Meet Women Behind the Quilts of Gee's Bend That Changed America
Their patchwork masterpieces—exhibited in museums to nationwide acclaim—date back to the early 20th century.
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Every quilt has a story to tell, and the quilters of Gee's Bend have fostered quite a legacy for storytelling. For over a hundred years, the women who live in this small community in Southern Alabama have passed down the tradition of quilting from daughter to daughter, and each quilt reveals the personage who made it and the time period in which it was artfully stitched together. "It's been a continuous line of creation," says Raina A. Lampkins-Fielder, curator at Souls Grown Deep. "They've taken traditional quilt patterning and made it into their own, improvisational and unique."
Surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River, Gee's Bend (officially designated as Boykin) is a remote, rural community of about seven hundred people. Many of the residents in this community can trace their ancestry back to slaves from the Pettway Plantation. The quilters would take scraps of fabric, remnants of clothes that no longer fit, leftover material from sewing pillows—whatever they could resourcefully find—and turned them into quilts. Signature styles soon grew out of this tradition that expanded upon long-established patterns into a personalized form of expression referred to as "my way" meaning "how it spoke to them," explains Lampkins-Fielder.
Their Stories, Quilted
"The quilts tell the story of women craving and creating art despite poverty and hard, hard lives," says Susan Goldman Rubin, author of The Quilts of Gee's Bend. "When Missouri Pettway's husband died after a long illness, she made a quilt from his field trousers. She said, 'I'm going to take his work clothes, shape them into a quilt to remember him, and cover up under it for love.'"
Willie "Ma Willie" Abrams (born 1897), Delia Bennett (born 1892), Maggie Benning (born 1891), and others shared their quilting with their daughters so that it continued to pass down through the generations. "Quilting is, of course, a way to keep warm, but also a chance to reuse materials, like bedding, particularly if it means something to you. I recently spotted my first grade dress in a quilt made by my mother," says Mary Margaret Pettway, Souls Grown Deep Board Chair and a third generation quilter. "It's like always having a piece of your history nearby. Quilting also settles my mind. I can be at peace quilting. You can also create quite beautiful works."
In the Workclothes style quilts, for example, the women of Gee's Bend would use the materials of their husband's or their children's worn and outgrown clothes. "It was a way to transform these relics of a lived life," says Lampkins-Fielder. "You can see the different eras in the quilts." Over time, the quilts reveal a legacy of love and hardship through well-worn denim and colorful cloth faded from many washings.
Techniques and Patterns
Several styles of quilts have come out of Gee's Bend—and the quilts themselves are noted for their improvisational geometries; today, they are considered to be a foundational example of Black American visual art. Traditional patterns like Housetop and Half-Log Cabin take on new interpretations as seen through the eyes of the quilters. "Scraps of floral patterns, checks, and plaids are arranged in compositions that hold together to create exciting dynamic visuals," says Rubin. One of the quilts she cites from Nettie Jane Kennedy (born 1916) is a 20-block pattern using fabric to look like a row of framed paintings. "Each square within a square holds a different pattern—pale blue flowers, red blossom—framed by more patterns."
History Made and Remembered
Not only do they chronicle chapters of their own lives, they chronicle the history of a nation—everything from life in early emancipated colonies in the South to Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement of the mid-century. Much to the women's surprise, a selection of their quilts was featured in an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, in 2002. The exhibition then traveled to the Whitney Museum in New York City where they were described as "eye-poppingly gorgeous," by Michael Kimmelman, a critic for the New York Times. "Some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced." The Metropolitan Museum of Art has since exhibited its newly acquired collection of Gee's Bend quilts among other donated works. As of today, a curation of these quilts has been on a coast-to-coast tour of the country. In a talent that transcends generations, these quilts—and their makers—endure.