The best books on quilting created by African American women to tell their stories

Who am I?

I first saw the quilts of Gee’s Bend at the Whitney Museum in New York. I was wowed! I viewed the quilts as works of art and included some in a book I was doing, Art Against the Odds: From Slave Quilts to Prison Paintings. But I wanted to show and tell more about the quilters. Who were these women who dreamed up incredible designs and made art out of scraps despite their poverty and hard lives? Since I never quilted I had to find out how they did it, and realized that quilting not only produced covers for their families, but expressed individual creativity, and brought women together.

I wrote...

The Quilts of Gee's Bend

By Susan Goldman Rubin,

Book cover of The Quilts of Gee's Bend

What is my book about?

In the rural community of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, African American women have been making quilts for generations. These women, descended from enslaved relatives, worked in the fields along with the men, but thought and dreamed about their quilts. Taught by their mothers, grandmothers, and aunts, the women used scraps of old overalls, aprons, bleached flour sacks –-anything they could find. They transformed the bits and pieces into spectacular patterns with vibrant colors.

The quilts did more than keep their families warm. They told stories. The women never thought of themselves as artists, but in 2002, a collector discovered their work and arranged for the quilts to be shown in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Now the quilts are treasured as works of modern art.

The books I picked & why

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Talking to Faith Ringgold

By Faith Ringgold,

Book cover of Talking to Faith Ringgold

Why this book?

Faith Ringgold, an acclaimed Black artist who grew up in Harlem, tells about her childhood and explains the process of creating her extraordinary painted quilts such as Tar Beach, Sonny’s Quilt, and Dancing at the Louvre. Each tells a story. “When I was starting out,” she wrote, “there were hardly any galleries that showed the work of black women, or women at all.”  Her quilts are now housed in museums and public collections nationwide. Full-color reproductions of her work, as well as vintage photos, illustrate this inspiring book.

Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt

By Deborah Hopkinson, James E. Ransome (illustrator),

Book cover of Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt

Why this book?

Clara’s story is powerful and suspenseful. Written in the first person, she tells about her life as an enslaved twelve-year-old girl who has been separated from her Momma and sent from North Farm to the Home Plantation. Although this is fiction, it is based on the history of African American quilters. For Clara, quilting means drawing a map with stitches and fabric that ultimately becomes a “freedom map,” enabling her to escape with her friend, Young Jack, and find her Momma and freedom.  The warm, luminous illustrations by James Ransome bring Clara, Young Jack, and her map to life. Ransome visited a plantation in Virginia for research, and in the process he discovered enslaved ancestors. This book is a must for readers of all ages.

Stitchin' and Pullin': A Gee's Bend Quilt

By Patricia McKissack, Cozbi A. Cabrera (illustrator),

Book cover of Stitchin' and Pullin': A Gee's Bend Quilt

Why this book?

Patricia McKissack introduces the quilts of Gee’s Bend to young readers in this charming picture book. McKissack not only read about Gee’s Bend but she visited and learned how to quilt. Her text is written in poems that capture the lilt and rhythm of Gee’s Bend women. The speaker, “Baby Girl,” describes how she learned how to quilt from her grandma. The soft, painterly illustrations by Cozbi A. Cabrera resemble Gee’s Bend quilts, and depict the colorful scraps of material the women used. The story includes the visit of Dr. Martin Luther King to “the Bend” on his way to Camden, then Selma, to march for the right to vote. And the aftermath of that march. A superb picture book full of history and hope for readers of all ages.

The Quilts of Gee’s Bend

By William Arnett, Alvia Wardlaw, Jane Livingston, John Beardsley, Paul Arnett

Book cover of The Quilts of Gee’s Bend

Why this book?

I used this adult coffee table book as a main reference for writing my children’s book of the same title. The amazing reproductions of the quilts are beautiful. The colors glow. I could see the bits of patterns –flowers, triangles, plaids – ingeniously composed like abstract paintings. Captions give the names of the quilters.  And there are photos of them as well as vintage pictures. Quotes from the quilters tell their histories. One of the most touching stories was by Missouri Pettway who told that when her Daddy died her mother took his old work clothes to make a quilt “to remember him, and cover-up under it for love.” I have seen this extraordinary quilt displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and remembering the story behind it, was deeply moved.

Gee's Bend: The Women and Their Quilts

By William Arnett (editor), Alvia Wardlaw (editor), Jane Livingston (editor), John Beardsley (editor)

Book cover of Gee's Bend: The Women and Their Quilts

Why this book?

This huge volume was another reference book for me as I researched The Quilts of Gee’s Bend.  The large reproductions of the quilts showed how the women with the same material used it in different waysStartling to see so many imaginative versions of a pattern called Housetop. Two quilts titled Flower Garden shown side by side are dazzling. And this book contains more photos of the quilters and provides information about their lives and struggles against poverty and racism. The art they produced despite their limited resources and hardships is truly an inspiration. A miracle!

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Alabama, quilting, and African Americans?

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