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Black History Month Spotlight: Gee’s Bend Quilts

by Erin Austen Abbott

The History of Gee's Bend on Design*Sponge
Just 256 miles away from where I live in Mississippi is a small, predominantly black hamlet called Boykin, AL. Perched in the twists and turns of the Alabama River, inspired by the bend in the river that surrounds Boykin, the area is often referred to by its nickname, Gee’s Bend. After emancipation in 1863, the area of Gee’s Bend became sort of an anomaly for the South, as the slaves of Boykin turned to sharecroppers, eventually becoming the landowners they are today. The Great Depression later had a profound impact on the area, and the community saw a large portion of the already small population leave Gee’s Bend. To remedy the economic impact, the land that made up the former plantation was sold to the Federal Government and the Farm Security Administration, and Gee’s Bend Farms, Inc. was established. This pilot co-op project was intended to help sustain the inhabitants of the area. Tracts of land were sold to the former slaves that made up Gee’s Bend, which at the time, it was still rare for freed African American families to be landowners.

As early as the mid-19th century, a distinctive form of quilting was born in the area, passing from generation to generation of Gee’s Bend women. The first Gee’s Bend quilt was made in the early 1800s, although the exact year is unknown. For those women that stayed through the Great Depression, they finally started getting some of the credit they deserved for their quilting work.

The women of Gee’s Bend began quilting, as we know today, mostly out of necessity — because their shacks were without heat, they quilted for warmth. They didn’t know that they were shaping the way we see the art of quilting today, as such with this week’s unveiling of Michelle Obama’s portrait for the . The dress the former First Lady is wearing, painted by , was inspired by a Gee’s Bend quilt.

“Gee’s Bend quilts carry forward an old and proud tradition of textiles made for home and family. They represent only a part of the rich body of African American quilts. But they are in a league by themselves. Few other places can boast the extent of Gee’s Bend’s artistic achievement, the result of both geographical isolation and an unusual degree of cultural continuity. In few places elsewhere have works been found by three and sometimes four generations of women in the same family, or works that bear witness to visual conversations among community quilting groups and lineages. Gee’s Bend’s art also stands out for its flair — quilts composed boldly and improvisationally, in geometries that transform recycled work clothes and dresses, feed sacks, and fabric remnants,” an excerpt from , a site devoted to documenting, preserving, exhibiting and promoting art from the African American community of the South.

It wasn’t until the 1960s when the women were given a big boost for their work. The quilters were visited by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who stopped in to see them in 1965 on his way to Montgomery. The women also started receiving support for their work because of , who helped to bring their quilts to museums in the 1990s, giving the makers an international audience.

Image above: Blocks and Stripes Work-Clothes Quilt by one of the first-born Gee’s Bend quilters, , born in 1880. This quilt was made in 1935, from cotton, denim, and wool. Photo courtesy of . © 2018 [Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio] / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

History of Gee's Bend on Design*Sponge

Image above: Three quilters of Gee’s Bend, taken by Carol M. Highsmith for the Library of Congress on . 

We’ve probably all seen a quilt that was inspired by a Gee’s Bend quilt. The geometric shapes and uneven lines, the colorways and imperfect stitching, all together presenting a beautiful work of art. I can remember about 10 years ago when I saw my first Gee’s Bend quilt up close. I was at my neighbor’s house and I walked into the guest room, only to see the most beautiful quilt hanging on the wall. My neighbor mentioned that he had recorded and produced a gospel record by the women of Gee’s Bend and that was their gift to him. It was a Gee’s Bend Work Clothes style quilt, complete with writing on the denim, giving you a small peek at who once wore the discarded jeans. The magnitude of this gift was not lost on the recipient and it is truly cherished by him. The next time I saw a large collection of Gee’s Bend quilts was when my local had a show of about 30 of the quilts. I walked through the exhibit overwhelmed, knowing the hard work and community love that went into each piece, but sad to know that some of the women never got to see their hard work and art revered the way it is today.

