton and sythetic blends, 80 x 76 inches.  Credit: Auburn.edu

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.  Credit: Auburn.edu

I started the process by cutting squares out of the striped portion of the blankets.  What was nice was that each blanket had a slightly different wear on the cotton - so each teal square was a slightly different shade than the other.   Even the whites had a variety of shades (from baby spit up, I'm sure!  From my babies AND other babies!)  From there I created half triangle squares to get the 90 degree angle effect.  Here, I am playing around with the layout.

Playing Around with the Layout

The bunny you see once lived on a white, cotton onesie given to us by our friend, Annette.  She made a set of these onesies with little screen printed animals on the front and back.  They were a lovely and memorable gift.  This little bunny was the only one I could save.

Screen Printed Bunny

Here's a view of the completed back panel.

The Back Side

For the front panel, I did no pre-planning for the final pattern.  It was truly a 'go with the flow' kind of process... and it was this approach that was the most creative, the most fun.  The beauty is that I didn't make this intentionally... this pattern chose itself... and for that, I am the most happy.  I travelled a path where I didn't know the outcome... but I trusted that everything would work out in the end.

The Front Side

This is one of my favorite quilts... and mostly because of the freedom I felt.  I didn't HAVE to line things up or follow a prescribed method.  I could feel the artistic freedom of the Gees Bend ladies - that after a long day of work, there is always time to create, time to make with our own hands something that is beautiful and lasting... and to share it with someone you love.

This quilt is for you, Ella, my little monkey.

Love, Mama


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