I was lucky to have the opportunity to examine the quilts of Gee's Bend several years ago for a professor who was writing a book on the history of cotton. It was incredible story about how a group of women were able to transform quilt making from a survival skill that helped their families through long winters into a viable and thriving business that significantly augmented their household incomes.
The isolation of the Gee's Bend community was a significant factor in preserving the aspects of African culture that made the Gee's Bend quilts unique. Many of their methods of quilt making had been preserved since the time when African Americans had first arrived in Alabama as slaves:
…the appliqué tradition that flourished in the American South was brought over
by slaves from Benin (formerly known as Dahomey), West Africa. In the Benin
tapestries, stories from oral tradition and history are illustrated with
appliquéd figures. Animals are used to symbolize kings or central figures of
proverbs or folktales. The influence of Benin appliqué tradition on the Bible
quilts of Harriet Powers, an ex-slave from Benin has been firmly established by
scholars, particularly in her technique and animal symbolism. Another intriguing
aspect of Harriet Powers’ quilts is the merging of Christian religious symbols
with the African cosmology of the Bakongo people. (Fry, 12).
Sewing is almost my heart. I just love to sew and quilt quilts with my mother.
When I was six years old I started helping her sew. I went on to making quilts
and learned how to make all the different quilts she knowed how to make:
Bricklayers, Monkey Wrenches, Grandmama’s Dream, Grandmother’s Choices, Coat of
Many Colors, Broken Stoves, Wild Geese Chases, Cross Cut Saw, Stars, Sweeps, and
Bear’s Paws. We growed up making those quilts. I don’t know why they spell out
from but we made ’em through our own parents. I guess she did learn from her
mother, ‘cause her mother was making quilts and quilting ‘em, too, when I knowed
I growed up sewing. I used to make all my kids’ clothes. I
never bought clothes. I made the clothes(Callahan, 194).