History of Gee's Bend on Design*Sponge

The Women

Over time, around 120 different women have had a hand in producing an authentic Gee’s Bend quilt — all women and all passing down the art from generation to generation. Currently, there are 50 women that make up the , producing each quilt to be unique from the next. I would love to list all of their names, but here are the ones that originally began making the Gee’s Bend quilts, all born in the 1800s: Magdalene Wilson, Patty Ann Williams, Hannah Wilcox, Pearlie Irby Pettway, Henrietta Pettway, Lucy Mooney, Gertrude Miller, Rebecca Myles Jones, Maggie Benning, Delia Bennett, and Willie “Ma Willie” Abrams.

Image above: Gee’s Bend quilter,  (1923 – 2008) for . 

History of Gee's Bend on Design*Sponge

Styles of Gee’s Bend Quilts

The Work Clothes quilts are my personal favorite, because you get a look at the way fabric was not only repurposed, but also previously worn. From jeans with a worn-out knee, to old work shirts with a missing pocket to pieces of overalls or aprons, each piece is strategically placed to make it a work of art. Other styles include Abstract, the Bricklayer, Patterns, Geometric, and Sears Corduroy. The quilts of Gee’s Bend have been shown all over the world, from museum to museum. If you have the chance, please visit their work in person or on their , where you can learn how to support their organization. I hope you will take the time to scroll down below to see some of the incredible quilts these phenomenal women have made over the years.

Resources
— It’s a beautiful coffee table book, full of so much more history.
– — This book shares the story of the women that make up the Gee’s Bend legacy.
– — A non-profit organization that documents, preserves and promotes the work of leading contemporary African American artists from the Southeastern United States.

*Footnote: There are some people that don’t believe quilts of The Underground Railroad really were carrying messages and maps, and while we may never know the truth, I think it’s important to note the two sides of the argument.

Image above:   (1935 –  ) for . 

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“Bars” Work-Clothes Quilt by artist . Made in 1950. Photo courtesy of . © 2018 [Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio] / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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Blocks, Strips, Strings, And Half Squares by artist  Made in 2005. Photo courtesy of  © 2018 [Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio] / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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“Housetop” Medallion by artist . Made in 2003. Photo courtesy of © 2018 [Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio] / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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“Bars” Work-Clothes Quilt by artist . Made in 1950. Photo courtesy of  © 2018 [Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio] / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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Blocks And Strips Work-Clothes Quilt by artist . Made in 1950. Photo courtesy of . © 2018 [Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio] / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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“Housetop”—Single-Block “Log Cabin” Variation by artist . Made in 1965. Photo courtesy of . © 2018 [Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio] / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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Medallion Work-Clothes Quilt by artist . Made in 1974. Photo courtesy of . © 2018 [Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio] / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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Bricklayer Variation by artist . Made in 1975. Photo courtesy of . © 2018 [Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio] / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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“Log Cabin”—”Courthouse Steps” (Local Name: “Bricklayer”) Single-Block Variation by artist . Made in 1970. Photo courtesy of . © 2018 [Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio] / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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Work-Clothes Quilt With Center Medallion Of Strips by artist . Made in 1976. Photo courtesy of . © 2018 [Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio] / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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“Thousand Pyramids” Variation by artist . Made in 1930. Photo courtesy of . © 2018 [Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio] / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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“Nine Patch”—”Basket Weave” Variation by artist . Made in the 1940s. Photo courtesy of . © 2018 [Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio] / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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“Doves Of The Window” Variation by artist . Made in 1955. Photo courtesy of . © 2018 [Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio] / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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“Birds In Flight” Variation by artist . Made in the the 1940s. Photo courtesy of . © 2018 [Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio] / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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“Log Cabin” Variation by artist . Made in 1990. Photo courtesy of . © 2018 [Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio] / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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“Blocks” by artist . Made in 1975. Photo courtesy of  © 2018 [Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio] / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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“Lazy Gals” (“Bars”) by artist . Made in 1975. Photo courtesy of . © 2018 [Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio] / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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“Housetop” by artist Qunnie Pettway. Made in 1975. Photo courtesy of  © 2018 [Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio] / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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Work-Clothes Quilt by artist . Made in 2002. Photo courtesy of . © 2018 [Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio] / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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Blocks And Strips Work-Clothes Quilt by artist . Made in the 1950s. Photo courtesy of . © 2018 [Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio] / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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“Housetop” Variation by artist . Made in 2004. Photo courtesy of . © 2018 [Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio] / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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Comments

  • Wonderful joyous and practical quilts. Thank you for this article and for collecting so many examples of the quilts here. It’s timely, given the new portrait of Michelle Obama, and the Gee’s Bend inspiration represented in her dress.

