There are a handful of other books about African-American quilts, particularly quilts from Gee’s Bend; each have beautiful quilts to show, but this obscure exhibition catalogue remains my favorite. Whereas other books tend to position the quilts in the context of modern art and abstract painting, scholar and collector Eli Leon focuses on the connection with West and Central African textile traditions.
Leon’s thesis is that African-American quiltmakers, much like jazz musicians, were drawing on the aesthetic traditions of Africa when they began to make quilts to keep their families warm. “[Afro-traditional quiltmakers] favor ‘flexible patterning,’ in which the design is conceived as an invitation to variation; rather than repeat, the pattern may materialize in a sequence of visual elaborations.”
This contrasts sharply with the standard American quilt-making tradition and its attention to precise measurement and exact pattern repetition. Instead, afro-traditional quilters “maintain a generous attitude towards the accidental.”
What makes the essays so great is that Leon is a passionate observer of process, using diagrams to describe variations on a single block pattern and exploring at length the design choices used in specific quilts.
With the help of extensive interviews with African-American quilt makers, Leon creates a language to describe these design techniques. Subtitles like “accumulative creation,” “bimodality,” and “integration of accidentals” hint at what this book has to offer to designers and improvisers of all stripes.
Also worth checking out is Talking Quilts, a series of conversations between Eli Leon and quilter Sherri Lynn Wood about his collection. – Reanna Alder
Accidentally on Purpose: The Aesthetic Management of Irregularities in African Textiles and African-American Quilts
by Eli Leon
2007, 176 pages, 9.4 x 9.5 x 0.5 inches (paperback)