Gee’s Bend Quilting Collective
In honor of Black History Month, I would like to commend the women of Gee's Bend, Alabama. This amazing group of women and daughters took a necessity and made it into art. I am so inspired by their creative process that uses recycled clothing to make one-of-a-kind quilts.
The Gee’s Bend Collective is a group of women quilters who were born and raised in Boykin, Alabama, otherwise known as Gee’s Bend. This is an isolated town from most of the state due to the Alabama River bordering on three sides of the community with one bridge and a poor ferry system. The women meet regularly to work on quilting and fellowship. They have strong faith and sing praise songs while they quilt. Many of the women are part of their local church choirs. Mary Ann Pettway is the manager of the Quilting Collective and teaches at the Collective Retreats held each year, although 2021 retreats have been canceled due to COVID-19.
This small town was originally a plantation started in 1816 by Joseph Gee. (It was most likely indigenous Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, or Creek before Joseph ever got there.) Mr. Gee brought with him his family and 17 slaves who worked from sunrise to sunset. The plantation was later sold to Mark Pettway in 1845. Many more slaves were brought or born onto the land. Most of the population of Gee’s Bend are descendants of slaves and have 'Pettway' for their last name. This is because their ancestors had to take the last name of the white owners, striping the slaves of any personal identity, however quilting was one way for slaves to bring a little of their culture back to their lives.
During the 1960’s, department stores such as Sears, Bloomingdales and Saks commissioned the women to make “fancy” quilts for the New York markets. “The stitching was tiny and perfect”, said Lucy Mingo. Again they were trying to make a living for the families. In 1965, the Civil Rights movement came to Gee’s Bend. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at a rally and said, "You are somebody!" This gave the women courage to keep striving for peace and freedom. The “Freedom Quilting Bee” was founded during the Civil Rights movement as a way for Gee’s Bend women to have a voice.
The women and girls of Gee’s Bend are proud of their heritage. Louisiana Pettway Bendolph stated, “She has never been ashamed of who she is or where she came from.” Louisiana is a 4th generation quilter and started at the age of 12. She did not want to quilt but it was expected of all the young girls in the community. She has since learned to enjoy the craft saying, “She inherited the quilts and skills of her mother and won’t stop the tradition.” Mary Ann Pettway, who serves as manager for the Collective states, “she didn’t have beds growing up, so her mother made quilts for padding and warmth to sleep on the floor.” Mary Ann learned quilting in her early teen years as well and has taught her daughters and granddaughters to quilt. Now they are able to sell the quilts.
Lucy Mingo has said with her southern drawl, “People want the old-style quilts now, they don’t want the ‘fancy” quilts anymore. People want to see the stitches.” Lucy began quilting at age 14. She still has her first quilt, “Robbing Peter to Pay Paul.”
(Lucy Mingo's first quilt: "Robbing Peter to Pay Paul")
In the 1990’s Bill Arnett, an art collector, saw a photo of Annie May Young with her great granddaughter. Annie May’s quilts were pictured laying on a pile of firewood as they stood next to them. Bill saw the quilts as modern art and he acquired a large collection. It is reported that over 4 years he spent 1.3 million dollars for 500 quilts. In 2002 the Quilting Collective gained recognition by displaying 70 of the many quilts Bill had acquired. The quilts went on tour to multiple cities and museums around the nation including the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.
(Annie May Young, Souls Grown Deep, Image: Roland Freeman 1993)
The signature style of quilting is freeform. They do not follow traditional block patterns. (Although they are very proficient at these too.) The quilts are made from scraps of old shirts, jeans, and clothes the children grew out of. The family did not throw any material away. It could always be used in a quilt. This is where the distinctive style is derived from. Small scraps put together in a semi-random way as to make each one unique.
Mary Ann said, "People have told her that they are famous, but she doesn’t feel any different than before." She goes on to say, "that they were an old farming community that had little to live on, but now they have the income from the quilts (selling from $200 up to $20,000) to help pay for necessities and then a little extra, like buying a car and paying off her house." Things that many Americans take for granted, they have strived for all their lives.
(Mary Ann and China Pettway singing Praise Hymns)
People come from all over the world to visit the little town of Gee’s Bend and attend the retreats. Many visitors want to take a souvenir home so the collective sells some of the quilts. The proceeds are split between the makers of the quilt and the Collective to cover expenses and distribute funds to the other members. They give generously and expect nothing. They respect others and hope to receive respect in return. These women are amazing and a true inspiration.
(The Gee's Bend Collective has won multiple awards for their beautiful art work.)
I plan to attend the 2022 Retreat and invite you to join as well. Registration for the retreat begins in April 2021. You can get on the notification list on their website: https://www.geesbendquiltingretreats.com/gees-bend-quilting-collective.html
If you have been inspired by someone email me and I would love to share your story. I want to hear about you and your journey.
Sandra Geffre, Owner Culture of Fabric
Gee's Bend Collective 2021, Mary Ann Pettway, accessed January 20, 2021 <https://www.geesbendquiltingretreats.com/contact.html>
Craft In America, Gee's Bend Quilters & Joe Cunningham Industry episode. October 30, 2014, accessed January 20, 2021 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i6kcRkapFKk&t=281s>
(Photos curtesy of Flickr)