With all the news coverage of the 50th Anniversary of the Selma March, I remembered our 2008 vacation when we crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on our way to the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective about an hour away.
It’s strange how you can look at something and recognize it without knowing why. I could have sworn I had posted photos from our visit, particularly since Wife Lila had written her recollections of it in 2009. So, here’s what she wrote then, with a an update from 2015.
Click on the photos to make them larger.
Written October, 2009
A Quilting Journey… from Grandma’s House to Gee’s Bend and Back Home
A year ago in October, Ken and I visited a place that had become my own personal Mecca. .. Boykin, Alabama, the home of the Gee’s Bend Quilters. I am a quilter… the old fashioned kind, I do the quilting by hand, and when I first saw these women’s story on CBS Sunday Morning a few years ago, I could not get it out of my mind. The Gee’s Bend women are descendants of slaves brought to Alabama early in the 19th century. They made beautiful and unique quilts from whatever they had, and they continue making the unique style of quilts today. I had to see the place and meet the women who loved making quilts as much as I do.
Got directions from Allie Pettway
The Gee’s Bend Quilt Collective was not at all what I expected. It was way far away from the main road. Without a GPS, I am not sure we’d have found the place. .. a GPS and an accidental visit to a lovely lady at the end of the paved road. We had passed the place and stopped for directions. She said to turn around and go half a mile back the way we came.
The building’s not much to look at
On the return trip, we saw a small hand-painted sign in front of an unassuming white building on the south side of the road.
A roomful of quilts
Once inside, I knew I was in the right place. There were three women sitting next to tables full of small pieced and quilted squares.
Squares were signed
Each square had the signature of the person who made it. There were quilts hung all around the room. They were variations of the ones I had seen in the report years before, but definitely the Gee’s Bend style.
Way out of my price range
On a rack, there were about 30 completed quilts folded to the same size. I saw several that I would have loved to have had. Unfortunately, they were properly priced… and way out of my price range.
Worth every penny
I know they were worth every cent of the asking price, because I am a quilter and know the amount of work that goes into even a small quilt. A quilter does it for the love of quilting. Even if minimum wage were charged for the hours worked (sometimes months), the cost of a quilt would be prohibitive for me. Most of the quilts I’ve made have been given to someone who appreciates them.
We met the quilt artists
I chose several of the small squares and had my picture made with the woman who made each one. Annie Kennedy and Nancy Pettway were there, but Allie Pettway was at home. Before I could blink, one of the women said she lived just down the street, and she’d give her a call. She hung up the phone and said, “Allie said to come right down.”
“Allie said to come right down”
We headed down the road only to find that the woman who sent us in the right direction earlier was Allie Pettway. We spent about half an hour on Allie’s front porch, talking and watching her stitch one of the small blocks sold in the collective. I was awestruck. She was a delight. Spending time with her was the highlight of my trip.
The highlight of the trip
When we visited Gee’s Bend Quilters, I bought a video with the quilters’ story. This afternoon, I watched the video, and I felt like I was back in my grandmother’s house hearing her words. On the video, the women said, over and over again, that “nothing was ever wasted… not food, not a single scrap of cloth”. They spoke of making quilts using good pieces of fabric cut out of worn clothing.
Hearing their story unleashed a flood of childhood memories about not ever wasting anything and about my love for quilts and quilting.
Came from long line of quilters
I come from a long line of quilters. One of my first memories, of anything related to quilting, was crawling around under my grandmother’s big quilt frame in her back room. She and her mother, some number of her five sisters and various other relatives and friends would sit around the frame and work on a quilt. When one was finished, an aunt or cousin or sister would bring another to be quilted. There was always a quilt in Grandma’s quilt frame.
It was the pretty yellow-trimmed pinwheel quilt that is on my guest bed and the butterfly quilt that my mother used on her bed until it wore through in places. (And even then, it was darned on my mother’s sewing machine and put back into service.) As her granddaughters got into high school, Grandma gave us each a set of floral squares to be embroidered (that whole learning thing, again) with whatever colors we wanted. When we completed the project, she made them into quilts and put them the frame. Each of us got a quilt for our hope chest.
Wedding quilt for Adam and Carly
I am fairly certain it was not the one I used on my own bed for 20 years… until the flannel back wore through. There was no chance that the front ever would have worn through, because it was made from pieces cut from my grandfather’s gray work clothes. He was a machinist at the cement plant in my home town. My great-grandmother made the quilt after my grandfather was injured on the job and could no longer work. The work clothes were too thick to be quilted with pretty patterns. It was sewn in a grid with 6-ply variegated purple embroidery thread… an amazing piece of work.
