The Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers

Gee’s Bend is a village nestled in a bend of the Alabama river. Here, the skill of quilting has been passed down through generations of African-American women since the 19th century. Made to be used during the cold winters, the quilts were traditionally taken outside in the spring to be aired out. They were laid over washing lines and fences to be examined and enjoyed by neighbours, providing an opportunity to compare work and seek inspiration.

The quilts in the exhibition The Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers at Alison Jacques Gallery span almost a century of quiltmaking. The earliest was made by Annie E. Pettway in around 1930, and the most recent in 2019 by Loretta Pettway Bennett. Different generations of the same family are displayed together, mother beside daughter beside granddaughter. Most of the people who live in Gee’s Bend are descended from enslaved people, and the surname “Pettway” — the name of the plantation owner — is common among the quilters.

I love the way that the quilts on display have clearly been used and loved. The value of art and objects is so often predicated on their condition, from art at auction to books on eBay. We prefer to buy things that are in mint condition, that are “like new”. But why — especially in museums — do we want to hide an object’s history? Why do we have this obsession with perfection, maintaining and preserving it forever?

Left: Candis Mosely Pettway, Coat of Many Colors (quilting bee name), 1970
Right: Qunnie Pettway, Housetop, c.1975

The stitching in this part of the quilt has come loose, this one is faded, this one stained. A clumsy child spilling a drink, scolded by their mother who spent so long toiling over the used scraps of material, fashioning beauty from clothes and fabric which themselves show the signs of use, of labour, of summer days and bitter mornings, of childhoods long gone and grandparents no longer here.

My nana also kept scraps — a beautiful dress too worn to wear, the leftovers from making that favourite jacket, and even the frilly bit from a pair of knickers. When she died last year, my mum and I went through bags and drawers full of material she had kept and wondered what to do with it all. How wonderful to sew them together and create something new, something to keep, containing the stories from my nana’s decades of making and treasuring.

In the white gallery, some quilts are hung on the walls like paintings. One elderly, fragile quilt rests on a plinth. Two are hung from the ceiling. With just a little imagination, I could almost see them swaying gently in the breeze, hung out on a washing line, touched by many hands, and awash with the sun of a new spring. 

Hear quiltmaker Mary Lee Bendolph talk about the quilts going from hanging outside to hanging in museums (not sure why this is in black and white!)

Loretta Pettway Bennett, Work-clothes strips, 2003
This is made from jeans worn by her husband, sons, and herself.
Quilts (l-r): Annie E. Pettway, ‘Housetop’ – nine-block variation, c.1930; America Irby, Center Medallion, c.1940; Essie Bendolph Pettway, Two-sided quilt: Blocks and ‘One Patch’ – stacked squares and rectangles variation, 1973; and Loretta Pettway, Two-sided work-clothes quilt: Bars and blocks, c.1960

4 responses to “The Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers”

  1. How lovely, a great solution that preserves those treasured memories, occasions that can only now be reflected upon. Nostalgia that is welcomed with sweet tears. Thank you for a lovely read.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You reference such an important art form. In the video clip, Mary Lee speaks so humbly of the joy the hanging quilts gave them, not realising at the time they were artists. They were women and they were black, so not esteemed. It would be wonderful to see them in colour.
    So many called Pettway – heartbreaking reminder of the cruelty.
    There is some more recognition of the importance of these old quilts, just like the Japanese Sashiko. Wouldn’t it be lovely if the Tate held more textile exhibitions?The Anni Albers a few years ago was wonderful.
    Thanks for this article. I’ve really enjoyed it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for reading and for your comments, Paula! There is a great talk here with two of the quilters Loretta Pettway Bennett and Mary Margaret Pettway if you are interested:

      The Anni Albers exhibition was great and Tate has some wonderful textile works in the collection, some of which are on display in the galleries. Would be wonderful to see more though! The Magdalena Abakanowicz exhibition that was supposed to be on last year has sadly been postponed:


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