  • These are amazing! I recently made my first quilt top using mostly old jeans that were too beat up for donation, but in good enough shape that I was loathe to just throw them away. It’s no wonder I love the work clothes quilts the best. I know it was often difficult circumstances that led to the need to reuse so many materials in practical ways, but, my gosh, what beauty these women created nonetheless.

  • Thank you for sharing the story of Gee`s Bend. I saw the first exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston in the 1990s. It has stuck with me for more than 20 years. The quilts hanging on the white gallery walls stand on their own as powerful works of art without any knowledge of the stories behind them. But once you learn their history, that they were objects created out of necessity and from often repurposed materials, so intertwined with the lives of their creators, their impact takes on new meaning. The work of women, and more so women of color, and especially home textile arts is so often dismissed and undervalued. The quilts of Gee`s Bend are such a thrilling exception. What I really love about Design Sponge is how you make design and home about supporting and celebrating creativity, diversity and empowerment of women. Thank you!

  • I have known about these for quite a while now, actually have a small book about them but would love to see them in person, do you know if they they are on permanent exhibit anywhere, Looking at the website it seems as if they havent been on exhibit in a while, too bad because they are absolutely wonderful. Great article and so cool to know that Michelle Obamas dress in the portrait was a homage to these incredible works of art!

    • The Souls Grown Deep Foundation has recently donated quilts to the de Young Museum in San Francisco, where they are on exhibit through April. The High Museum in Atlanta will show their quilts in June, and the Metropolitan Museum will have an exhibit in May. Quilts have also been donated to the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I don’t know when they will go on display. I have been working with the quilters since 2003, producing rugs based on their designs and paying the women a royalty. What an honor to work with these lovely, talented women! The rugs are at . Barbara Barran

  • Thank you for this wonderful article. When I was expecting my first child I contacted the ladies of Gee’s Bend to see if I could have a baby quilt made and they kindly acknowledged my request. The quilt is one that I cherish and my now 18 year old daughter will have to pass on to a future grandchild..

  • I’ve loved gees bend quilts for a long time and this article was wonderful. I could look at the quilts for a long time and never pick a favorite. My favorite American art for sure.

  • Thank you for this great article–informative and beautiful to look at too!
    It’s still possible to find a DVD on Gee’s Bend as well “The Quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend”, Produced by Celia Carey for apt (Alabama Public Television), 2004, 60 min, your local library may have it:

  • I saw the quilts in person when they were touring the country about 20 years ago. No art has touched me more deeply, or stayed with me so vividly, since. Thanks for a great article.

  • Most knowledgeable quilt historians do not believe in the idea of a network of Underground Railroad quilts (check this from the International Quilt Study Center and Museum – ), so I appreciate your footnote; however, the two sides of the argument probably should have been addressed within the article rather than mentioned as a footnote. Regardless of the debate, I always enjoy seeing the quilts of Gee’s Bend featured and appreciate you bringing attention to them here.

  • It’s great your featuring these quilts but to mention the underground railroad quilts in the same article is not helping your point. Gee’s Bend are real quilts, where as are there is zero evidence (physical or first hand account) that underground railroad quilts even existed. That’s not an opinion. You need more than a footnote to clarify this, check your sources next time.

    • Molly

      We’re looking into this now and will remove the reference if it’s not able to be backed up. I did a quick search and agree it appears to be a controversial study based on the methods used by the historians.

      Grace

  • Karen and Molly- I hear you that the connection between quilting and Underground Railroad isn’t universally accepted. But I do not think it is universally denied, either. I have spoken with scholars and historians, in the past, that adamantly believe these quilts existed and those that do not. I have visited museums, such as Slave Haven, in Memphis, TN that fully believe they did exist. I thank you for bringing up the other side of the quilting/Underground Railroad connection, as it opens up discussion about research and how information is interpreted, which is never a bad thing. I hope that you can enjoy celebrating the women of Gee’s Bend, as they are the main focus of this piece. Thank you.

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