Gee’s Bend quilters ‘show and tell’

Published 11:29 pm Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Quilters from Gee’s Bend, an isolated hamlet on the Alabama River, captivated their audience at the Pioneer Museum of Alabama on Saturday.

Mary Ann Pettway, chair of the Gee’s Bend Quilt Collective, and China Pettway shared the story of Gee’s Bend and how it was transformed from a place of dire poverty to a place of possibilities.

They brought along grandchildren and nieces and nephews to help with their quilting demonstrations.

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“The Pettway women told about how hard life was when they were growing up in Gee’s Bend,” said Kari Barley, Pioneer museum director. “There was no way there for them to make money except by selling their quilts. They were selling the quilts for one or two dollars apiece until their quilts were recognized as art.

“That changed the way of life in Gee’s Bend. The quilters then had a way to make a living.”

The Gee’s Bend Quilters are known throughout the country for their “art.” Their quilts that once sold for a few dollars are now bringing hundreds and even thousands of dollars.

“The Pettways brought several quilts to show,” Barley said. “One that was very special was made from shirts worn by post office workers. The Gee’s Bend Quilters made a quilt for President Obama and they brought a picture of it to show.”

Mary Ann Pettway’s quits are distinctive in that she uses very tiny scraps of cloth for the center of her quilts.

“She uses pieces of cloth that others would throw away,” Barley said.

“Some of the pieces are no bigger than a thumbnail. She uses those tiny pieces of material for the center and builds her quilts from there.”

The quilters brought along the young people to demonstrate that quilting is an art for all ages.

“One of the children was quilting for the first time,” Barley said. “They did a good job and seemed to really be enjoying it.

The emphasis on quilts is heightened by the Pioneer Museum of Alabama’s biennial “Pieces of History Quilt Show” that is underway through March 31.

“On Saturday, we will have another special event that focuses on quilting,” Barley said. “Sherry Burkhalter, who is an authority on quilt patterns and quilt history, will be here for presentations, at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

She will talk about the history of quilting and identify quilt patterns. She will also identify patterns and determine the age of quilts brought to the presentations.