For years I’ve wanted to stop by a small community in Alberta in Alabama’s Black Belt known as Gee’s Bend where the women are known worldwide for their quilting.
As a member of the Build a Nest Guild, I was given the opportunity to go to the Airing of the Quilts at Gee’s Bend on October 8. The quilters have worked with Build a Nest and Souls Grown Deep to create an event for the many people around the world who want to meet the women who create masterpieces which are owned by former presidents, displayed in museums, and who inspire clothing lines featured on the runways at NYC Fashion Week.
I, along with eight women from around the UnitedStates, started the day at the Freedom Quilting Bee, a women's co-op building where we found quilts for sale by Gee's Bend quilters along with the amazing work of other local artists. This co-op was built for women to quilt together in community. Inside you will find some of the earliest recordings of these quilters, who they made quilts for, and the history of the unified style you find in Gee’s Bend.
Our next stop was the town hall where we found more “airing of quilts” blowing in the wind and sunshine. Build a Nest has helped these generations of quilters set up Etsy shops and brand partnerships to generate income that goes directly to them and their families. They loved telling the stories of their families and the quilts they made. They even gave me the confidence to buy a quilt kit to work on.
One of my favorite moments of the day was buying a wall hanging from 19-year-old Franchesca Pettway Charley, a fourth-generation quilter. Her grandmother, Tinny Pettway, taught her how to quilt. Francesca, a University of Alabama student, came home for the day to be a part of the festivities. She was shocked when I chose her wall hanging. I love seeing the joy on a maker's face when someone decides to buy their art.
We then made our way to the ferry launch where we had lunch prepared by some local ladies. We heard stories of their childhood when they didn’t have medical care, had to make quilts even when they didn’t want to, and the inside scoop of working with aNew York designer. Mary Margaret Pettway, one of the biggest influences in this community, led a quilting workshop.
As a maker who grew up watching my grandmother quilt and learning to sew from her, I have a new respect for the work she did. She could sew so fast and she worked at home so her schedule was flexible. I realize now how much work and skill it took and how she wasn’t paid a fair wage for her art form.
The Gee’s Bend quilters created masterpieces out of old clothes, denim, and corduroy to stay warm. They didn’t work from patterns and used what they had to create amazing pieces of art. Folk art has life stories woven in and it makes the work even more valuable because the artists are self-taught and create from what they have.
I left Gee’s Bend that day with a full heart (and a beautiful wall hanging), and a deep respect for the history and artistry of these quilters.
LucyFarmer, an InSpero board member, is a multi-creative and eternally curious. Jewelry and home design are two of her passions and she currently hosts creative workshops in her studio and helps other product makers sell their products to stores. Lucy loves to travel and learn about culture and art in new ways.