Home & Garden Columns

The Women of Gee’s Bend and Their Quilts

By Marta Yamamoto, Special to the Planet
Friday September 15, 2006

“We never wasted anything. We worked hard, had a starvation life. We didn’t have much but we enjoyed life. How did we quilt? We cut blocks. Put the blocks together. Think in your mind, um, I can do it. We sew the blocks together.” 

—Nettie Young 


These simple words document a life of hardship and joy and the simple formula for making a quilt. Four generations of the women from Gee’s Bend and their extraordinary collection of quilts is the subject of the fine exhibit at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. 

While the quilts are expertly hung in all their artistic and functional glory, it is the 42 women that remind us of the strength of the human spirit. Through the black and white portraits, faces’ reflecting joy and hardship; personal narratives and gospel music, the viewer is invited into a living history sharing in their families, religion and feelings about their art. 

The story begins in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, land formed by a loop in the Alabama River, described as “home to the richest soil and the poorest people” in the United States. The isolation caused by geography, poverty and indifference also gave rise to cultural and artistic continuity, as evidenced by the body of work produced by the women of this town. 

As early as the 1800’s slave women of the Pettway plantation began the process of “piecing up,” using rags to create bedspreads. In the early 1900s slavery had been abolished but quilting continued by necessity as a means of providing warmth in drafty wood houses. Nothing was wasted or thrown out—worn work clothes, shirt and dress tails, out grown garments, fabric from the clothing of loved ones. Cotton sheeting, denim, flour and sugar sacks and later, double knits and corduroy—all found second and third lives as quilts. 

On display are no ordinary, strictly utilitarian quilts; they’re artistic expressions in the fullest. Vibrant with life and energy, the bold geometric shapes are arranged in small and large scale resembling a finely tuned yet free-wheeling improvisation. The unusual patterns, colors and textures hold your eye and draw you in.  

Using basic patterns as a springboard, each quilter proceeds to piece her quilt “My Way”, developing her own style. Regardless of age, she lays out her pieces in a way to express her own personality. What made these elders so wise as to recognize the importance of promoting creativity within the safety of a supportive community? Their motto of “Piece by yourself, quilt together” speaks volumes. 

The earliest Work Clothes Quilts take the viewer back to the 1930s, the apex of poverty in America. Lucy Mooney’s Blocks and Strips presents large pieces in faded lavender, peach, tan, black and blue with flowing lines of curved stitching flowing across. Missouri Pettway constructed a quilt from her deceased husband’s old torn up work clothes, holding his memory in the warmth the quilt provided. Both are still-life portraits of hard, yet joyful lives. 

During the video, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, we meet Loretta Pettway, a woman whose character is etched in her face and words. She describes her hard life—in the field all day, then home to do the chores for her family. Only then does she turn to quilting, staying up until 2 or 3 a.m. She quilts out of necessity, rather than desire, yet her artistry is striking. A color photograph shows Loretta framed in the window of her house. The lovely colors of turquoise and tan from the wood planks and window trim are repeated in her expressive Housetop Quilts, where somber strips are added around a solid central block. 

The Housetop pattern is repeated often in the exhibit. One of the oldest quilts shown is that of Rachel Carey George. Old dress fabric and printed feed sacks are arranged in concentric strips. In Rachel’s narrative we learn how every scrap was used and reused no matter how faded or worn. Lillie Mae Pettway’s Housetop sports vibrant colors that jump out in spirited celebration. 

More recent works continue the “nothing goes to waste” philosophy. When sent a supply of double knit leisure suits that residents were too savvy to wear, Mary Lee Bendolph transformed them into vibrant quilts. In the 1970s Sears contracted with the women to make corduroy pillow shams. The scraps from this new medium, soft, hefty and reflective, were not wasted. Arcola Pettway’s Lazy Gal Bars displays full width strips in bold earth tones, exuding warmth and comfort. 

Mary Lee Bendolph, the elder, loves what she makes, the women with which she quilts and the gospels they sing. Her age entitles her to only do what she wants, and she chooses to quilt. Her daughter, Essie Bendolph Pettway, makes quilts as a way of getting old clothes out of the house. In the video she muses on the good feeling she gets from hanging her quilts on the fence along the highway, their colors taking her attention from everything else. She expresses pride that someone would want to purchase one and hang it on the wall.  

There is no pretension to these women. Annie Mae Young puts their artlessness into perspective. “You just put the pieces together like a puzzle, nothing fancy. What’s it called? Quilt.” She doesn’t want to do anything else. At the entrance to the exhibit hangs her Center Medallion, a center of bright orange, yellow and brown strips surrounded by bands of blues in varying hues. Big pieces and long strips, pulsating with energy yet so deeply moving that you’ll want to take the image home. 

World events may cause us to despair, as countries struggle and acts of violence never seem to abate. Gasoline prices soar while we melt the ice caps and destroy habitat. Spending an hour with the women of Gee’s Bend and their artistic expressions won’t alter the state of the world, but will rejuvenate your spirit. Their lives were harder than most of us can ever imagine, but they were able to find joy and fulfillment expressing themselves in their quilts. Their strength is contagious and heart warming. Stare into their faces, read their words, rejoice in their work.