Funny thing about learning, everyone does it in their own way. When you put a group together to learn they will go about it in as many different ways as there are members of the group. This week I had the priviledge to learn from three of the famed Gee’s Bend quilters- Miss China and Miss Stella Mae Pettway and Miss Revil Mosely. They were here in Maine to share their unique experience with quilting. Astrig Tanguay from Fiber College organized a location and the facilities for a group of about 40 of us to play with fabric under their guidance, at a campgrounds in Searsport. When we all arrived there was a distinct excitement in the air. Sewing machines lined two long columns of tables. We were all instructed to bring enough fabric for our own quilts, plus enough to share. My studio mate Meagan and I thought this was a great opportunity to empty out our scrap bin, so we brought a teeming bag. Everyone had all their tools and there was much admiring of machines and gadgets. [as an aside I am jonesing for a Featherlight after seeing all the beauties in this workshop]
The ladies started us off with a prayer and a song. And then there was a bit of a pregnant pause. Everyone was waiting for the ‘class’ to begin. But the ladies don’t teach by lecturing, or instructing in the traditional sense. They teach by coaxing, by encouraging, by suggesting. So there was a moment of scramble, of confusion, of disbelief (from some). You mean we’re just supposed to quilt? With no block pattern? No demonstration? That left some very (very!) uncomfortable. And yet that was part of what the workshop was about, moving out of your comfort zone to create something new to you.
At the time I thought, hmmm, well perhaps that could have been better explained. But I am quite comfortable with just diving in. That is, in fact, my preferred method of working. So I took my pile of fabric (some Kaffe Fassett shot cotton striped fat quarters and a couple solids) over to the cutting table with my rotary cutter and begin cutting strips. I immediately recognized that, because it had not been on the supply list, and because my departure from Portland had been characteristically scattered, I had not brought a ruler, a tool which I use quite a bit in my quilting. One of the things I love about the Gee’s Bend quilts is the look that everything was not cut with a ruler. From what I understand, most of what they make is actually cut with scissors, so there is little of that cold crispness of rotary cuts. I believe that gives them so much more humanity. You see the hands of the maker in the quilts. So that was my lesson to learn from the ladies. I had to cut strips without my ruler. It felt rather daring to do so, but by the end of the two days I was getting good at cutting where and what I wanted.
I didn’t actually figure out that that was what I needed to learn from them until the whole two-day session was done and I had some time to mull it over. But with hindsight comes all sorts of insight. I feel newly energized about cutting the fabric for my quilts, and the direction this will take me. This is not to say that all of them will be cut free hand, but I very much like the look of what I made with the ladies, and will endeavor to take that into future quilts.
I heard after the fact that some in the class were very unhappy with the format. People quilt, and learn, in so many different ways. Still I cannot but feel bad for those women who missed the nuggets of wisdom offered by the three quilters of Gee’s Bend who came to Searsport. Making can be simply the creation of things, useful of otherwise. However it can also be a window into our souls, our psyches and our methods. Where do you resist? Perhaps that is where you need to look… What do you make? Is there a reason for it? Why do you make, does it fulfill some need that nothing else does? If your practice requires structure, and is impossible without it, then I would suggest you research your learning experiences.
I loved working with Miss China, Miss Stella Mae and Miss Revil. I loved their hugs, their songs, their enthusiasm, their suggestions, their support and the fact that they traveled all the way from Alabama to share with me. I am so glad I had this chance to work with them, and consider it a gift.