There are countless cultural contributions Black Americans have made to this country since our reluctant arrival on these shores, but among the most enduring are the famed quilts of Gee’s Bend, Ala., (formally known as Boykin). The majority African American “inland island” largely isolated from the mainland is home to a community descended from the once-enslaved Blacks in the region, among whom the female quilters are long-renowned. Famously, the Whitney Museum staged an exhibition of the area’s gorgeous handcrafted quilts in 2002, and the craftswomen lauded as “virtuosos in a vibrantly abstract and viscerally utilitarian art” by Artforum, which added:
[I]n terms of experiment with color and composition, sizzling optical contrasts and irregular geometries, the galleries might as well be filled with hard-edge abstract paintings or unsung Op masterworks. Add nuances of texture and the show becomes a primer in the practice of assemblage. But a closer look reveals the pragmatic underpinning of such aesthetic flights: zigzag patterns within patterns marked out by hand-stitched seams, the stamped logo of a flour company on a bit of cotton sacking, the faded swath in a piece of denim salvaged from a pair of dungarees.
However, the artistic acclaim—which more recently included an homage to Gee’s Bend in the dress worn by Michelle Obama in her official portrait—has failed to translate to economic advancement, threatening both the ecosystem and survival of the community. Its geographic isolation has been echoed in its disenfranchisement, as much-needed resources, infrastructure and have long been withheld, threatening the survival of one of Black America’s oldest and most culturally rich toeholds.
“We need something else here. We need stores, we need our roads fixed, we need day care, we need a washeteria,” Gee’s Bend native Nancy Brown told the Washington Post in 2007.
Over a decade later, a new opportunity for entrepreneurship has reached this remote Black community; as reported by Fashionista, the nonprofit artist’s guild Nest has joined forces with Souls Grown Deep Foundation & Community Partnership, an organization “dedicated to promoting the work of African American artists from the South, and supporting their communities by fostering economic empowerment, racial and social justice, and educational advancement.” Their joint mission? To bring Gee’s Bend quilts to the independent artisan-driven digital marketplace Etsy, enabling these talented quilters to sell their designs directly online for the first time.
“Though the women of Gee’s Bend are globally recognized for their contributions to American art history, the fame of this important heritage craft has not translated into economic advancement of Gee’s Bend due to its remote location and access limitations,” Etsy Trend Expert Dayna Isom Johnson told Fashionista. “We hope to help foster the long-term, sustainable economic success for these talented quilters, while also preserving the history of the Gee’s Bend and the cultural value of this important historical arts community.”
As explained by Fashionista:
Nest first started working with Gee’s Bend in 2019, and reports that it’s helped unlock $100,000 of additional income for the community. Now Etsy has given the non-profit a $50,000 grant aimed at providing the quilters resources they need to open their own Etsy shops.
Nine different Gee’s Bend quilters now have their own Etsy shops as a result of the initiative, and Johnson hopes to see even more in the future. (All the shops can be found on this landing page for now, but the individual shops are as follows: Sew Lolo Shop, K and K Quilted Treasure, Quilts By Lue, Kiaras Quilt Boutique, Quilts By Caster, Emma’s Lovely Treasures, At The Door Quilts, Lunky’s Baby and Sha’s Shop Gee’s Bend.) The one-of-a-kind pieces range from small wall hangings to larger bedspreads, and range in price from $27 to $5,500.
“The women of Gee’s Bend, who are largely descendants of slaves, began quilting in the 19th century as a means for physical warmth,” says Nest’s founder and executive director Rebecca van Bergen. “Yet by piecing together scraps of fabric and clothing, they created abstract designs that had never before been expressed on quilts.”
Mary Margaret Pettway, a third-generation Gee’s Bend quilter, echoed this sentiment, as well as the humble intent behind this textile masterworks. “When a quilt is created, we are not looking at the artistry of it,” she said. “We are looking at the workmanship, how it can be of benefit to someone.”
“We are a calm community, a sweet community, sort of an artist colony, but we are real,” Pettway added. “We have real love and real pride for what we do.”