America Irby (1916–1993), Center medallion, c. 1940
Corduroy, 83 x 76 in.; Private Collection
America lrby took old pinwale corduroy work clothes and created an elegant variation on the center-medallion form of “Housetop” quilt that could almost be an architectural blueprint for a classical temple. The central element is surrounded by white and off-white strips punctuated at the four corners by bands of green, which accentuate the strong sense of organization. A peripheral pattern of polyrhythmic bands of gray, sand, blue, and red serves as an intricate counterpoint to the classic balance of the central design, yielding a tension between the harmony of purely symmetrical structure and the energy of improvisation.
Mensie Lee Pettway (b. 1939), one of Rehoboth's most artistically adventuresome quiltmakers, remembers her mother and artistic mentor, America Irby (1916 - 1993).
My mother was America Irby. Her mother was Lucy Burpo and her daddy was Jake Irby. She and her sister, my aunt Ruby Gamble, came from a family of nine children. They worked in the field when they was little, and when they got a certain age, they went down to Gee's Bend to work on what they called the NYA [National Youth Administration], some kind of government job or whatever. Both of them, Ruby and her, could sew, was seamstresses, made garments for other peoples. Dresses, shirts, blouses, pants for mens—she made it all without a pattern. Didn't use patterns for quilts, neither. None of this family have used patterns. We got a tradition of the old peoples' ways. They would call it "string quilts"; everybody made their own design.
We was taught there's so many different ways to build a quilt. It's like building a house. You can start with a bedroom over there, or a den over here, and just add on until you get what you want. Ought not two quilts ever be the same. You might use exactly the same material, but you would do it different. A lot of people make quilts just for your bed, for to keep you warm. But a quilt is more. It represents safekeeping, it represents beauty, and you could say it represents family history.
America Irby’s work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Learn more about America Irby here.
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