Beloved Patches of Orange

Beloved Patches of Orange

A fashion scholar reveals the story of a collaboration between the quilters of Gee’s Bend and designer Greg Lauren—and the power of color in quilts.
two models wearing garments made from colorful patchwork quilt with orange black red and earth tones

The garments in the collection MOSAIC: Gee’s Bend & Greg Lauren began as scraps in Lauren’s Los Angeles studio. He sent the scaps to the quilt artists of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, who turned them into vivid and signed abstract compositions. Photos by Menelik Puryear.

A horseshoe-shaped spit of land surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River shelters a community of quilters who carry on the traditions of their enslaved ancestors. This hamlet is officially named Boykin, but is better known as Gee’s Bend. Over the past century, the women of this isolated rural Black community have made their names as some of the most important artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. Despite accolades for their innovative quilting practice, the name Gee’s Bend is still unrecognized in many mainstream art and fashion circles. Yet their quilts, and quilts in general, are part of our collective consciousness. Most of us have personal connections to quilts that transcend race, class, or geography.

When my parents moved into their first apartment in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, their octogenarian landlord, Mrs. Bennett, gifted them a patchwork quilt. The quilt in Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved reminds me of those rare cold Louisiana nights when my mother covered my bed with that multicolored mantle. What always struck me about the quilt was how its orange accents clashed with the rest of the fabric mosaic. The colorway worked, but the aesthetic threw your attention for a loop. The quilt—which my mom, unfortunately, parted ways with after decades of use—subtly marked my childhood.

quilt artist in pink shirt sewing a piece of fabricquilt artist holding up pink orange and earth tone patchwork squaregrid showing various samples of patchwork quilts with prominent oragen red blue and earth tones

TOP: Doris Pettway Mosely sews together a quilted panel using scrap fabric from Greg Lauren. Photo by Stacy k. Allen for Nest. MIDDLE: Artist Priscilla Hudson looks at one of her quilted panels. Photo by Stacy k. Allen for Nest. BOTTOM: These panels, quilted by the artists of Gee’s Bend, are later incorporated into garments. Photo by Erik Lauer.

Beloved, in my opinion, is one of the best novels ever written. I look for any opportunity to incorporate it into my syllabi. The novel tells the story of how the formerly enslaved main character Sethe and her family grapple with the trauma of slavery and newfound freedom in late 19th-century Cincinnati. The novel has been analyzed through multiple lenses: mother-daughter relationships, natal alienation, the historical trauma of the Middle Passage, the psychological impact of slavery, and so on. Yet what I find most interesting are the motifs of color and adornment, particularly quilting.

A Beacon of Vibrancy

Broken by a lifetime of catastrophic events, Sethe’s mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, lies on her deathbed and yearns for color in hopes that fixating on something harmless will ease her last days. Facing the twilight of a tortured existence, she resolves, “Blue. That don’t hurt nobody. Yellow neither.”

Later in the narrative arc, Sethe awakes next to Paul D and contemplates, “[I]t was clear why Baby Suggs was so starved for color. There wasn’t any except for two orange squares in a quilt that made the absence shout. . . . In that sober field, two patches of orange looked wild—like life in the raw.” Sethe’s daughter Beloved is later consumed by those same orange squares. Orange thus serves as a beacon of vibrancy in their bleak existence.

Color—in particular, the pairing of incongruous colors like in the quilt—was and is an important feature of African American aesthetics during and after the era of slavery. In Stylin’: African-American Expressive Culture from Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit, historians Shane and Graham White noted that “the seemingly odd combinations of garments, discordant color combinations, and irregular patterns that slave clothing sometimes displayed encoded a cultural aesthetic that was different from that of the dominant white society.”

Enslaved people did not always have access to new fabrics and therefore made use of scraps of old and recycled textiles. The patchwork-of-color theme in Beloved is representative of how African Americans were forced and/or chose to dress. Thus, the patches of orange in Beloved are indicative of a historical disregard for mainstream color schemes that I have had the privilege of observing in my family’s quilt.

quilt artist touching patchwork jacket worn by model in an orange hat

Mary Margaret Pettway with a model wearing a MOSAIC jacket. Photo by Menelik Puryear.

Seeing Textiles and Art Anew

You see the same audacious use of color in MOSAIC: Gee’s Bend & Greg Lauren. The design team sent scraps and remnants of textiles to the quilters, and they transformed them into quilted panels, which were transformed into garments in the Greg Lauren atelier. Like the quilts referenced above, many of the pieces from the collection, such as the GL1 Overcoat and GL1 Ollie, also incorporate patches of orange. Lauren says, “I am not a cook, but it reminds me of when one ingredient actually brings out an unexpected, rich flavor from a familiar ingredient.” A familiar ingredient in menswear like tweed, for example, is activated by the vibrancy of recycled orange textiles.

“With each new batch of panels, I continued to be amazed by the use of so many different fabrics in such a unique, unexpected, and beautiful way,” Lauren says. He has always created collections that utilized monochromatic color palettes with “pops of color.” The brand’s aesthetic elevates textiles rooted in function, like denim or vintage military canvas, into luxury sportswear and suiting. The collaboration with Gee’s Bend, however, has challenged the Greg Lauren team to continue reimagining its relationship with color.

model in dancing pose wearing large black lugsole boots and pathwork quilt top and skirt with red black and blue

The quilted panels in MOSAIC garments include signatures of the Gee’s Bend artists who made them. Visible on this jacket and skirt are the signatures of artists Emma Mary Pettway and Claudia Pettway Charley. Photo by Menelik Puryear.

