Saturday, January 7, 2017

The 'Jazz Singers' of Quilting

"Like a jazz or blues singer teasing apart a melody,
the artists play off their grids with unexpected riffs
of color and form."

I can't remember when I first learned of the quilters of Gee's Bend, Alabama, but I've been intrigued with their quilts and their story for years. I've envied those who got to see exhibits of their work in some of the largest U.S. museums.  Then, a few weeks ago we read that some of the quilts were going to be in a small gallery an hour or so up the coast from us and I couldn't wait to go!
The quilters are African-American women who still live in Gee's Bend, an isolated island-like curve in the Alabama River, that was a cotton plantation built in 1816. Descendants of the plantation's slaves, many families retain the last name of Pettway, the plantation owner who required all his slaves to take his last name.
From slave times on, the community was, and still is, one of the poorest in America.  


Their quilts were made from the smallest scraps of fabric the women could get their hands on, made purely for a practical purpose -- to keep their families warm.  

Because of their poverty and isolation well into the 20th century, they developed a style like no other, all their own.


One of the early quilts, made of the men's well-worn work clothes, denim shirts and overalls.

Scarcity of material forced the quilters to find beauty and creative expression in unique ways.


"a palette of old shirts, overalls, aprons and dress bottoms whose stains, tears, and faded denim patches provide a tangible record of lives marked by seaons of hard labor in the fields of the rural South."

The Gee's Bend style is considered unique and one of the greatest African-American contributions to the visual arts.  
Each quilt grows from the center out, with surprising colors, unusual patterns, and unexpected rhythms.


The little community was quite shocked when the outside world discovered  their quilts in the late 1960s and began offering money for them, as much as ten whole dollars a quilt!  

When museums began exhibiting the Gee's Bend quilts in 2003, most of the quilters had never seen any part of the world outside of Gee's Bend.  Their presence was requested at the opening of a large exhibit in New York.  They refused; no one would ride in an airplane!  Some did finally did consent to riding a bus and the film about their trip is quite moving as these humble, sweet women have their first look at the world outside of Gee's Bend.  

Corduroy quilt
In 1972 Sears and Roebuck hired some of the women to sew pillow covers from corduroy provided by the company.  They sewed the covers for a few cents ... and then used the scraps for their artistic expression: their quilts.  



Seven hundred people still live a simple life in Gee's Bend.  
The fourth generation of Gee's Bend quilters still create their original designs.  
If you want to buy one, I hear the going price is now $2500.  


  1. This is a history!!! these quilt are really trash to treasure... their craftsmanship beyond any words.. all the quilts are really incredible ..

  2. What a great post Cynthia, the quilts are so beautiful made, full of colour and expression. The use of all the materials they could find is so impressive, it is real art!

  3. How interesting, really liked to gold one, isn't it amazing how such beautiful work can come out of such sad and humble origins.

  4. That's a story with some happiness and a lot of sadness. Beautiful quilts but terrible poverty.

  5. I so enjoyed reading your post. I LOVE quilts. $2500 is an investment for a piece of art that will last for generations.

  6. A real delight to visit, the quilts are indeed a work of art such beauty tinged with sadness.

  7. What a wonderful bunch of quilts! They are beautiful! :)

  8. What an amazing story. I've never heard of any of this. Makes you feel like crying, doesn't it? And to think how they put every little scrap to good use.

  9. Very interesting. Quilts look good. Can't get into quilting myself but you do see such wonderful designs.

  10. What an interesting story. I hope the people are better off now from selling their unique quilts.

  11. This is absolutely fascinating to read! I got goosebumps reading your peak into history. Thanks for sharing the photos, too.

  12. Those quilts are such beautiful art works - and just using something that had been cast off. I love the photo of all the quilts on the clothesline.

  13. My great grandmother was very poor, having to raise 5 small children on her own. She quilted just like this using up scraps to make her quilts. By the time I was born she was better off financially but still used all the little scraps to make quilts and made one of her quilts for me when I was born.

    I think it's amazing that this community still lives simply in a time when the rest of the country is so obsessed with having it all.