Family, Community, and Inheritance in the Quilt-Making of Gee’s Bend

With a population today of just 275 people, Gee’s Bend is a small, isolated hamlet with a complex history. Surrounded on three sides by the Alabama river, it was once a cotton plantation, originally established by Joseph Gee and then later owned by Mark Pettway. As direct descendants of the slaves and subsequent sharecroppers who worked on the land throughout the 19th and 20th Century, the majority of those who live in Gee’s Bend continue to share the Pettway name.[1]

Qunnie Pettway, Housetop, c. 1975, corduroy, 208.28 x 187.96cm (Atlanta, Souls Grown Deep Foundation)

Throughout the area’s turbulent history, quilt making has been a constant. Quilts were a necessity, used not just as bed covers and blankets, they would also be placed on the floor and walls to insulate homes during the cooler winter months.[2] Due to a lack of materials and resources, quilts were created from scrap or recycled fabrics – predominantly old, worn-out work clothes, grain sacks and other found materials. These scraps would be pieced together in the most economical way, usually in large strips in order to create quilts as quickly and easily as possible.[3]

In Gee’s Bend, the process of making a quilt is simultaneously an individual and a shared activity.[4] Traditionally, creating the patterned quilt top would be done by individual women within the home, whereas the more tedious process of completing the quilt (attaching the quilt top to the wadding and the lining) would be carried out as a communal activity, known locally as a Quilting.[5] The Quilting remains an important social event which extends across generations and family units. 

Quilt making in Gee’s Bend is both a ‘labour and a leisure activity’.[6] It is something which needs to be done in order to provide for oneself and one’s family but, in comparison to other domestic and non-domestic labour the women may be involved in, the processes of creating a quilt can provide mental and physical respite. The repetitive nature of sewing  encourages quiet moments of introspection as well as providing a forum in which support networks and camaraderie can be established. The Quilting is a space in which women can access a moment of calm, even a state of ‘flow’.[7] This contributes towards the creation of a space of equality, in which stories, experiences and skills can be shared. 

Mary L. Bennett, Diamonds variation, c. 1975, cotton, 170.68 x 193.04cm (Atlanta, Souls Grown Deep Foundation)

There isn’t a hierarchy among those involved in the Quilting, nor do women have to demonstrate a specific level of skill in order to be involved. The need for quilts and the benefits of sharing labour take priority over quality of workmanship and results in the Quilting becoming an environment in which everyone is welcome, regardless of ability. As is made clear by the active inclusion of young children in the Quilting, even those with the most limited experience are encouraged to get involved, with everyone working together towards one shared goal. 

I learned to talk around the quilts. I learned to sing around the quilts, and I learned to pray around the quilts. Everything I ever learned to do I learned around the quilts.[8] – Mary Lee Bendolf

Mary Lee Bendolph highlights the fact that it is not just practical skills which are gained through involvement with the quilting process. Being part of a wider social occasion encourages the development of communication skills among younger participants as well as providing access to other important parts of community life, such as religion. Bendolph describes how the quiltmakers would ‘get together and make the quilts just like we’re praying together’,[9] drawing a direct comparison between the introspection achieved through quilting and the contemplative state required for prayer. Singing, storytelling and the sharing of oral history also form part of the Quilting, allowing the younger generation to gain knowledge of their ancestors and the complex history of the area in which they live. Through these interconnected activities, children learn to associate textile production with a wider sense of communal history, fellowship and a greater sense of self.[10]

When talking about their quilting practice, women typically began by talking about the people who taught them to quilt.  This act of learning, and the passing on of skills from one person to another, provides a basis for the formation of interpersonal relationships and the creation of individual and collective memory.[11] When talking about the quilts, the women of Gee’s Bend  frequently describe when, where and how they learnt to quilt, and the personal connections they had with those who taught them. This highlights the important social function that quilt making plays, not only through sharing practical skills, but also through sharing stories and family history which forms part of the learning process. 

