Partnership leads quilt fans around Gee’s Bend
Those acclaimed black quilters of Gee’s Bend, Ala., are making news once again.
The women became famous in 2002, when an exhibition of their bold geometric quilts premiered at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. The “Quilts of Gee’s Bend” since have been shown at more than a dozen major museums and featured on television and in books and magazines. Art critics worldwide have compared the quilts to the work of Modern artists such as Henry Matisse.
Now the quilters of Gee’s Bend have entered into a partnership with Windham Fabrics, a manufacturer known for its authentic reproductions of antique material, as well as other collections.
Four of the distinctive quilt designs are being sold in kits that include instructions and fabric for the quilt tops and binding.
Also available are 19 solid-colored Gee’s Bend fabrics sold by the yard.
The quilters sharing their patterns are Mary Lee Bendolph, Mary L. Bennett, Qunnie Pettway and Rita Mae Pettway. The four will share a percentage of the royalties with the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective and the Gee’s Bend Foundation.
This tiny rural community on the river southwest of Selma, Ala., was founded in antebellum times on cotton plantations owned by Joseph Gee.
“We have recreated the genius that this group of quilters in rural Alabama has made famous,” says a Windham Fabrics spokesman.
The four different styles and their designers are:
“Strips and Strings” by Mary Lee Bendolph. Born in 1935, Bendolph is the seventh of 17 children. She worked in the cotton fields and attended school intermittently until she started her own family at the age of 14. During the Civil Rights movement, Bendolph accompanied Martin Luther King Jr. in his march at Camden, Ala., in 1965.
Her quilt-making style is described as a marriage of improvisation to traditional construction techniques that emphasize rectangles and squares. Her minimalist patches create intricate overall compositions that contain humorous touches and autobiographical references.
“Housetop” by Rita Mae Pettway. Born in 1941, she was raised by her grandmother and still lives in the house her grandfather built. She began quilting at the age of 14.
Pettway recalls sitting by the fireplace and piecing quilts. “Me and my grandmamma Annie,” she says. They didn’t have a pattern to go by; instead they cut and arranged the fabrics in a manner handed down through the generations.
Today, Pettway and her daughter, Louisiana Bendolph, share a penchant for creating strip quilts in concentric squares resulting in “Housetops” or “Hog Pens,” each artist having her own style and variation on the theme.
“Housetop 4-Block Variation” by Mary L. Bennett.
Born in 1942, she taught herself to quilt at about age 12 or 13. Bennet says she pieces hers together until she’s pleased with the overall look.
“Lazy Gal Variation” by Qunnie Pettway. Born in 1943, she is the great-granddaughter of Dinah Miller, who is said to have arrived in the United States aboard a slave ship from Africa prior to the Civil War.
Pettway learned to quilt from her mother and, in turn, passed her skills to her own daughter, Loretta P. Bennett, one of the youngest quilters actively creating these extraordinary quilts today.
The suggested retail price for the quilt kits is $60 to $70. The Gee’s Bend solid fabric sells for about $9 a yard.
For a full list of colors and retailers, go to http://www.windhamfabrics.com.
If you want to read more about these quilters and their stories, go to http://www.quiltsofgees bend.com.