MODERN-DAY QUILTMAKERS SEWING UP A NEW TRADITION.
Centuries before the mile-long AIDS quilt became a poignant symbol of commemoration, quilters used their craft to preserve memories.
Amish and Quaker quilt-makers recorded family history and friendships, along with their sacred and secular beliefs, by painstakingly stitching pieces of cloth together in intricate patterns to make bedcovers. The works became classic examples of the American quilt.
African-Americans quilted, too. The difference was that when black women went into their scrap heaps to find bits of old cottons, burlap and denims, they created pieces that were used but seldom preserved. For them, quilt-making was strictly a form of function.
Today, black quilt-makers are making up for lost time.
During the last five years, quilts made by African-Americans have been featured in numerous exhibits across the country. Black quilting guilds have sprung up like summer sunflowers. And while many of the designers respect traditional quilt-making patterns, others have taken on styles that are distinctively their own.
The quilts made by the Ebony Rainbow Quilting Sisters, currently showcased at the Walt Whitman Cultural Arts Center in Camden, N.J., reflect a broad range of designs - some traditional and applique, some African-inspired, and some combinations of both.
What the collection suggests, the women say, is that creativity in the craft is limited only by the imagination; there is no ``right'' way to design a quilt.
The quilts tell stories of individual families, stories that have been etched into family lore.
Barbara Imes-Jorden's quilt of paneled teapots, titled ``Come Home for Tea, Mr. Greene,'' is dedicated to her great-grandfather, who used to have tea every afternoon at a comely neighbor's house until his wife, armed with a shotgun, persuaded him to come home.
A quilt stitched by Marie George is dedicated to her father. She took scraps from his old ties and used them to create designs of African drums, which he collected.
And a quilt designed by Sarah Randall chronicles her husband's family's history, with actual photographs of family members appliqued into the quilt.
``We don't copy off each other,'' said Jacqueline Jenkins, who lives in Franklinville and is one of the group's founders. ``We all have our own uniqueness, and we help each other.''
The Ebony Rainbow Quilting Sisters formed in 1994 with a few women who had met at a local fabric store. Today, the group has 19 members, who range in age from 30 to 75.
The women, most of whom live in southern New Jersey, meet once a month at the Gloucester County Library in Mullica Hill. (They used to meet in one another's homes, but they found they needed a bigger place to spread out after they began to make larger quilts.)
They do what members of most quilting bees do - they sew blocks for each other, trade materials, offer suggestions, help with bedding (the ``stuffing'' inside the quilt), and piece the squares.
As they have worked together, they have become aware of each other's preferences and strengths, which, of course, are reflected in their work.
Marie George, whom the women affectionately call ``the Shaka Zulu of the group,'' makes quilts of African fabric with African-inspired designs. And a quilt stitched by Barbara Imes-Jorden probably has a design you'll never see again. She makes only one-of-a-kinds.
A common thread that runs through the quilts on display is the African influence.
Photo: What one quilt collection suggests is that creativity in the craft is limited only by the imagination; there is no ``right'' way to design a quilt.
Lori Valesko/Daily News