I started working with 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.[12] – Nettie Young

From infancy, children are exposed to quilt making activities on a regular basis, either by helping their mothers or family members select fabrics for quilt tops, or by simply being present at the Quilting.[13] This early exposure to quilt making allows for skills to be passed on directly, through physical interaction with fabric and thread and the teaching of quilting techniques, and indirectly, by watching others and mimicking their actions. 

Missouri Pettway, Blocks and Strips, 1942, cotton, corduroy, cotton sacking material, 228.6 x 175.26cm (Atlanta, Souls Grown Deep Foundation)

Like Nettie Young, Nazareth Major describes how she ‘did whatever I saw my mama doing’ when she first learnt to quilt.[14] This collaborative making  and skill sharing process enables women to bonds with other quiltmakers, creating connections to those around them and also establishing a link to the generations of women who have quilted before them.[15] In this sense, quilt making in Gee’s Bend can be seen as a practical inheritance, something which not only connects women to their ancestors but provides a legacy for future generations with whom they will go on to share their skills. 

In those days, we didn’t have anything to look forward for. When we got nine or ten years old, [my mother] gave us a needle and a thimble and told us to quilt. And that’s why we quilted so much because that’s what she gave us. And that’s what we done, we use what our mother gave us – she gave us a thimble and a needle – and that’s what we’re still using now.[16] – Arlonzia Pettway 

In a time of economic hardship, these skills are often the only thing women would stand to inherit and therefore take on even greater value. They give women like Aronzia the ability to provide for themselves in the future but also act as a form of memorial; a way of maintaining a connection with their mothers, aunts and grandmothers, even after they’ve died. This practical inheritance endures across the generations and plays an essential role in the creation of personal memory, and the formation of family networks and shared identities.

Words: Jodie Edwards

[1] It is a common misconception that the shared name denotes blood relation. It is instead a result of direct lineage to the original Pettway slaves who, as a symbol of ownership, were named after the families who enslaved them. See A. Wallach, ‘Fabric of Their Lives’, Smithsonian (October 2006) 

[2] A. C. Chave, ‘Dis/Cover/ing the Quilts of Gee’s Bend, Alabama’, The Journal of Modern Craft, 1 (2008), 221-254, 225, DOI: 10.2752/174967808X325514

[3] R. Kalina, ‘Gee’s Bend Modern’, Art in America, 91 (2003), 104-109 and 148-149, 108 <; [accessed: 30.03.18]

[4] Gee’s Bend: The Women and Their Quilts, ed. by P. Arnett, W. Arnett, J. Beardsley, J. Livingston, P. Marzio and A. Wardlaw (Atlanta: Tinwood Alliance, 2002), p.16              

[5] The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, dir. by V.Vadim (Tinwood Productions, 2002) <; [accessed: 16.06.18]

[6] F. Barnett-Cash, ‘Kinship and Quilting: An Examination of an African-American Tradition’, The Journal of Negro History, 80 (1995), 30-41 <; [accessed: 29.03.18]

[7] C. Wellesley-Smith, Slow Stitch: Mindful and Contemplative Textile Art (London: Batsford, 2015), p. 88

[8] C. Davis, ‘The Quilted Word’, Memphis Flyer, 25 February 2005 <; [accessed: 13.04.18]

[9] P. L. Brown, ‘From the Bottomlands, Soulful Stitches’, New York Times, 21 November 2002 <; [accessed: 13.04.18]

[10] B. Gordon, Textiles: The Whole Story (London: Thames and Hudson, 2011), p. 132

[11] Stalp, Women, Quilting and Cultural Production, p. 55

[12] Gee’s Bend: The Women and Their Quilts, p. 366

[13] Gee’s Bend: The Women and Their Quilts, p. 60

[14] Gee’s Bend: The Women and Their Quilts, p. 268

[15] Stalp, Women, Quilting and Cultural Production, p. 65

[16] The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, dir. by V.Vadim