The quilt looks more like a piece of weaving. Long, thin, colorful strips -- periwinkle, red flowers, a march of blue dots -- are stacked in rows that resemble layers of earth. The quiltmaker, Thomas Covington, didn't bother to cut the quilt's corners at 90 degrees. But there is some semblance of a square here -- and lots of poetry.

This kind of variation of rhythm, metaphor and image is what you'll find at "Man Made: African-American Men and Quilting Traditions," at the Anacostia Museum until June 28. More than 50 quilts, made by black men from the age of 9 to 105, are displayed with biographical text on each artist. There is a two-way communication between the text and quilt. The text tells us about the artists. And the quilts respond with their stories.

Made with the fabric, motifs and sensibilities of their particular times and circumstances from slave days to the present day, the quilts function like documents. With such a rich context, you can forget at times that what makes this show unique is that the quilts were created by men. We've been taught that men are supposed to have the same relationship to quilting that women have to, say, monster trucks.

"If you take a picture of me quilting, I'll kill you," a man is reported to have told a well-known folklorist doing field work in Georgia. The researcher had come upon the man quilting under a tree. Researchers believe that because of the taboo against men doing women's work, many quilts believed to be made by women were actually made by men.

Covington pieced his asymmetrical quilt when he was more than 90 years old and living in Alabama. He was born in Lincoln, Miss., in 1877 to parents who had lived to adulthood under slavery. He eventually owned his own large farm and was a man of many skills, from building houses to repairing shoes. He also pieced quilts on rainy days for his wife, three sons and three daughters.

Covington's wife also made quilts, apparently quite nice ones. His youngest daughter, Carlena White, remembers that her father didn't measure as he made his quilts but "would just sew what he had." She said her mother's quilts were taken more seriously by the children, who, in contrast, always thought their dad's quilts "were funny."

Joe Washington was born in 1879 and moved to Hawkins, Tex., in 1940 to live with his son and daughter-in-law, Ruby Richard, a quiltmaker. There, at more than 60 years of age, he created quilts from pieces of old work clothes. His quilts include patches from blue or striped denim jeans, overalls and khakis arranged to create a balance of color.

Thomas Mack, 75, gives his quilts names based on their materials, such as "Burlap," "Flour Sack" and "Wool Scraps." "Flour Sack" is made up of rows of identical cotton flour bags that read: "ALLEN BROS. MILLING CO. CAROLINA GEM SELF-RISING FLOUR -- COLUMBIA AND GREENWOOD, SOUTH CAROLINA. (Add Shortening, Lard, Butter and any good substitute. Mix with Fresh Buttermilk {Preferred}, or can use Sweet Milk or Water. Make Soft Dough. Have Hot Oven. Bake Quick. Don't Use Baking Powder, Soda or Salt.)" Mack, who was born in St. Helena, S.C., moved to New York to work for the federal government and also trained as a tailor. It was as a tailor that he began saving scraps from the custom dresses he designed and made. For a while, he gave the scraps to his mother-in-law to use in her quilts. Then he started using them himself.

Most of the men in this show were taught by women -- mothers, aunts, grandmothers, wives. So the curator, Gladys-Marie Fry, says she "cannot say with any certainty whether a recognizably masculine aesthetic is present." But the exhibit does enter the debate within art circles about whether African American quilts -- especially those like Covington's, with asymmetrical shapes fashioned from strips of cloth -- bear African influence. Scholars who argue that such a link exists compare this African American strip style to the tradition of narrow woven strips of cloth, such as kente and mudcloth, made in West Africa and then sewn together to create whole pieces of fabric. They also cite as African influences applique and patchwork techniques, as well as recurring pictorial motifs such as diamonds, triangles, stars and circles.

Even without knowledge of or interest in these debates, however, we can see in this show something about the actual fabric of lives.

The oldest quilts were made by slaves. One of these, with a design of green vines, leaves and flowers, is attributed to a man named "Yellow Bill" who created the quilt as a gift in 1852 for his owner's wife. The other, with faded red, white and blue embroidered squares, is believed, based on historical records, to have been stitched and quilted by a 16-year-old boy in South Carolina.

Most of the quilts constructed with available materials speak volumes about the resourcefulness born of scarcity. Recalling the quilting traditions of his childhood in South Carolina, Mack told an interviewer:

"The quilts were made from whatever was available -- old clothes, feed sacks, flour sacks, pieces of burlap, et cetera. In other words, you take whatever you have on hand and make something out of it. The quilts themselves provided the bulk of the family's bed covering."

Work displayed by contemporary quilters illustrate how the impetus to quilt has left the realm of survival and necessity and entered the world of sheer creative expression.

Quilts by Raymond Dobard, associate professor of art history at Howard University, have names like "Morning Stars by Evening Light" and "Tranquility" and have the studied and deliberate qualities of stained glass or mosaic. Similarly, Mack's "Indigo" deliberately plays on subtle tones of blue, purple and green. Paul Buford, who was born in 1918 and is also a watercolorist, makes no pretense that his quilts are for anything other than hanging. He crafts faces, houses and landscapes into his poster-size quilts that often depict moments in history -- for example, a ride of the Buffalo Soldiers -- that resonate for his generation. The Smithsonian's Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture, at 1901 Fort Pl. SE, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. CAPTION: Quilter and art historian Raymond Dobard at work on "Flower Wreath," on exhibit at Anacostia Museum through June 28.