January 25, 2013

Quilting Crossroads: Gee's Bend, Alabama

Early on a Sunday morning now almost two weeks ago (but seems like yesterday!), Pete and i drove from Atlanta to Gee’s Bend, Alabama – a rural community on an oxbow in the Alabama River, about 30 miles southwest of Selma and the famous Edmund Pettus Bridge. Gee’s Bend is also known as Boykin, Alabama. The land stretches out far and wide in every direction. We turned off Route 5 and headed along County Road 29 for a ways...
...and then we could tell we were getting close because these colorful hand-painted murals of Gee's Bend quilts started popping up in people's yards. The gray of the day set the colors off so beautifully.
We learned that these were built and hand painted by Reverend McCloud (himself a resident quilter) in 2006, when ten Gee’s Bend quilts were featured on U.S. postage stamps. There’s also a sign that harkens to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s:
Gee's Bend became an important part of the mid-1960s Freedom Quilting Bee, which grew out of the Civil Rights movement and was designed to boost family income and foster community development by selling crafts. When not sewing in their homes, many of the quilters can be found here at the Quilter's Collective...
...which is where we met with the gracious, talented, and infectiously upbeat Mary Ann Pettway, who heads the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective. She learned to sew at a young age at her mother’s side. Here she is showing us a quilt she made using her favorite colors, red and black ...
...and another she made from scraps of old U.S. Postal Service shirts sent by a friend in California.
Here's another quilt Mary Ann made using old denim bluejeans and corduroy pant legs...
While quilting in Gee's Bend spans from slavery to today, it seems that it is not so much the longevity of the quilting tradition here, as it is the quilts themselves (most of them entirely handmade) that draw people to this remote place to learn more about the people who make them. The quilts' exuberant colors and convergent harmonies are like something out of a Matisse collage or Rothko painting. The people and the quilts are remarkable, and inseparable.

Then Mary Ann pulled these out of a plastic bag she had carried in with her...
WOW, huh? Look at all those beautiful blocks! They were all created and hand sewn by Mary Ann. She mentioned that she likes to sew these in the car on long rides … as a passenger. Yes, we were also relieved to hear she wasn't DWS (Driving While Sewing). I sure was surprised to see how small some of the pieces were. Look really carefully and you'll see what i mean! I asked Mary Ann if she ever has a quilt design in mind when she begins to sew. Her reply was that she does not. She sews when the spirit moves her and she picks colors she likes to see next to each other. Pete was quick to pull out his iphone to record a little of our chat-and-giggle...
I know the quality is not so great and the sound is a little hard to hear, but i'm sure you caught the most important part...Mary Ann loves making quilts! She loves it so much she can't stop. I have a hunch that some of you might know that feeling too. Just a hunch. I could have listened to her stories all day. As it was, we sat together side-by-side for almost two hours...talking (and mostly laughing)...
A terrific article in Smithsonian Magazine explains the background and how Gee’s Bend quilts gained international attention; and for a visual treat, check out Auburn University’s Gee’s Bend Quilts site.

As it was Sunday, Mary Ann kindly invited us to her church, the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Gee’s Bend. It was photographed in the 1930s by Arthur Rothstein for the U.S. Resettlement Department and visited by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in January 1965. There were about 80 people of all ages in the church and another 20 in the choir. We will always remember the inspiring music and sermon we heard that day, and how welcomed we were by everyone. After church, we joined Mary Ann, Pastor Lockett, Reverend McCloud, and the Pleasant Grove community for their semi-annual fellowship dinner in the adjacent hall. We had a great time and made some good friends – many of whom had visited or once lived in our town, Bridgeport, Connecticut. Small world!

On our way to catch the ferry from Gee’s Bend, MaryAnn took us to say a quick hello to her cousin and Gee’s Bend quilting legend, Mary Lee Bendolph.
Even while feeling a bit unworthy as a novice quilter, i was so happy to be in the company of these special ladies.
MaryAnn Pettway, me, and Mary Lee Bendolph at Mary Lee’s house
One of the quilts Mary Lee created (an image of this particular quilt can be found here on the Auburn site) has a pretty funny story behind it. As explained on that site:

In the early 1990s, a former Bend resident living in Bridgeport, Connecticut, sent some garments –double-knit leisure suits – to Gee's Bend. Mary Lee Bendolph remembers: "My sister-in-law's daughter sent those clothes down here and told me to give them away, but didn't nobody want them. That knit stuff, clothes from way back yonder, don't nobody wear no more, and the pants was all bellbottom. We ain't that out-of-style down here. I was going to take them to the Salvation Army but didn't have no way to get there, so I just made quilts out of them."

