Growing up in Bainbridge, Georgia, under a canopy of live oaks and Spanish moss, Jereann King Johnson has known quilts and quilting as far back as she can remember. On cold winter nights, her mother would put a quilt or two, and sometimes even three, on her bed. She would doze off to sleep looking at quilts – quilt patterns, quilt designs, # 8 thread stitches, tacks made with yarn, and colorful cloth in a variety of textures. Scraps from the dressmaker, pieces of old curtains, shirts and dresses, and her favorite too – little pajamas, all contributed to the story the quilt told. However, her mother’s story about her quilts was, “They may not be pretty, but they will keep you warm.” Making quilts for the winter and pallets for the floor was an ongoing activity in her house. There was a certain security in her home and the community at-large knowing that there were adequate quilts for the winter.
Needlework came easy to her. At nine years old, her mother showed her how to piece four square, nine square, and half square triangle blocks. Sometimes her mother cut quilt block patterns from magazines or the newspaper and they would have fun following the instructions to put the blocks together. After they made a stack of blocks, her mother arranged them into different patterns to make the quilt top. When she got the tops together, she set up the quilting frame in the living room and quilted for days. Sometimes other women joined her and they would sit and quilt together all day.
During the late 1970’s, while looking through the craft section of a McCall’s Pattern book, the Carolina Lily Quilt pattern caught Jereann’s attention and renewed her passion for quilting. She bought the pattern and made the blocks with leftover African prints from clothes she had made, set the blocks on point and alternated them with blocks cut from an old white sheet that she dyed goldenrod yellow. She found her quilting niche – using dye and batik techniques on linen, wool, cotton, and other natural fibers for quilt-making.
In collaboration with several North Carolina quilters, Jereann helped to launch the African American Quilt Circle (AAQC) in Durham, North Carolina in 1999, and the Heritage Quilters in Warrenton, North Carolina in 2001. Both groups are making significant contributions to the preservation and continuation of quilting heritage and arts. AAQC is at the forefront of exhibiting art and narrative quilts, and the Heritage Quilters model community – mindedness through work with schools, by leading community tours, and by maintaining a giving circle that provides funds for youth fieldtrips and scholarships.
For Jereann, quilting is a dynamic metaphor for living, for community development, and for creative expression. As a fiber artist, she finds inspiration from all dimensions of life, love and joy. Within the quilting tradition there is a powerful impulse for freedom and creativity.
[“Reflections On Quilts And Quilting” by Jereann King Johnson, February 2018. This piece has been edited.]