1916 - 1998

Estelle Witherspoon

Alberta, Alabama

    Estelle Witherspoon is the daughter of Willie “Ma Willie” Abrams. One of the Freedom Quilting Bee's founding members and its long-time co-manager, Witherspoon was active in the Civil Rights Movement, participating in the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, and getting arrested in 1971 during an un-permitted march for school desegregation.

    My grandmother learned to quilt from her mother. All I've ever known is people quilting all their lives here. From generation to generation. That's where it comes from I'd say. We'd been quilting for home use. And then a white minister started buying a few quilts from different peoples. And one thing led to another, and we formed a cooperative. There's a manager and a production man­ager. We don't get a weekly salary. But after all the expenses have been taken out, the profit is divided between the members. Some women got as much as seven hundred dollars last year for their share. It depends on how much your group turns out.

    A candidate for Sheriff came over and bought a quilt for ninety dollars. He said he'd come back. We decided to vote for him, but not because of that. We're still waiting for him to return.

    We quilt in different patterns. The traditional patterns come from way back—our mothers and our grandmothers. There's the "Bear's Paw" and the "Crazy Quilt". The "Bear's Paw" is hardest. It's designed with fingers and you've got to quilt between the fingers—just so. "Crazy Quilt" is pieced up crazy; "Grandmother's Choice" runs catty-cornered; and "Grandmother's Dream" runs straight-like.

    We don't have time to make quilts ourselves, and we can't afford to buy them. Some sell for as much as two hundred dollars. And we're just the workers. But quilting's fun.

    Gee's Bend: The Women and Their Quilts

    Gee's Bend: The Women and Their Quilts

    Gee’s Bend quilts carry forward an old and proud tradition of textiles made for home and family. They represent only a part of the rich body of African American quilts. But they are in a league by themselves. Few other places can boast the extent of Gee’s Bend’s artistic achievement, the result of both geographical isolation and an unusual degree of cultural continuity. In few places elsewhere have works been found by three and sometimes four generations of women in the same family, or works that bear witness to visual conversations among community quilting groups and lineages. Gee’s Bend’s art also stands out for its flair—quilts composed boldly and improvisationally, in geometries that transform recycled work clothes and dresses, feed sacks, and fabric remnants.

    Radical Tradition: American Quilts and Social Change

    Radical Tradition: American Quilts and Social Change

    Toledo Museum of Art
    November 21, 2020 to February 14, 2021

    Radical Tradition: American Quilts and Social Change brings historical and contemporary works together in critical dialogue to consider how quilts have been used to voice opinions, raise awareness, and enact social reform in the U.S. from the mid-nineteenth century to the present.

    The Quiltmakers of Gee's Bend

    This uplifting, Emmy-winning PBS film tells the modern-day "Cinderalla" story of the quiltmakers of Gee's Bend, Alabama. Artists born into extreme poverty, they live to see their quilts hailed by a The New York Times art critic as "some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced."