Digital Media Center
Bryant-Denny Stadium, Gate 61
920 Paul Bryant Drive
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487-0370
(800) 654-4262

© 2024 Alabama Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Alabama Gee's Bend quilt makers go "online"

APR's Lynn Oldshue
Mary Ann Pettway works on her latest Gee's Bend quilt

The forecast this week calls for highs in the 90s. Considering the heat, this may seem like an odd time to talk about quilts. These stitched blankets typically come out of the closet during cold winter nights. But, this story isn’t about average quilts. It’s about Gee’s Bend quilts, which are prized by collectors and featured in museums. This stitching tradition began in the town of Boykin, southeast of Selma back in the 1920s. Generations of women stitched Gee’s Bend quilts by hand to keep warm. Supporters of this unique art form are working on two fronts to preserve this century old tradition.

"If my grandmother was still alive. She would not believe what it turned into,” Claudia Pettway said.

She lives in Gee's Bend where rusted tin roofs look like quilts and the loudest sounds come from birds and bugs in the woods. Pettway learned how to sew from her grandmother

“We didn't see it coming,” she said. “We looked at the quilts as what they were, just some old quilts on the bed. Not knowing they would turn into masterpieces later.”

Credit Virginia Museum of Fine Art
A visitor to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts admires a Gee's Bend quilt on display.

And the term “masterpiece” isn’t an exaggeration. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has a permanent exhibit of Gee’s Bend quilts on display.

Residents also have poverty to deal with. The average income in Gee’s Bend is $12,000. Pettway said she’s watching a new arrangement that might help.

“I wish the relationship with Nest and Etsy had come sooner,” Pettway said. “We didn't receive what we should have received back then. We just didn't know. So many details were left out.”

NEST is a non-profit organization that helps local artists and craftsmen make money at what they do. Etsy is an online marketplace where Gee’s Bend quilt makers are meeting customers willing to pay up to $5,000 for a quilt. Pettway said it wasn’t always like that.

“A lot of people didn't have business sense or business thinking,” Pettway recalled. “We took what people says to be true and just had faith that they would do it. We get to make it up with this new relationship between NEST and Etsy. We are very grateful for that site. They're transparent and break it down so that all of us have a good understanding of how it works and what to expect.”

Credit APR's Lynn Oldshue
A Gee's Bend quilt made by Lillie Mae Pettway

Gee's Bend Place is the name of Pettway's store on Etsy where she sells quits, shares stories and gets to know her customers. It’s already a success.

“I have had more sales this year because the outlet had more publicity. Because of COVID, we couldn't go to the trade and craft shows that we normally attended. So that had a huge impact on our bottom line,” Pettway said.

She said the online stores also give the younger generation a chance to get into quilting and keep the Gee's Bend traditions alive.

“There are no job opportunities in Gee's Bend,” she said. “So we would have to go to Selma, Camden or even Montgomery and Birmingham to find jobs. That leaves the community with a very small group. The younger ones are becoming more interested in quilting. so we can pass down the craft to the next generation and continue to grow. I have a teenage daughter who works with me. She is learning to do it on her own. We are continuing on because we don't want quilting to become a dying art."

Most of the quilters are descendants of the original slaves brought to the Pettway plantation at Gee's Bend. Surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River, the area was cut off from the outside world for almost 100 years. It became the poorest community in the nation's poorest county. Quilts were made out of necessity, not art. Women patched quilts together from worn-out clothes, curtains, fertilizer bags, or burlap. The blankets were used as beds on the floor, covers and rugs. When the quilts became too ragged for warmth, they were ripped up and used for mops or beds for the family dog. For some it’s a tradition as much as a business.

“Mama died before this got started. When she made her quilt, she did it for us,” said Mary Ann Pettway, no relation to Claudia.

She’s worked at the Gee's Bend Quilter’s Collective for 16 years.

Credit APR's Lynn Oldshue
Gee's Bend quilt artist Mary Ann Pettway

“When we were growing up, we didn't have beds to lay on,” Mary Ann remembered. “We had to lay on the floor. She made quilts for us to lay on the floor and quilts to cover up. That's why she was making all those quilts. I'm the seventh of 12 children. She had to make quilts out of old clothes that we had worn.”

Mary Ann learned to quilt from her mother. The collective gives women a place to sell their quilts and keep the art alive. She returned to quilting after the sewing plant closed and she needed a way to pay her bills. Mary Ann doesn't start out with a plan for the quilt. The design appears as she sews.

“There is a flower song I sang,” she said. “I don't want nobody praising me when I'm gone. Give me my flower while I yet live. It goes like this. I hope I remember it y'all. You have to excuse me if I make an error.”

Buyers of Gee’s Bend quilts are helping to keep this tradition and this community alive.

Editor's Note-- Many thanks for the Black Belt Community Foundation for help with this story.

News from Alabama Public Radio is a public service in association with the University of Alabama. We depend on your help to keep our programming on the air and online. Please consider supporting the news you rely on with a donation today. Every contribution, no matter the size, propels our vital coverage. Thank you.