By Tyler Britt
“Budding quiltmakers, like vernacular builders, learn to accommodate and conquer constraints imposed by available resources and limited time.”
Above are the words of Sue Willie Seltzer (b.1922), a quilter from Gee’s Bend, a rural Alabama community situated on the plot of a former plantation. Seltzer and other quilters from Gee’s Bend originated a style of radical quilting in the early 20th century that still identifies the region to this day.
The moods and motivations that Seltzer and her peers experienced continue to serve as an insightful example for anyone facing economic, environmental, and social constraints in the world today. Constraints may appear to hinder growth, but the history of Gee’s Bend illustrates that they truly are the engine of innovation.
The quilters of Gee’s Bend faced four initial constraints: utility, materials, design, and domestic roles. Cold winters inside of gusty, unheated, plank-wood houses made warmth a necessity for every home in Gee’s Bend. This environmental constraint was unavoidable. Technologies of the early 20th century did not offer much improvement over the quilt and the wood-burning stove. Economically, the region was heavily impoverished. Just finding resources to make quilts was a task. Cotton was in abundance in the southern US, but even the marginal cost for processed textiles made them unobtainable. In the face of this constraint the quilters of Gee’s Bend were arguably their most innovative. Scraps and remnants—everything from their spouses’ old denim jeans to left-overs from a local Sears-Roebuck pillow-sham factory—became the fabric for the quilts.
Amish and Colonial American quilting styles served as precedents for the quilters of Gee’s Bend. They would imitate and replicate these precedents as a way of learning the craft of quilting. Sourcing non-traditional materials from their immediate surroundings was the first step to freeing them from the constraint of traditional quilt design. Quilters again turned to their environments for inspiration. Weather-torn plank-wood houses, corrugated sheds, overlapping fence lines, and other dilapidated architecture gave vision to the quilters. You can see these motifs, patterns, and repeating designs embedded directly into the quilt-top.
In the African American community of Gee’s Bend quilting was the domestic role of women. Prior to the Women’s Rights and Civil rights movements in the U.S., challenging this domesticity was quite a hurdle, especially in the rural South. The women of Gee’s Bend embraced their roles as quilters and fancifully improvised as a form a self-enrichment.
Today, collections of Gee’s Bend quilts can be seen touring museums across the country. But it was the first radical quilt that posed itself as “what could be.” What would the future be like if quilters were not bound by tradition? Futures like this do not have to be innovated with unlimited resources. Everyday objects can be transformed into art. The tradition of quilt making was forever bent by the progressive designs and materials derived from the limited resources of Gee’s Bend.
By embracing constraints you recognize them not as threats, but as an agreement between yourself and the world in which you live. In acknowledging this, like the quilters of Gee’s Bend, you can design yourself a richer—and warmer—future.
Tyler Britt has a degree in visual art and is currently a graduate student in the MBA in Design Strategy program at CCA. For further reading on this topic, he recommends Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt.