Deep in the south is a small, rural community, surrounded by the Alabama River and steeped in history. The 700 or so residents of Gee’s Bend—now named Boykin—are mostly descendants of slaves; for generations, they worked the fields belonging to the local Pettway plantation. Since the early 1920s, the women have quilted hundreds of patchwork masterpieces, passing their expertise and patterns down through the years. Known worldwide as The Gee’s Bend Quilters, their renowned works have been featured in over 20 museums, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Philadelphia Museum of Art. And for the first time, these expressive tapestries are available for purchase online.
The Gee’s Bend Quilters and their quilts embody storytelling, resilience, and beauty. At Etsy, we’re big believers in connecting through creativity and in the undeniable magic of owning a piece of history. In partnership with Nest (a nonprofit focused on equity in the Makers Movement) and Souls Grown Deep (a foundation focused on elevating Black artists), we are proud to support these incredible artisans, showcasing their one-of-a-kind colorful creations.
The following story features the quiltmakers in their own words. Read on to meet a few of these talented makers—debuting their shops today in honor of Black History Month!—and discover their beautiful wares.
“At the end of the quilting process, you can rub your hand over it—you can feel the fabric come to life.”
The daughter of Lucy Pettway, Mary Margaret Pettway is a third generation Gee’s Bend Quilter; her children are the fourth. Growing up surrounded by all the talent and drive of the women in her mother’s quilting circle made a big impression on her. “[She] used to have a little clique.” Mary Margaret says. “It would be about five or six of them sitting around, just quilting and talking. They would finish either that day or early morning the day after.” These days, Mary Margaret loves to work by herself; “I’m what my mother used to call, ‘particular about my stitches.’” That precision is something you can see and feel in her finished products. “When you’re done, when you hang that quilt up or spread it out on a bed, it looks so pretty!” she says. “You just want to touch it.”
“I quilt because it makes me happy! My favorite thing is when people like them.”
Sharon Williams remembers the exact moment she started making. “I used to go and sit under the quilt with my momma (Rosalee Pettway), watching her,” Sharon says. “One day, when she had her back turned, I tried to go and sew that quilt myself—and she saw I could make a stitch or two! So, she put me on the quilt.” Partial to bold colors and a fan of freestyling, Sharon has perfected her quilting technique. “There are many different patterns, but I like doing my own thing, just coming up with an idea and going for it. It’s very relaxing for me. I get out there, turn my radio on, and I can sew up a storm!”
“When people look at my work, they know me, the person that I am.”
To spark inspiration, Caster Pettway goes on walks. “That’s like the best thing ever,” she says, “finding beauty in myself and all around me.” The daughter of Gee’s Bend quilter Indiana Bendolph, and the second youngest of 10 children, Caster quickly jumped into crafting and helping around the house. “Everything my momma did, I wanted to do,” she remembers, “so I learned to quilt. At six years old, I was cooking cornbread and pulling cotton in the field—the smallest one out there!” Today, Caster enjoys making time for herself and her favorite hobby, preferring to work with a Grandmother’s Dream pattern. Her favorite thing about making quilts? “Giving them away!”
“Quilting is my life right now, I love it!”
Born and raised in Boykin, Alabama, Doris Mosely learned to sew from her mother, Leola Pettway. Though she used to quilt for loved ones (”I love that it helps me provide—making for my family, my friends,” she says), sitting down to stitch has become a joyful pastime, one that Doris loves. “I find beauty in fabrics, colors, different patterns,” she says. “I make my patterns up, and when I have little bits of materials left, I just quilt them together and see how it comes out.”
“It’s the love of the quilt. Looking at the pretty material makes me want to do something exciting.”
For Emma Mooney Pettway, creativity is a part of her family’s heritage. Her mother, Tanzy Mooney, is a Gee’s Bend Quilter, as are her grandmothers, Mary Major and Lottie Mooney—the latter whose quilt was one of ten designs featured on a US postage stamp in 2006. “They taught me how to sew at a young age,” Emma remembers. “I found inspiration just sitting under the quilt, threading the needle.” So it’s no surprise that her penchant for patchwork comes naturally. “It just pops in my head when I piece up fabric,” she says. “I love matching all the colors together.”
“I’m inspired to keep quilting to keep the legacy going.”
It’s safe to say that sewing has dramatically shaped Kristin Pettway—her great-grandmother is Delia Bennett, the matriarch of one of the largest families of quilters in Gee’s Bend. “All my life, I’ve been around quilts,” she says. “My grandmother was Georgianna Pettway—she was a quilter. Stella Pettway‘s my aunt and she’s also a quilter. My mom quilts a little bit, and now it’s down to me.” A true artist at heart, Kristin is drawn to unique forms of expression—when not quilting, she loves to play the piano! “I find beauty everywhere—I think songs are beautiful, I think flowers are gorgeous,” Kristin says. “I make quilts to express myself, to show this is how I’m feeling.”
“My mother, her mother, and my aunts have sewn the foundation; all I have to do now is thread my own needle.”
Loretta Pettway Bennett was first introduced to quilting at age six; her mother, Qunnie Pettway, worked for the Freedom Quilting Bee. “At that age, we were only allowed to thread the needles for the quilters,” she recalls. “Since quilting was such a part of [our] lives, I believe the seed of creativity was planted into my genes.” After traveling and living in a multitude of places, including Germany, Loretta’s family has settled in North Alabama, and frequently visits Gee’s Bend. In 2001, she received a fellowship grant from the Alabama State Archive Council on the Arts. “With it, my mother was able to officially teach me the fine art of quilting,” Loretta says. The quilt they made currently hangs on display in the Alabama Department of Archives and History. “It’s very likely that moving around so much influenced my style, but I will let you be the judge of that!”
“I want my quilts to show my personality!”
As the seventh of 13 children, Doris Pettway Hacketts has perfected balancing independence and community. “Growing up, I worked in the cotton fields and helped around the house,” she says, but then? “I left the cotton fields to go to college! I’ve always been determined.” Post-graduation, however, she returned to her roots, and her passion for quilting was quickly piqued. “It’s like therapy for me. You get such joy out of it because you use your hands to make it work.” For Doris, quilting is also an apt metaphor for finding your way. “Sometimes your life is going to be colorful, and sometimes, it’s going to be dark. It’s never the same. So when you’re piecing that quilt together, sometimes it doesn’t work. But you don’t throw it away. You just take it apart and put it back together.”
“I make quilts for peace of mind, it gives me joy.“
Lue Ida McCloud comes from a big family of quilters. “My grandmother, Delia Bennett, and her sister, Menda Coleman, were quilters. My mother was a quilter, Ella Mae Irby. My sister was a quilter, Linda Diane Bennett. And my sister is Mary Margaret Pettway. All of us are quilters!” At 17, Lue Ida moved to Brooklyn, NY, and worked at JP Morgan for 10 years before returning to Gee’s Bend to help raise her sisters’ children. It was then that she really began to craft. “My grandmother and my mother taught me,” Lue Ida recalls. “My sister, Mary Margaret, too. I used to sit around and observe them.” Her favorite quilt to make is a symbol of all those generations of give and take. “The Robbing Peter to Pay Paul pattern: It’s when you take one color and add it to another color, and take another color and add it to the color before. It’s just Iike life.”
As part of this partnership, Etsy will make a $50,000 grant to Nest, supporting continued efforts to provide the quilters with the resources and education they need to open, maintain, and grow their Etsy shops. All transaction fees will also be covered by Etsy for a period of time.
To learn more about The Gee’s Bend Quilters and shop their one-of-a-kind works of art, please check out The Gee’s Bend Quilters page, and be on the lookout for the official Gee’s Bend Quilts badge. You can also visit their Instagram page.