On the first day of fall semester at MassArt, rather than starting another academic year, I drove to Maine for Fiber College–that really made me feel retired! It was a gorgeous sunny day, and once I broke free of the Boston traffic, I was filled with excitement and anticipation as I drove up 95, taking the quick route to Belfast.
My class at Fiber College was called Thinking Outside the Circle. The teacher was Maryly Matthewman from New Hampshire. This is her piece:
I loved this and was excited about making something like it. I’ve been away from quiltmaking for a long time (twenty years or so!) and thought this would be a good way to dive back in. I had to dig out my sewing machine, clean it, oil it, re-learn how to thread it, and practice to see if I still knew how to sew, which fortunately I did.
The circle piece is made in an improvisational manner, without templates, without precision piecing. Maryly said that she too had been away from quilting for a long time, until she retired a few years ago. When she came back, improvisation was an important strain in the quilt world, inspired in part by the Gee’s Bend quilters, and this interested her much more than traditional quilt making.
Three of the Gees Bend quilters were actually at Fiber College this year, Stella Mae Pettway, China Pettway, and Revil Moseley. On opening night, held in the church at the Maritime Museum in Searsport, they got us off to a rousing start, processing down the aisle singing spirituals, praising the Lord even as they told us stories of the great hardship they and their community had been through before the discovery of their quilts by the art world. China Pettway spoke of her love of color and how fantastic it is for her now to be able to go into a fabric store and buy the colors she wants. When asked if she quilts by hand or machine, she replied, “The Lord has given me a sewing machine, and I use it!”
Inspired directly by the Gees Bend quilters, our teacher Maryly changed her original plan for our class. First we cut circles of different sizes, freehand, arranged them, and stitched them down, leaving raw edges. The new twist was the next step: we had to take the rotary cutter and cut our circles into quadrants and give three of them away, keeping only one! We all put our three giveaway quadrants into a box and took turns pulling out three other people’s pieces, which we then had to use to sew our circles back together with zigzag stitch. “Use what you have and be grateful.” Make it work.
The results were definitely richer and more complex than our original circles.
What a fun class! We all loved it. My piece is the second from the left on the top row.