Although Mary Lee has been recovering from a stroke, she was full of good cheer and so hospitable the day we met her. I came away deeply moved and humbled by all the goodness and talents in Gee’s Bend, despite the various challenges they face. If you’ve got some extra fabric — other than double-knit leisure suits! — or sewing materials looking for a good home, by all means keep these women in mind.

Gee’s Bend Quilters
Attn. MaryAnn Pettway
14570 County Rd 29
Boykin, AL 36723

As the evening ferry pulled away from the shores of Gee's Bend, we left with uplifted spirits after spending a day with our new friends. If you’ve got a chance to visit, go (and give everyone a big hug for me).


  1. Oh I have just been reading up on the Gees Bend quilters as I like their simple styles and simple fabrics, just how patchwork should be!

  2. In August of this past year my family and I were in Nashville Tennessee for a birthday celebration/ vacation. I had heard of the Frist Museum previously but hadn't thought about it until it appeared on the first day of out stay in Nashville. There were huge banners outside the museum hanging from the walls advertising the show inside. My excitement grew as I read the banner - Quilts from Gee's Bend! So if you know me even a little bit you would know that I had to go inside to see the wonderful treasures there. It was impressive. I never thought that I would have the opportunity to actually see ANY of these quilts in person. It truly is a joy to see what these women made with love using materials that were on hand.
    So I can imagine how excited you were to have met one of these ladies of the cloth and needle so to speak!

  3. Thanks for sharing your visit to Gee's Bend with us so that we may enjoy meeting these lovely quilters, too ... :) Pat

  4. What a great story! You look like you had a spectacular time and those ladies look like a lot of fun!

  5. What a wonderful experience! I have always loved the artistry of the Gees Bend quilts, even before I started quilting. It must have been amazing to meet some of the women who keep the artistry alive!

  6. What a happy story, and so well told. Thanks so much for sharing...I'd never heard of this place or people, and will certainly be learning more!

  7. I love Gees Bend quilts and thanks for sharing this amazing experience. How fabulous to meet these wonderful and talented women. The postal services' quilt is stunning.

  8. What a fantastic story! Thank you for sharing with us :)

  9. Thanks so much for sharing this story! The 'quilter connection' is truely a special one. It is remarkable how alike we all are no matter our circumstance or location. Quilts are beautiful because beautiful people make them!

  10. Fabulous.Thahks for sharing this story!!

  11. I loved this Kate, Gee's Bend has always been a magical place in my mind, so much beauty and artistry coming from hard living. The Smithsonian article is fascinating, but you gave a face to these amazing women. Thank you.

  12. What an awesome day! Thanks for telling us all about it.

  13. Looks like you had such a great time. What a great experience :)

  14. What a wonderful trip! Thank you for taking us along with this post!

  15. Thank you so much for sharing your heart-warming story. It's a wet, miserable summer's morning here in Sydney Australia, but my day is so much brighter after reading your post.

  16. I don't know if I knew you're in Atlanta - I grew up there. I learned about Gee's Bend when I found a Gee's Bend quilt kit at Tuesday Morning of all places. Thanks for telling us about your journey!

  17. Oh my gosh, Kate. What an experience! That sounds like such an amazing day, one I'm sure you'll never forget! The quilts of Gee's Bend are some of my all-time favorites, and I'm happy that you were able to travel there!

    I love how Mary Ann described her process of hand piecing those stunning blocks...when the spirit moves and and without a real plan. So amazing!!

  18. What a great post! Thank you so much for sharing this with us. I'm always wanting to learn about and see more of the Gee's Bend Quilts and who made them. What a neat experience! This has to go on my bucket list, hehe.

  19. Wow Kate! It looks like you had a fabulous trip. How exciting that they welcomed you with open arms. Thanks for sharing your trip and photos!

  20. What a lovely post! I would love to go to Boykin, but I feel like I kind of did--thank you!

  21. I feel home sick to hear your voice... Said to Pete, I will respond to his email...

  22. If you want to learn alot more about Gee's Bend and the quiltmakers,there is a full episode titled "Gee's Bend the Most Famous Quilts in America?" in the 9 part documentary" Why Quilts Matter: History,Art&Politics" available on our website WhyQuiltsMatter.org or on Amazon.
    Shelly Zegart


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