An Apprenticeship in African American Quilting

ACTA - Posted on 22 June 2009

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Article and photos by Sherwood Chen, ACTA's Associate Director

Master African-American quilter Allyson Allen.Master quiltmaker Allyson Allen and her 9-year old niece and apprentice Madison Wright—both of Riverside County’s San Jacinto—are participants in the 2009 round of ACTA's Apprenticeship Program, focusing on developing Wright’s quiltmaking, dollmaking and sewing skills.  A three-time participant in ACTA’s Apprenticeship Program, Allen formerly worked with Wright’s elder sister Krysta Wright in 2001 and subsequently in 2006.  With Krysta skilled enough to continue her sewing projects independently, Allen now focuses her attention on Krysta’s younger sister Madison who follows in both Krysta’s and Allen’s footsteps as a budding young textile artist.  As Wright’s father and Allen’s brother Anthony Wright notes, “the exposure has sparked the interest of Madison.  So much so that she now has expressed interest in following in her sister’s footsteps.  She too under her aunt’s tutelage, has created many unique designs that have been turned into quilts and panels. Madison’s excitement has prompted her to ask if she too can become an apprentice like her sister.”

The apprenticeship focuses on several projects including quiltmaking, making a pillow and blanket, and making fabric dolls, and occurs at the San Jacinto residence of Allen’s mother.  “I’ve always kept a sewing machine set up at Mom’s,” Allen says, due in part to additional floor space, and creating more opportunities for Wright and her sister to spend more time with their grandmother, an accomplished seamstress, while they work with Allen.

Essential to these projects include specific skill development in learning how to use the sewing machine, pattern making, ironing and improving Wright’s hand sewing skills.  The quilt they will complete over the summer is an original, hand-tied interactive Sudoku Safari quilt, with nine South African animals individually rendered nine times each, resulting in 81 different animal figures arranged in a sudoku grid. Each animal will be cut from the same hand-traced pattern and each will be one-of-a-kind in its fabric composition and design, hand decorated by Wright using permanent fabric marker.  Some of the animals—which include cheetah, giraffe, lion, zebra, crocodile, elephant, hippo and snake—will be appliqued to the quilt, while the rest will be moveable (backed with velcro), allowing the quilt to serve as a sudoku puzzle which can be solved.  The quilt already is slated to be shown at the Mountain Quilter’s Annual Show in Idyllwild in October alongside original works from both Allen and Wright’s sister, and in November at the African American Quilter’s of Los Angeles show in Los Angeles, representing Wright’s first major public quilt entry.

Master African-American quilter Allyson Allen.Because of Wright’s love of the Japanese animated game and series Pokemón, Pokemón will be the topical focus of the blanket top and pillow case allowing her to practice sewing machine skills under Allen’s guidance, to be completed in time for her tenth birthday in September. Pokemón also will figure in the fabric dolls she will make, featuring the titular character and the beloved Pikachu in addition to others.  While the dollmaking involves hand sketching on muslin, and hand-sewing, it offers for Wright what Allen describes as “instant gratification,” contrasting with the longer term planning, focus, scale and labor involved in the process of making a quilt.  Both Wright and elder sister Krysta regularly accompany Allen to Los Angeles women’s shelters to conduct dollmaking workshops which yield dolls that are sent to medical centers and orphanages in Africa. According to Allen, the girls are proud to help and be involved.  Allen keeps both girls engaged in the textile art traditions, and all three frequent quilt shows and exhibits, tirelessly guided by Allen to observe and recognize quilt styles, techniques, stitches and patterns in other artists’ work. “The girls are enthusiastic about quilt exhibits, and about their ability to recognize others’ work.  They are proud when their work is displayed alongside the work of adults,” comments Allen.

Wright echos: “I like to make quilts for the quilt shows because I think it’s cool to have a quilt in the quilt show and see people looking at it.  And it’s cool that my sister can help me with sewing.”

In addition to being shown to a wider audience, the Sudoku Safari quilt will be presented to Wright’s classmates both at the end of the year in her fourth grade class, and opening the academic year in the fall with her fifth grade class. Allen notes that “every year since Krysta was in grade school, we’d make a point to go to the classroom or at birthday celebrations to show and discuss their projects. The girls take pride in that, and the classmates look forward to the presentations.”

Allen and the Wright girls’ participation in the Apprenticeship Program reinforces ongoing familial connection and ties to quiltmaking tradition. Anthony Wright hopes that the apprenticeship can encourage the already strong bond between Allen and his daughters, and observes that “Krysta and Madison would do anything for Allyson.  This apprenticeship helps organize and focus their projects, and allows them to follow through.”

Learning basic sewing and dollmaking skills from her mother and older sister when she was around Wright’s age, Allen’s initial quiltmaking efforts were self-taught when she was growing up in and around Los Angeles. Her paternal grandmother was an accomplished quilter and began to guide Allen’s efforts.  Allen eventually began to develop her skill both in and out of the classroom: “Junior high school home economics classes taught me how to read and use patterns, but participating in art programs and projects in settings outside of school encouraged me to begin to design my own patterns.”

Master African-American quilter Allyson Allen.Since then, Allen has used her award-winning quilts to teach Black history and her dolls to teach African and West Indian folklore in both public and private settings for over the past twenty years.  A longtime school teacher, Allen quit teaching fulltime in order to dedicate her efforts to teach quilting and dollmaking and their role, value and importance in African-American traditions. “The handwork that is still done is still highly valued and still valuable because we are in such a computerized age,” she notes. 

Another long term goal Allen and Wright share is for Wright to be able to develop patterns or pillow forms based on Wright’s own sketches and drawings, and to make and mend her own clothes and other items, a direction and interest which her older sister is developing independently.  Amongst this all, Wright does not lose sight of the quiltmaking tradition which is in her family, and she and her sister have in their home some quilts made by their great grandmother--the woman who guided Allen when she herself was a girl.   “When my aunt shows me how to sew,” Wright reflects, “I will make some quilts like my great grandmother’s quilts too.”

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