The Piecemakers

By Marion P. Martin


My grandmother, Maude Mary Broussard Pesson, was the founder of the Piecemakers‘ Quilting Bee in 1984 in New Iberia, Louisiana. She was 74 years old at the time. A dairy farmer‘s wife, and a mother of five, she had a legendary knowledge of homemaking, and her recipes and techniques live on today. She was also an expert seamstress, and when the need arose, met with an interested group of ladies to teach them how to put together a quilt. A few other quilting gatherings had taken place prior to the group‘s founding event in 1984. In fact in 1975, she and I pieced together a baby quilt for my firstborn child, Mary Frances. Another quilt was created a few years after that in the home of Maude‘s daughter, my Aunt Joanie. One day Yvette Boutte decided she really wanted to learn how to put together a quilt based on an article she read titled “How to Make a Quilt in a Day.” My grandmother (“Maw Maw” as she was referred to by everyone who knew her) was called. The Piecemaker‘s quilting bee was formed, and Maude was there to oversee the group‘s activities and help out where needed.

The Piecemakers quilting bee. Photo by Marion Martin.

Twenty seven years later, the Piecemakers continue to meet. I have been documenting, photographing, and interviewing them since the fall of 2008 when I took a folklore class with Dr. John Laudun. One of the founding members of that bee in 1984 was my mother Suzanne Pesson Martin Bourgeois. She picked up where my grandmother left off. Also an expert seamstress, she took the knowledge of the art of quilting and ran with it along with a few other friends including Yvette Boutte, Jeanette Mestayer, Bonnie Robin, Evelyn Vidrine, Debbie Perron and Miss Mary Briganti. Currently the ladies range in age from 60 years to approximately 75 years old. A couple of the original and much beloved members have passed away. A couple of others have moved on to be with other groups. Today the group comprises five of the original members along with five relatively new members. The unique combination has re-energized the group, and when I had the privilege to sit with them for six of their weekly gatherings, it became apparent to me that this was about much more than simply quilting. In his article on the La Have General Store, Richard Bauman quotes Gary Gossen‘s description of the conversations of the indigenous Tzotzil Maya people located in Chamula, Mexico: “Verbal art is speech by people whose hearts are heated” (1972: 339). The interplay between each quilter and the trust, love and acceptance that grew out of meeting every week evolved into becoming a piece of art, a part of each of their lives.

Through my fieldwork I began to discover that while quilting was the main reason for the group to get together, it also served as a framework for the patterns of their talks with one another, a concept Bauman discusses. Like the La Have islanders Bauman writes about, the Piecemakers create both a material folklore object, the quilt, and verbal art. This idea is illustrated in recorded conversations of the weekly bees.

On October 30, 2009, a small caravan made its way to the home of Beverly, a relatively new member of the group. Her home is located in rural Iberia Parish, and on the drive there we passed a couple of lumbering sugarcane trucks. A small herd of dairy cows gathered at the fence to greet us as we arrived at her back door. Beverly‘s husband is a taxidermist, and as you enter, there is mounted wild game on the walls. I noticed the contrast between the mounted animals on the wall and the process it took to get them there, and the quilts that were being sewn which had a process of their own.

The women are always happy to see each other, and the day today is going to be one of preparation. There is much cutting, measuring and pattern discussion to be done. Today‘s dessert for after lunch, an apple spice cake (my grandmother‘s original recipe), is perched on the kitchen bar ready to be enjoyed later. As the ladies arrive one by one, the conversations begin. Their discussions with one another are comparable to the complex nature of the quilts they are sewing, each one stitched together by love and artistic ability. First thing this morning, an adaptation for a chicken fettuccine recipe is discussed with a couple of women, and the group catches up on news from the past week.

Suzanne tells a story about visiting her brother, a retired LSU professor, now living in an assisted living facility in Baton Rouge. An Alzheimer‘s patient, he warmly hugged her when he saw her over the weekend and called her “Momma.” Larrie has arrived with handouts for everyone and reads aloud Prevention‘s seven anti-anxiety foods. “Anti- what?” someone asks. “Anti-ANXIETY!” Larrie exclaims. Everyone laughs. They also discuss a political email she sent out for everyone.

Then the conversation moves to Henrietta who is concerned about a quilting square she has picked up for Irene and does not know if she needs to quilt it. Larrie discusses the fact that the corners of her squares don‘t match. The group rallies around her, and comes to her defense:

Suzanne: “Okay. How many can see they don‘t match?” No one can see. “Okay, I rest my case.”

Joyce: “You think everybody‘s perfect? We‘re not perfect! [But] Once it‘s put into a quilt, people are going to see it matches!”

They continue to lay out quilting squares, measure, sew on the sewing machine, and iron out seams, all the while in constant conversation with one another. The most important topic of the day arises. “Hey, where are we going to eat today?” That sets off a lengthy non-quilting discussion of various restaurants and the pros and cons of each.

“What about The Landing?”

“No, it‘s closed.”

“How about right there at Randy‘s?” [The Patio restaurant; Randy is the owner]

“She doesn‘t go there.”

“I went there yesterday and it wasn‘t good. The buffet was high - 10 something.”