Hand quilting is dying art
There are lots of quilters today, but most of them design and piece quilts that are works of art to be seen, but not necessarily used. Fabric is purchased in just the right shades and the patterns are beautiful and intricate. The quilts are pieced and then sent out to be ‘machine’ quilted using computers for the patterns. I have watched the hand quilting I learned and love become a dying art. That makes me sad, because it is such a joy to me.
When I make a quilt, I do it with intention of them being used everyday. I have and use quilts made by my grandmother from all sorts of scraps. The pinwheel quilt in my guest room has pieces of my grandmother’s floral print dresses originally made with feed and flour sack cloth. There are scraps from a shorts and top set my mother was wearing sitting on a merry-go-round in a picture taken in 1940. There is a piece of red plaid fabric that looks suspiciously like a dress I was wearing in a picture taken in 1954. And always, the most spectacular patterns were quilted by hand.
The ornate patterns were penciled onto the fabric, when the quilt was stretched in the frame. I still have some of the stencils that my grandmother used for years and passed on to me. They were drawn on whatever was handy… even the church bulletin. The stencil was glued to a piece of fine grit sandpaper to make it non-slip and stiff enough to draw around.
I can’t begin to count how many times I heard “don’t waste” when I was growing up. Besides not wasting things, we were taught not to waste the chance to learn something. It wasn’t a choice… it was expected of us. I learned to pick, clean and can green beans, tomatoes, etc. from my grandmother’s garden. And, when I was 8 years old, my grandmother taught me and my sister to quilt.
I still have my first quilt
We (my sister and I, and at least four of my cousins) had Fab dolls. My grandmother got the dolls by mailing in the box tops from Fab laundry detergent. My sister and I had little metal doll beds to go with our dolls. If there was a bed, it needed a quilt, so my grandmother sewed together a 20” x 25” quilt top of 2-inch brown and yellow floral squares and one of the same size squares in blue shades. I had to have the brown and yellow one. They were my colors.
My grandmother made two very small ‘quilt frames’ from narrow strips of wood, held together on the corners with C-clamps. She gave us a thimble, a needle and thread and showed us how to run the needle across the fabric instead of pushing it all the way through and back up. That summer, I quilted, and I haven’t stopped, yet. I still have that first quilt I made more than 60 years ago… one of my treasures.
There is something magical and satisfying about taking pieces of fabric and turning them into something beautiful and useful. Quilting tools are few, but very important to each individual quilter. I can’t quilt without my homemade goatskin ‘catcher’ thimble or my great grandmother’s thimble that I use for ‘pushing’. I have a trademark quilter’s callous on my second finger, left hand.
Started quilt in 1974
Currently, I am finishing a quilt I pieced in 1974. I had it in the frame, but had done only a couple of inches in one corner when my first son was born. I put the unfinished quilt in a box and the frame in the attic. My intention was to get it out when my son got older, but it didn’t work out that way. I had a second son and forgot about the quilt.
Finished it for Sarah in 2009
Earlier this year, my husband was cleaning out the top shelf in a closet and found the box. Now, 35 years later, I am hurrying to finish it for Mother’s Day… for my daughter-in-law. Sarah married first son Matthew, the one who was the reason the quilt was boxed, and she has given us our first grandchild. She was struck by the colors, when she saw it… 1970’s blue floral with a little apple green which are her colors. I think it is destiny that she have this quilt.
Update March 9, 2015
Malcolm’s snowman quilt
Since I began writing this six years ago, I have completed three ‘snowman’ quilts made of the same fabrics, all slightly different, for three grandsons. This is the one for Malcolm, our first grandson.
I was given some fabric with snowman squares at least 20 years ago. I really liked the design and the colors, so I put them in the cabinet. I had no idea what I was going to do with them, until the quilt for my oldest grandson became the answer. I wanted to make something for him that no one else would have. Surely, no one else in Florida would have a snowman quilt.
Graham’s snowman quilt
As each grandson was born, I made a snowman quilt with my name and their birth year sewn into it. Each quilt has one snowman unique to it. Even if they each weren’t made a little differently, each grandson would know which was his by the one snowman that they each have that the others don’t.
Elliot with his quilt
Quilts are beautiful and utilitarian, but also, they are history and family. I wanted my grandchildren to have something from me that no one else would have. They all have a snowman quilt made by me with the same snowman squares and the same white and blue fabrics. This is something that will always connect them to me and connect them to each other. Hopefully, years down the road, there will be at least one small shred of fabric left that they can show their grandchildren.
It is a thought that makes me smile all over.