A Teeny Tiny Intro to Gee’s Bend

Wow! Honestly, I thought if I know about Gee’s Bend, EVERYONE must know about Gee’s Bend! But not everyone does. So I’ll tell ya a little….

Annie Mae Young, born 1928. Strips, corduroy, ca. 1975, 95 x 105 inches 

I’ll start with a little about me… Ha! I got ya interested in Gee’s Bend, but I’m telling ya about me! hehehe… tricky, huh!

So I grew up in Southern AL, across the bay from Mobile, and my grandmother lived in the middle of AL in a little town called Marion. The back roads were the ones we took to get from one spot to the other. And on the way to my grandmother’s house, there was a sign for Gee’s Bend and maybe a ferry or something, I forget, but I always wondered what was there… Never went…

So fast forward like, 25 years… I had moved away from AL, started sewing… Seeing more and more quilts. But quilts always intimated me. I wondered how in the world anyone made them. Then my confusion got the best of me and I started really, actually looking at quilts. Not just in passing. Then it hit me! Um! Easy! You just sew little pieces together to make bigger pieces then you sew those bigger pieces together until it gets bigger and bigger… But, even though I had figured out how the quilts went together, still quilts kinda struck me as an old lady thing… Sorry, but it did.

Lillie Mae Pettway, 1927-1990. “Housetop”–twelve-block “Half-Logcabin” variation, ca. 1965, cotton, wool corduroy, 77 x 65 inches

Then I saw the Gee’s Bend quilts. It was one of those super Ah Ha! moments for me! It changed my whole perspective on quilting! Seriously! I’m not kidding! I forget the details of that moment, like where I was or if it was a book, a website, or what. But whatever it was, I was struck by the quilting bug! I fell in love and realized that quilts aren’t an old lady thing and they can be anything!!! After that it was all over! I became obsessed and my world was opened to the world of the Modern Quilt and all the bright awesome fabrics. Before I didn’t even imagine that some of the traditional patterns could be transformed into something bright and modern! I don’t know why this had never occurred to me before, but…

So, I have to say that these quilts from this tiny spot hidden away in Alabama is what brought me into the fold of quilters!

Florine Smith, born 1948, four-block strips, ca. 1975, corduroy, 68 x 81 inches.

OK, so back to the point here. Gee’s Bend!

Gee’s Bend is actually just that, a very small town tucked snugly away in a sharp bend of the Alabama River. It’s like a peninsula hidden away in the middle of the state.

image via Samford University Library 

The town is actually named Boykin, but it’s better known by the name Gee’s Bend. The settlement began as a plantation and the quilters began as slaves on the plantation and descendants of these people. The slaves were emancipated, the plantation was no longer, the plantation owners moved on, but the workers and their families stayed and this community has kept going ever since.

Annie Bendolph, 1900-1981. “Thousand Pyramids” variation, ca. 1930, cotton sacking and chambray, 83 x 70 inches

The quilts were made out of necessity from what they had, clothes, work clothes, dress clothes, food sacks, etc… Yes, this probably happened everywhere, right? But it’s the seclusion and the very tight sense of community and the passing down of the art from one generation to the next that makes Gee’s bend stand out among the rest. These things and the amazing sense of color and composition that was integrated into these utilitarian necessities.

Lucy Mooney, ca. 1880-1969. Blocks and strips work-clothes quilt, ca 1935, cotton, denim, wool, 87 x 68 inches.

I’ve read a couple of places that the quilters didn’t see their quilts as pieces of art! They certainly are in my eyes!

My favorites are the Corduroy Quilts! There was a period where some of the women worked in a nearby factory making corduroy pillows for Sears and they would bring home the scraps and make the most FANTASTIC quilts out of them!

Essie Bendolph Pettway, born 1956, multiple columns of blocks and bars, 1980, corduroy, 93 x 75 inches.

The community has been documented over the years for different reasons here and there, but it was in the 1990′s, from my understanding, when the quilts ‘were discovered’ and brought out of Gee’s Bend for the world to see. And for the world to collect! The quilts have been made over 100 years, but it’s only in the last 10 or 15 years that the quilts have made their way into the big fancy museums in NYC and San Francisco, etc….

Linda Pettway, born 1929, “Housetop” — eight-block variation, ca. 1975, corduroy, 86 x 71 inches

Like I said at the beginning, this is just a little… I’m no expert on the history of Gee’s Bend or their ‘discovery’! So please, go to your library and check out all the books they have on them and read about this great discovery story! There is soooooo much more to the story than I can write about here.

Sue Willie Seltzer, born 1922. “Housetop” — nine-block “Half-Logcabin” variation, ca 1955, cotton and synthetic blends, 80 x 76 inches.

All the quilt pictures in this post are courtesy of Tinwood Media via Auburn University’s The Quilts of Gee’s Bend in Context

And lastly, did you sign up to win the Gee’s Bend Giveaway?

Or the Steel Quilt Giveaway?

Friday is the last day!

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Comments

  1. Great article, Louise!

  2. I love the Gee’s Bend Quilts. I know what you mean about your “AHA” moment. To me, these quilts are so NOT the norm. They’re fresh. And they’re free of all those conventions and rules we normally think of when we think of quilting. They truly are works of art!

  3. I just love looking at each one. They have the contemporary look which I love. I’m so glad these women were discovered and now we can admire their work.
    Thank you so much for the pictures.

  4. Lorraine says:

    I had a similar experience with falling in love with quilts and quilt making. Those Gee’s Bend Quilts are phenomenal and I still want the book badly. Thanks for sharing! I love your candor and honesty, it always brightens up my day.

  5. Kelly Sas says:

    I am huge fan of Gee’s Bend ever since their exhibit came to the Milwaukee Art Museum at least 12-13 years ago. I am loving your posts about them!

  6. Gees Bend quilters are wondeful….I love this post about them. Thanks!!!

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  1. [...] I’ve talked about Gee’s Bend. There aren’t many barns in Gee’s Bend, but there is a Quilt Trail! This quilt trail [...]

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