“Joanie told me that the fellow who owns it said that blockade they had on the road - says his business has been cut in half.”

“It‘s open now.”

“Oh, it‘s open now.”

Back to cutting out the template. No decision for lunch has been made yet.

“I wonder if you could do mine?” [Henrietta asks Sue to cut out her template]

“Well if you ask me nicely, sure!”

“What about the place in Loreauville?”

A discussion begins about a stack of books Suzanne has brought to return to the library. They‘re not due yet and she wants to offer them if anyone has an interest. Pat told her about them. It‘s a series of books about the Elm Creek quilters. She explains that the books could have been written about them, and thinks they‘re wonderful. Larrie adds a comment about a recent book she‘s read titled The Persian Pickle, also written about a group of quilters.

The books are exciting reads to the quilters because they relate stories about the love and friendship existing among women. Larrie tells the story of a true friend of hers who has now passed on. This friend always wore high heels. She did a stress test in high heels. They talk about heels and varicose veins, and go on to discuss true friends.

Suzanne: “We love each other in spite of the warts.”

Henrietta: “I feel so lucky. Where‘s your instructions?” She moves on to her square.

Larrie offers another story. Suzanne is talking about how Teddy‘s company helped Alice by donating Toys for Tots for her organization. Larrie relates how Alice does everything by the book. She lives down the street, and came over to notarize something for her and made them show their ID to notarize the document. Then she got a phone call later, explaining how she had forgotten to stamp the document. Oh well, it was free.

The quilt squares they are working on today are for a Lewis and Clarke quilt kit Gladys has provided. It‘s a sort of block-of-the-month type thing. They are each making a block. When the quilt is finished, they will donate it to a church, a bazaar, or a charity to raffle off. They have participated in helping out hurricane refugees, GI‘s, veterans and their families. They were asked to do a live performance exhibit at the University Art Museum on one of their Thursday gatherings, and did the quilting on the Marquis de Lafayette quilt which was displayed at the Acadiana Center for the Arts, and since then at the DAR museum in Washington D.C. They also did a quilt for St. Martin Parish, which currently hangs in a local museum. Being related to Suzanne, I am privy to this information. It did not come up in the gatherings. They are focused on the quilting tasks at hand, being together and telling their stories. Although they give away a few quilts every year, most of the quilts sewn by the members are for their own use or for their families. None of the quilts are ever sold. As Sue puts it, “It would be like selling one of your children. A lot of love goes into the process of creating the quilts.”

Joyce shows me a quilted Spider Man wall-hanging she is working on for her grandson. He‘s afraid of the dark. She tells me she explained to him that “We are going to hang this on your wall, and Spider Man is going to protect you.”

Working at the sewing machine, Henrietta says that she always does her quilt label in her own handwriting, then embroiders it. That way her kids will always have her handwriting. Suzanne is instructing them on how to cut and place the pieces, then line them up, explaining that they should be a perfect 90-degree angle. Larrie tells about her daughter‘s first embroidery piece and how she was able to frame it to exhibit both sides of the material.

There is a phone call. “It‘s Debbie!” Debbie has not joined the group today. She is recovering from a sinus infection, but has called to find out their lunch plans. “She has to get her fix” says Suzanne.

The longest conversation aside from the piece work they were doing, was about where to go for lunch. After several short conversations during the morning it was concluded that Charlie‘s Diner was the place to go, since Debbie was meeting them there and they did not want her to have to travel too far with a sinus infection. They discuss heading to Charlie‘s for lunch. “Ya‘ll go pee! And remember the time changes this weekend!” It‘s good because Suzanne and Joyce like to walk really early. They are so busy.

While waiting for the group to gather to leave for lunch, Joyce tells me the story of her big red purse. Because Joyce is five feet tall, it‘s a pretty big purse for her. Her husband made her buy a wallet, and she had to get the purse. “At ’Bangles and Beads‘ [store] next to Merle Norman. You know the place.”

Debbie joins us for lunch at Charlie‘s. Henrietta is that they don‘t have the usual homemade honey mustard dressing. Three others chime in. It‘s their favorite, they explain to the waitress with a hickey on her neck and a five dollar bill pinned to the pocket of her uniform. She returns about ten minutes later to inform them that they have found some. Everybody is happy.

Today is Yvette‘s birthday. She was one of the original members, a smiling, shining jewel of a woman who died of cancer. She would have been 65. They are misty-eyed. Thank goodness the food arrives. Everyone is ravenous. It‘s all of 11:30 a.m. We hold hands and say grace. Joyce adds that please everyone pull the right lever in the voting booth.

