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. It is not uncommon to find quilts by three and sometimes four generations of women in the same family.
Martha Jane Pettway created a number of “Housetop” quilts in the 1920s and 1930s using old clothes. On the reverse side is a composition of blocks and bars done in denim, corduroy, and other cotton fabrics. It is not uncommon for Gee’s Bend quiltmakers to make such double-sided patchworks, frequently creating a more informal design on the back.
Martha Jane Pettway, 1898 - 2003
Martha Jane's son Nathan recalls his mother. “My mama and them didn't have nothing good to make them quilts out of, but they made quilts for us children. They get old odd stuff, whatever they could find, and make a quilt out of it."
"Housetop" variation (1920s) by Henrietta PettwayOriginal Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
Until the middle of the twentieth century, the majority of quilts from Gee's Bend were made from worn-out work clothes,
In the absence of dramatic highlights, clothing remnants' seams, ended or patched tears, folded areas, stains, and pockets became important design elements.
The materials here are humble: the white ground is feed or flour sacks. Gee's Bend quilts from this era often deploy a limited color palette—usually black, blue, or red—popping from the white of the cotton sacks.
Work clothes, an obstinate medium of jeans and work shirts, pushed quilters to develop nuanced compositions that took advantage of whatever sizes, textures, and colors were on hand.
Artelia Bendolph, 1927 - 2003
"It was rough growing up in Gee's Bend. I worked a little in the fields when I was a child. My family would pick a bale of cotton, and my grandfather take it to the gin. They chopped cotton, corn, millet to make syrup, pick peas, peanuts. They put it in the barn during the summer so during the winter we got something to eat. Have our own hogs, cows; kill a cow and pickle it in a barrel. Kill a hog, salted them down, hang them up in the smokehouse."
The more simplified constructions of the work-clothes quilts provided a blank canvas for experiments with a range of improvisational strategies, including sudden shifts in patterning, broken borders, irregular shapes, asymmetry, syncopation, and dissonant juxtapositions of prints and colors.
Nettie Young made this quilt when she was just 11 years old, using a pile of strips of cloth her mother gave her.
Nettie Young, 1916 - 2010
"I was raised up in a place they called Young’s, the old Young plantation. My daddy’s father had been a slave named Irby but was sold to the Pettways, so my daddy was named Pettway, same as all the others owned by the Pettways. When he got grown he was free from the Pettway ownership and could go where he wanted to go, and he went up to the Young plantation to work. He farmed up there—you called it sharecropping, what he did."
"I started working quilts when I was a child. My mother would have me sit with her, and I was watching her and putting scraps together, doing like she was doing. She’d drop those scraps at her feet, and I’d be picking them up. My mama looked at that thing and told me I did good. I felt good, like I had done a big job. I always loved sewing. I made all my children’s clothes. Didn’t need a pattern. Same with quilts. If I seen a dress or a quilt or something I liked, I can make it. I just draw it out the way I want it. In the quilting bee time, I started using patterns, but I shouldn’t have did it. It broke the ideas I had in my head. I should have stayed with my own ideas."
Here Annie Bendolph uses triangles and squares in her variation of a pattern widely known as Wild Goose Chase. Gee’s Bend quilters seldom used patterns as they were published in newspapers and magazines, instead enjoying the challenge of creating original and personal interpretations.
Annie Bendolph, 1900 - 1981
Bettie Bendolph Seltzer remembers her mother, Annie Bendolph. "Mama made quilts to keep us warm. At the start all they was making them out was old clothes, pants, fertilizer sacks, dress tails, and meal and flour sacks, too. That's it."
"Housetop"—sixteen-block "Half-Log Cabin" variation sashed with feed sacks (1930s) by Rachel Carey GeorgeSouls Grown Deep
Rachel Carey George quarters the squares of a traditional "Housetop" quilt, adding a dynamic quality to this otherwise traditional quilt.
Made in the midst of the Great Depression, a time in history when Gee’s Bend's Wilcox County was one of the poorest in the country, the quilt is comprised, in part, from empty feed sacks.
"Flying Geese" variation (c. 1935) by Annie E. PettwayOriginal Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
The fundamental geometries of Gee's Bend quilts shine in works made with single repeating patches: triangles, squares, diamonds, and hexagons.
Among these primary shapes, massed triangles produce the most striking effects of movement and contrast—a goal for many of the quiltmakers.
Annie E. Pettway, 1904 - 1972
Annie E. Pettway was born June 18, 1904, one of the ten children born to Austin H. and Leetha Pettway. She married Ed O. Pettway, and they had nine children. Ed O., who had been born a Williams, had his name changed to Pettway when his family moved to the area known as Pettway, on the site of the former Pettway Plantation in Gee's Bend. Her family continues to live in the same homestead she established almost one hundred years ago and her progeny, including Rita Mae Pettway and Louisiana Bendolph, continue to carry on the quilting traditions she helped to establish.