International Quilt Museum


Date of this Version



Presented at the 4th Biennial Symposium of the International Quilt Study Center & Museum: The Global Quilt: Cultural Contexts, Lincoln, Nebraska, April 2-4, 2009. Copyright © 2009 Judy Bales.


My first encounter with African American quilts was in the early 1980’s in Madison, Georgia. I have a distant memory of an exhibition at the Madison Cultural Center--I do not remember whose collection it was. But I felt an immediate kinship with the way these particular quilters worked, and the experience planted a seed for future interest in similar works. I had always rebelled against the precision and tidy stitches of traditional quilting, and these quilters seemed to favor improvisation, color, texture and “punch” over precision of stitches and precise repetition of pattern. The quilts seemed as much paintings as quilts, and I was a painter turned fiber artist. Over the years the memory of these quilts often inspired directions in my own fiber work, and gave me a sense of validation of my own working methods. A decade later I came across the writings and collections of Eli Leon, who has collected African American quilts chiefly from California, Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana for many years. His interviews with the quilters expanded my understanding of this particular quilting style that focused on improvisation, variation on a theme, and a welcoming attitude toward irregularities and accidentals.