Lunch ends and I return to Lafayette to the library with many notes, pictures, tapes and stories whirling around my head. I discover parallels between how Bauman sees the small fishing community and how the quilters perform. Shopping at the La Have Island General Store was not just for purchasing goods; there was a social aspect to it. In the quilting bee, the ladies congregate to sew a quilt, but they also get a lot out of visiting and talking with each other. The store gatherings mainly took place during winter months when the men weren‘t fishing. The get-togethers were an exclusively male event. “Women might come in to buy something in the evening, but they preferred to leave the store to the men, and those few women who did come did not stay” (Bauman 1972: 333). The Piecemakers have never had a male participate in their bee.1 Men are present occasionally, for a specified amount of time, or for a specified purpose, never to sew or quilt. My visit to the group on November 6 was one of those occasions. My stepfather Huey was present for a short time, before leaving the house to go out for a haircut and to lunch with a friend. The group good-naturedly greeted him, but he seemed to know that he would only be there for a certain amount of time. While he was present, a couple of friends named Janet and Fred stopped by to return a pot they‘d borrowed. There was more conversation, but after about ten or fifteen minutes of checking out the quilt and commenting, the visitors and Huey departed and the bee got back down to business. No one was invited to stay or asked to participate. There was a definite boundary.

Bauman also mentions the La Have General Store men “had little leisure time during the spring, summer, and early fall months when the weather allowed them to be on the water” (1972: 333). Similarly, the female quilters did not have time in the springs, summers and early falls of their lives to quilt. Their duties of being married, having children, house-keeping and, in some cases, working at careers left them little time for quilting. It was not until their children grew up and left home, they retired, or perhaps were widowed, that they had time and more importantly, the energy for the quilting bee in these late fall years of their lives.

In writing about the La Have general store, Bauman observes that “two principal activities . . . occupied the attention of the men gathered at the store, namely, playing cards and talking.” Bauman goes on to divide the conversations into three main genres: “news, yarns, and arguments” (1972: 334). This typology fits in with the structure of the quilting bee, where quilting and conversation are the two main activities taking place each week. As in Bauman‘s essay, the women‘s conversations are divided into discussing news: of members, their families, friends, the community, and politics. Equally as important are their “yarns” or their stories - the unfolding of their lives to one another through the telling of the stories. Like the La Have men, “the preference was overwhelmingly for yarns of immediate personal experience. The tendency was to give people credit for being best qualified to give an account of their own experience” (Bauman 1972: 335). The quilters respect, support and accept the right of a fellow quilter to give her own story. Their gatherings serve as a backdrop for the women to begin what Sue referred to as “an ongoing story, like a marriage . . . an evolving story.” Susan Roach‘s article suggests that as these ongoing conversations continue to be reviewed, “the analysis of the quilting bee as a speech event allows us to interpret these messages in order to understand what the quilt says about itself, its makers and their relationships” (1985: 64). I look forward to continue being able to observe that process.


1. This is in contrast to Dr. Susan Roach‘s paper “The Kinship Quilt: An Ethnographic Semiotic Analysis of a Quilting Bee.” Male relatives were asked to participate and some even sewed a few stitches on the quilt. Her 12-year-old nephew actually was there during the quilt gathering and sewed as well. “It seems then that nephew‘s presence at his home and his lack of other activities make him a potential participant. The men of the family who wandered in and out of the session did not seem to disapprove. In fact, two of the husbands, one of whom was the boy‘s father, were coaxed into trying their hands at a few stitches” (Roach 1985: 57).


Bauman, Richard. 1972. The La Have Island General Store: Sociability and Verbal Art in a Nova Scotia Community. Journal of American 85: 330-343.

___. 1984. Verbal Art as Performance. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.

___. 1992. Folklore, Cultural Performances, and Popular Entertainments: a Communications-Centered Handbook. New York and London: Oxford University Press.

Bergen, Fanny D. 2002. Quilts as Emblems of Women‘s Tradition. In Folk Nation: Folklore in the Creation of American Tradition, ed. Simon J. Bronner, 99-104. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources.

Bourgeois, Suzanne M. 2010. Interview by author. 29 Nov.

Brown, Mary Ellen. 1989. Woman, Folklore and Feminism. Journal of Folklore Research 26 (3): 259-64.

Dahlstrom, Larrie, Debbie Perron, Pat Anderson, Beverly Louviere, Henrietta Gossen, Joyce Breaux, Irene Guidry, and Suzanne M. Bourgeois. 2010. Interviews by author, August-November.

Graley, Lisa. 2008. A Quilt Is a Painting Is a Photograph Is a Quilt: An Interview with Hollis Chatelain. Interdisciplinary Humanities 25(2): 48-59.

How to Make an American Quilt. 1995. Film directed by Joycelyn Moorhouse. Los Angeles, CA: Universal Studios.

Manes, Claire. 2010. Interview by author, 19 November.

___. 2011. Interview by author, 29 June.

Mullen, Patrick B. 2010. Telephone interview by author, 8 November.

The Quilts of Gees Bend. 2003. DVD featuring members of the Gees Bend [Alabama] Quilting Bee. Museum of Fine Arts.

Roach, Susan. 1985. The Kinship Quilt: An Ethnographic Semiotic Analysis of a Quilting Bee. In Women‘s Folklore, Women‘s Culture, ed. Rosan Jordan and Susan Kalcik, 54-64. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Zeitlin, Steven, Mary Hufford, and Marjorie Hunt. 1987. The Grand Generation: Memory, Mastery, Legacy. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Marion P. Martin is a graduate student at the Univeristy of Louisiana at Lafayette. This article first appeared in the Louisiana Folklore Miscellany, Volume 21, 2011.