Guest Post: Quilting for Peace Author Katherine Bell on Housetop Quilts

quiltingforpeaceThough the focus of True Up is “fabric for fabric’s sake,” occasionally a sewing or quilting topic comes along that is just too good too pass up. When STC Craft wrote me to ask if I’d like to host Katherine Bell, author of the spectacular new book Quilting for Peace, on her blog tour, I jumped at the chance.

The first time I picked up this book I was expecting to be wowed by the quilts and the book’s design (and of course I was), but I didn’t expect to be moved to tears by the stories of the groups, people, and causes on which this book centers. But this book isn’t about guilt, it’s about inspiration and hope. (Still, have a tissue handy even if you just page through the online preview.) Below, Katherine writes about Housetop Quilts. The housetop quilts from Gee’s Bend were what piqued my own interest in textiles, so this is a subject near and dear to my heart.

P.S. I’m so sorry if you saw this post in an unfinished state earlier today; my son loves to wander over to the computer when I’m not looking and click on big blue buttons that say “publish”!

In January 2004, I drove from Iowa to Milwaukee in the middle of a terrible snowstorm to see the Gee’s Bend quilt exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum on the last day before it closed. Those quilts utterly changed the way I understood patchwork, just as they’ve done for so many other people. The quilters’ geometric improvisations were the first quilts I’d seen that truly felt like art, as well as fine craft.

One of the patterns the Gee’s Bend quilters returned to most frequently was the housetop. Housetop quilts are incredibly simple. You start with a square of fabric and then build concentric squares or rectangles around it – like frames – out of different colors and prints. Usually, the whole quilt is a single set of concentric rectangles like this one by Qunnie Pettway:


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But sometimes the Gee’s Bend quilters varied the pattern by piecing together a few housetop blocks or complicating the center medallion, like in this quilt by Stella Mae Pettway:


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You can see a few more examples here.

I love housetop quilts for a few reasons. First, they’re about the best canvas for juxtaposing fabrics, which is one of the great pleasures of patchwork. Contrasting solids can be stunning. Large-scale prints also work beautifully, especially in the center.

Second, they’re super-easy and quick to make. You don’t have to plan or cut or even choose your fabric before you start, and accuracy isn’t necessary. It’s the perfect pattern to choose when you need to make a quilt fast, as volunteer quilters often do after a major disaster, in order to provide necessary bedding and comfort to displaced survivors as soon as possible. Luana Rubin, founder of, organized quilters’ responses to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. In the wake of a disaster, she told me, speed and simplicity are essential: “Just do something that you can actually finish and finish quickly and that’s not going to cost an arm and a leg to ship.” There’s a pattern in my book for a twin-sized housetop quilt you can make in a day.


Lastly, for me, the housetop pattern captures better than any other what makes quilts in general so aesthetically, culturally, and emotionally powerful. They’re about building something meaningful and necessary out of simple materials. There’s tension between repetition and variation. And they remind us that at a very basic level, as much as the houses we live in, textiles and patterns shape our daily experience of the world. Paul Griffith, whose wife Pascha founded Beloved Quilts, an effort to make quilts to comfort those made homeless by poverty and violence as well as children who have escaped from slavery, described the connection between quilts and the idea of home this way: “Home is more than a building. We want to provide a traveling piece of home these recipients can take with them during a transient time in their lives. A simple, but dignifying action.”

Thank you so much, Katherine! Learn more about the Quilting for Peace campaign here and here. STC Craft is giving away a copy of the book via Melanie Falick’s blog; enter before December 11, 2009.


  1. Kathi D says:

    Thank you for letting us know about this book–it looks terrific!

  2. Lisa says:

    It’s a great book. I borrowed it recently from my local library and thought it was such a good book, that I wanted my own copy and bought my own. It really makes you think how quilting can make a difference.

  3. Sondra says:

    Hi Kim,
    We recently did a blog interview with Katherine Bell if anyone would like to check it out. Here book really touched me, it is a great resource for every quilter’s library. Here website has great info also.
    Best to all,
    Sondra… interview is below!

  4. Andrea V. says:

    Love the Gee’s Bend quilts – I was fortunate enough to see an exhibit in Indianapolis a couple of years ago – I walked around with tears streaming down my face. Amazing.

    Please count me in for the So Fun goveaway – thanks!