Vicki Phillips: How to Commodify an American Quilt: The Women of Gee’s
Kathy Ireland now sells designs based on quilts from a remote rural community in Southwest Alabama, Gee’s
Quilting was the only thing controllable in these women’s lives. Their techniques developed in isolation as a mix of African and American traditions, along with the crossword puzzles and comic strips tacked on to their homes as insulation. A civil rights activist came and bought many in the 60s, then sent an assistant to work with the women on improving the consistency of the quilts and on changing the designs to more recognizable “craft” patterns. This increased regional income 25%, and the women quilted according to contractual specifications. But they continued to make their own designs at night.
Cheap machine-made quilts made this quilting bee’s profits wane. The civil rights workers went home and the rural isolation returned. In 1998, an art scholar and collector came across a photo of a Gee’s
In cooperation with the
The nonprofit pays a royalty on pre-1984 designs even though the collector allegedly purchased the IP rights, and also licenses post-1984 designs from the quilters. The collector is modeling his actions after the French droit de suite, so the quilters continue to benefit after alienating their rights.
So is it all good? In the novel How to Make an American Quilt, one character says that anyone who’d buy a quilt is immoral; quilts are the anti-commodity, made individually within the family and bound up in the women’s personhood. The quilters of Gee’s
What do we want to be marketable/in the market? Phillips rejects the false dichotomy that something is either commodified or not. (Here I thought of Viviana Zelizer’s excellent work, particularly the recent The Purchase of Intimacy.) Does commodification come at too great a cost? Arguably the women of Gee’s