In a recent conversation, Lauren was particularly struck by Doris Pettway Mosely’s quilted panel, which “at first glance is like a beautiful contemporary painting, full of geometric shapes and an array of colors.” She took staples from menswear and Greg Lauren brand codes like vintage tent material, denim, and houndstooth wool and changed how they are typically seen. The transformational use of upcycled textiles is what makes Gee’s Bend collaboration so inspiring. “As [I] look closer, I see fabrics I’ve known my whole life, fabrics we used over multiple seasons, and yet it is as if I’m seeing some of them for the very first time, and in an entirely new way,” Lauren shares.

“With each new batch of panels, I continued to be amazed by the use of so many different fabrics in such a unique, unexpected, and beautiful way.” —Greg Lauren

Doris’ panel is emblematic of the style of many Gee’s Bend quilters. Since the 1960s, the quilters of Gee’s Bend have been celebrated for their distinctive and improvisational style. Many of the quilts are a departure from traditional quilt making and are often noted for their minimalism and abstraction. The quilters boldly incorporate folds, stains, pockets, and patched tears in workwear garments into abstracted tableaux. They use quilts like large canvases, rather than ordered assemblages of cloth. For that reason, art historians and curators often compare the quilts to abstract art to place them within their frame of reference and raise their value by comparing them to a more valorized art form dominated by white men.

Pre-Loved Textiles, Equitable Collaboration

The use of old clothing is a reminder of the resourcefulness and creativity of African Americans resulting from slavery. The genius of the Gee’s Bend quilters has had a transformative impact on how scholars and curators understand the diversity and complexity of African American creative expression and Black abstract expressionism borne out of the crucible of slavery. Within the fields of fiber and textile studies, the work of the Gee’s Bend quilters has been consistently referenced since the community started getting the attention that it deserved in the mid-20th century.

When the quilters at Gee’s Bend were tasked with creating quilts from scraps from Lauren’s atelier, it was not a challenge. The valuing of pre-loved textiles is central to Gee’s Bend quilting, and many quilters continue to enjoy the exercise of working with a limited palette and unconventional materials. “I made all of my quilts out of old shirts and dress tails and britches legs. I couldn’t never get no good fabric to make quilts, so I had to get the best of the old clothes my peoples wore or old clothes I got from other peoples. I get the best of the shirt sleeves or whatever part of the pants wasn’t wore out, like the back of the pant legs, ’cause the knees mostly be wore out—we pick the cotton on our knees,” Loretta Pettway shared in Gee’s Bend: The Women and Their Quilts.

model wearing patchwork quilt robe featuring prominent orange blue and earthtones

Photo by Menelik Puryear.

model wearing blue and orange patchwork jacket over orange waders and gray hoodie

Photo by Menelik Puryear.

The quilts of Gee’s Bend are representative of African American ingenuity, but they are also personal testaments of a close-knit rural Black community in central Alabama. Many of their quilts were traditionally made from old clothing from loved ones. The dress that Mary Margaret Pettway wore on the first day of school, for example, was sewn into a quilt. Mary Margaret recounts that these types of quilts are referred to as “pant leg and dress tail quilts” in Gee’s Bend. When Mary Margaret and her daughter Jade visited Lauren’s atelier, they married this penchant for thrift with Lauren’s commitment to using pre-loved textiles while actively participating in casting, styling, and photographing the collection titled MOSAIC: Gee’s Bend & Greg Lauren.

In fact, the quilters have equally participated in all aspects of MOSAIC—from designing the logo to consulting on the creation of images to conceptualizing the installation of the collection at Bergdorf Goodman in October. Moreover, the quilters were compensated for all this labor, and 100 percent of the profits from this collaboration is going back to Gee’s Bend, a community that has inspired many but has yet to fully benefit from their “profoundly creative intelligence,” to borrow Lauren’s wording. This is a model for equitable collaborations that I hope others in the fashion industry will follow.

A Shared American Experience

It has been heartening to witness the mutual respect and admiration between the quilters and Greg Lauren. The project is the product of a series of tête-à-têtes between collaborators in Boykin, Los Angeles, and New York City. As a consultant for this collaboration, it has been an honor to be a fly on the wall of these conversations, from conception to the final artistic works that you all see today. This is the kind of magic that happens when two artistic communities have a meeting of the minds and truly listen to each other. Collaboration becomes atonement.

The quilters have equally participated in all aspects of MOSAIC—from designing the logo to consulting on the creation of images to conceptualizing the installation of the collection at Bergdorf Goodman . . .

team of fashion designers posing for photo with model wearing quilted robe along with a quilt artist

On a visit to the Greg Lauren Studio in Los Angeles, Mary Margaret Pettway of Gee’s Bend sits with Lauren makers. Standing, left to right: Dee Salinas, Zachary White, Christina Wheeler, Maribel Martinez, Dosha Deng, Greg Lauren, France R. Cetz Gomez. Seated, left to right: Mary Margaret Pettway, Raymundo Guzman. Photos by Menelik Puryear.

Ultimately, the collaboration between Gee’s Bend and Greg Lauren is a creative ping-pong match between a community of master needleworkers and a purveyor of reworked American sportswear. Lauren, who is an artist first, uses his brand as a canvas to work out the complexity of American identity in the most radical ways. The collaboration is a conduit for shedding more light on this underacknowledged group of artists whose work is often relegated pejoratively to the realm of craft, despite sustained interest from scholars, curators, and collectors.

The geometric simplicity of Gee’s Bend quilts harkens back to the orange patches on the family quilt of my childhood and the appetite for color throughout Beloved, which plays a part in the African American quilting tradition, but it is equally the patchwork of the shared American experience. A partnership between Lauren, a designer who has made reworking American sartorial codes a central design ethos, and Gee’s Bend is a means to heal wounds from the legacy of slavery using a medium they have both mastered: textiles.

@geesbendquiltmakers | greglauren.com | @greglauren

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