Art from Everyday Life

The Henry Ford

The Improvisational Quilts of Susana Allen Hunter (1912-2005)

Art from Everyday Life
African-American quiltmaker Susana Allen Hunter turned the "fabric" of everyday life into eye-catching quilts with an abstract, asymmetrical, and often, modern feel.     

Susana’s quilts, created from the 1930s to the 1970s, reflect her life in rural Wilcox County, Alabama--one of the poorest counties in the United States.

Like most African-American farmers in the South, Susana Hunter and her husband Julius did not own the land that they plowed, planted and harvested. Susana helped with the farm work, sowing seeds for crops, hoeing fields, milking cows, feeding chickens, and tending the garden. Tenant farmers had to be very resourceful, and there was little chance for financial independence or security.

This quilt, likely made from Julius' worn denim overalls and flannel work shirts, reflected his life as an Alabama tenant farmer. The backing is made from mule feed sacks--mules were often used to pull the farmer's plow.

The Hunters lived in a simple, two-room house that had no running water, electricity or central heat. Though the Hunters didn't have much in the way of material goods or the latest technology, they never went hungry, raising much of their own food.

Susana worked on her quilts most often in the fall and winter months when the labor of farming lessened. She sewed quilts to warm her family during chilly Alabama winters in the inadequately heated home.

People living in these more remote areas had less access to quilt pattern ideas published in newspapers or printed in books. Many of them had received little education and couldn’t read.

For fabrics, rural women depended on mail order catalogs or whatever happened to be available in the local store.

Susana very rarely bought new fabric for her quilts, she used what was at hand.

Susana Hunter planned this quilt well, strategically using the “pocket shadows” -- created when she removed pockets from the faded clothing -- as part of the design.

Represented in the fabrics that make up Susana Hunter's quilts are work clothes worn from the family's toil in the fields, sacks from the cotton seed they planted each spring, scraps from the clothes Susana sewed for her family, and bulk sacks from the food staples the Hunters bought at the local general store.

Yet the lack of materials didn't restrict this resourceful quilter's creativity.

The printing on feed and flour sacks could be washed out so that the sacking material could be reused. But for this quilt, Susana playfully chose to include printed logos as part of her quilt design, combining "Southern Daisy" flour sacks with fabrics in complementary colors.

These "constraints" left quiltmakers like Susana Hunter free to use their imaginations.

Susana's quilts are pieced in a design-as-you-go improvisational style found among people in poorer, more isolated pockets of the rural South.

Improvisational quilts involve a loosely structured approach to pattern and color combinations. Making these quilts required a continual stream of creativity during the entire process, as the quiltmaker made hundreds of design decisions on the fly, fashioning an attractive whole out of whatever materials were at hand.

The bold patterns and large shapes of improvisational quilts often give them an abstract feel that resembles modern art.

Overall visual impact mattered most--not minor details such as whether a patch in a row had a square or rectangular shape. Size and shape was determined by the scraps available at the time.

Creative recycling such as this was not only a means of survival. For many rural quilters, it was also a matter of pride to be able to "make something pretty out of nothing."

Susana Hunter could cast her artistic eye over her pile of worn clothing, dress scraps, and left-over feed and fertilizer sacks--and envision her next quilt.

Her quilts added splashes of color to the unadorned living space--a cheerful kaleidoscope of vivid pattern and design against the newspaper-covered walls of her home.

Susana Hunter’s quilts reflect the creativity of a spunky, resourceful woman who approached life with energy and joy. Susana made handsome, unique quilts, fashioned literally from the fabric of everyday life. She crafted beauty from what life offered her.

Credits: Story

From The Henry Ford Archive of American Innovation™.

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