My sister's mother-in-law, Nolia, passed away years ago and she left many pieced tops with my sister (not a quilter) and her husband. I heard about these tops when my sister informed me they were on her 'burn pile' when she was in a frenzy of cleaning out the shed in her back yard in Texas.
You could have heard me gasp from my home in Maryland at this news....and my immediate response was "Stop in the name of the law and DO NOT BURN THEM! Send them to me if you do not want them!" Oy, the sacrilege. Right?
She then sent me four tops and decided to hang onto the others after I encouraged her NOT to burn them. She said they were bright and colorful and I was instantly interested although I had NO idea what kind of tops these would be.
These tops turned out to resemble Gee's Bend quilts in their improvisational style. For a few months I meditated about what I might do to give these tops of Nolia's a useful and purposeful life. This woman grew up very poor in the Cajun Louisiana bayous with no opportunity to even go to grade school and spoke mostly French. She had a sewing machine but could not figure out how to use it so she pieced all her tops by hand. And although she was not African American, I think she must have learned her style from her neighbors who were laboring in the sugarcane fields of the area.
This is the final result of the first top I worked with.....74" x 74"
And this is the pieced back.....
Nolia used ALL fabrics in her quilts regardless of weight or content....housecoat fleece, double knits, extremely thin polyester, slippery polyesters, satiny-feeling lining fabrics, denims, plain cottons, and more. Nothing was off-limits for this quilter! Here is the original top.....
I quickly realized that I would have to deconstruct the blocks to get rid of extra fabric in the uneven seams and weed out the fabrics that were too heavy, too thin, or too slippery. I also did not want to use the preprinted fabric blocks. (the only other quilt where I have seen a preprinted block used was in my Gee's Bend quilt book!) And I needed the end result to lie flat for quilting. Hello, seam ripper.
Notice the way Nolia 'made do' with what she had on hand.......
Extra fabric simply folded back to fit.
Front band of clothing used 'as is'
After deconstructing and repiecing enough blocks to form a quilt, I machine-quilted in into simple straight lines about 1 3/4 inch apart.
You will notice that Nolia used the Housetop block that is very popular with Gee's Bend quilters. I have grown to love this simple block! What still kind of puzzles me though, is how Nolia could get her pieced tops to look so good given the limited fabrics she had on hand....she instinctively knew how to add punch and of course, she used red as well. I actually added a bit more red of my own to this quilt in the name of Nolia!
I LOVED redoing and finishing this top and feel like I have had a hands-on lesson in improv piecing from a pro! I also relish this connection I have made with another woman in another time and place - our lives have intersected in our common interest in sewing bright scraps of fabric together into a pleasing pattern! I have named this quilt "Duet: Nolia and Me".