The iconic quilts designed and hand-sewn by the artists at Gee’s Bend are now for sale on Etsy, making it easier than ever to shop for one of these storied works of fiber art.
Though the geometric pattens are unique and almost spontaneous, when you spot one of these boldly colorful quilts, you likely know exactly where it came from: the rural community of Boykin, Alabama, where African American women have been handing down this traditional art form through the generations since the 19th century.
The Gee’s Bend quilts for sale come from quilt-makers in Boykin — the location of a cotton plantation owned by Joseph Gee on a big hook in the Alabama River, then known as Gee’s Bend. The artists began quilting out of necessity: staying warm in winter. The enslaved women sewed bedcovers from whatever bits of fabric they could pull together. Their daughters and granddaughters and nieces carried the tradition on through Reconstruction and Jim Crow, creating quilts from scraps and old clothes that would keep their families warm in shacks without heat or running water. Sewing was a matter of survival.
Fiber artist Arlonzia Pettway shared stories from the history of Gee’s Bend with Smithsonian magazine a few years before her death, in 2008. Pettway learned to sew from her mother and grandmother; her great-grandmother, Dinah Miller, was brought to the U.S. on a slave ship in 1859.
In the early 20th century, many Gee’s Bend families were tenant farmers, and during the Depression, when cotton prices tanked, the lender foreclosed on them, Pettway said.
“They took everything and left people to die,” Pettway told Smithsonian. She said her mother sewed shirttails into a sack so members of her family could gather what produce they could from the farm to hide in a ditch.
When Pettway’s father died in 1941, her mother made a quilt from his clothes.
“Mama said, ‘I’m going to take his work clothes, shape them into a quilt to remember him, and cover up under it for love,'” she told Smithsonian.
That gray, white, blue and red quilt was one of the pieces included in the first exhibition of Gee’s Bend quilts that traveled to art museums around the country in the 2000s, when they were finally recognized for the works of art that they are.
Other Gee’s Bend quilts have hung in museums in the meantime, including the National Gallery of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which tweeted an image of a gorgeous quilt made by Annie Bendolph in Gee’s Bend around 1930.
— The Metropolitan Museum of Art (@metmuseum) March 12, 2016
In 2015, the National Endowment for the Arts honored three Gee’s Bend quilters in this lineage — Mary Lee Bendolph, Loretta Pettway and Lucy Mingo — with NEA National Heritage Fellowships.
Where To Find Gee’s Bend Quilts For Sale
Though Gee’s Bend quilts have been for sale previously, this is the first time they’ve been on Etsy, which, through partnerships supporting Black artists and handworkers, is making them widely accessible to a broader audience.
The Gee’s Bend quilts for sale on Etsy were launched on Feb. 1, the start of Black History Month. At first, Etsy featured nine quilters, giving a short bio of each woman and showing their work, plus a link to their individual Etsy shop. More quilters from Gee’s Bend have since joined them on the site with shops of their own.
The hand-sewn quilts range in price from a few hundred dollars to several thousand.
The quilts come in a range of sizes, and some of the artists make other items as well. Sharon Williams’ Etsy shop, Sha’s Shop Gee’s Bend, has $7,000-plus gorgeous hand-stitched quilts as well as colorful $47 tote bags.
By the way, you’ve probably noticed that quite a few Gee’s Bend quilters are Pettways. Smithsonian reported that one in three residents of the town of 700 bore that name, after slave owner Mark H. Pettway.
As Etsy promised back in February, other fiber artists from Gee’s Bend have joined the initial nine they featured, including Gee’s Bend Place, helmed by Claudia Pettway Charley, where she has a quilt for sale made from the back pockets of jeans.