Willie “Ma Willie” Abrams (1897–1987), "Roman Stripes" variation, c. 1975
Corduroy, 94 x 76 in.; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
In 1972, the Freedom Quilting Bee received a contract with Sears Roebuck and Company to make corduroy pillow shams. The abundance of leftover fabric from that project inspired many local quiltmakers to incorporate it into their designs. Corduroy's coexisting qualities of weight and manageability give it a character that provided an artistic catalyst to several of Gee's Bend's most accomplished and inventive artists. Sometimes bold, even reductive, patterns work perfectly in corduroy when they might not in other material, such as in “Ma Willie” Abrams’s “Roman Stripes” variation from the mid-1970s.
The mother of longtime Freedom Quilting Bee president and manager Estelle Witherspoon, Willie "Ma Willie" Abrams (1897 - 1987), was instrumental in keeping the Bee afloat in its early years. Two of her best-known quilts are made from Sears corduroy remnants from the Bee’s contract with the company to produce corduroy pillow shams.
Witherspoon’s daughter Louise Williams, who now serves as president of the Freedom Quilting Bee Legacy, recalls her grandmother.
Even though Ma Willie was a very quiet person, there was strength in her quietness. I remember events from my childhood that sometimes made me want to change her demeanor, bring her up to the twentieth century, as I called it, but I had to realize that she was born in 1897 in a small country town in Alabama, where, even though slavery had officially been over for many years, many were still living in the aftermath of it. I believe she was quiet, not because she didn’t have anything to say, but because she came from a world where you did not speak until you were spoken to. I think this is also how she was able to create many beautiful quilts, aprons, hats, and so forth because in her moments of quietness, she would think of things to do and visualize it and just make it.
Willie Abrams’s quilts are in the permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Learn more about "Ma Willie" Abrams here.
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