Discovery of the Gee’s Bend Quilters

During the early stages of this research I was thinking about processes and techniques that I perceived as being utilised by amateurs and hobbyists. Quilting came to mind and so I decided to do some initial research.

While in the library I came across a book about the Quilters of Gee’s Bend. [ISBN : 0965376648]


The quilts were made by a community of black women who were African Slaves (and descendants of) working in the cotton fields of Alabama, USA. The quilts were made out of necessity to provide warmth and shelter during the winter months. With little access or money to purchase new cloth they recycled fabrics that they had to hand; jeans, old dresses, head scarves, worn bed sheets, sacks, corduroy etc.

Scale of the work/s, intuitive making, material choices and mixes and the communal approach were all interesting aspects to me. Over 80 years of making between the women of this hamlet it has virtually remained free of monetary value, there have been a few attempts to turn it into a business but so far it has been resistant to such modes of production.

The designs created from these ‘waste’ fabrics followed linear patterns and very much worked / responded to the shapes of fabric available.

left: Rachel Carey George, born 1908. Two-sided work clothes quilt: strips. Circa 1935. Denim, wool trousers, mattress ticking, cotton. 72 x 82 inches.

right: Helen McCloud, born 1938.  Blocks and Strips, tied with yarn. Circa 1965. Cotton, nylon knit, polyester knit. 77 x 82 inches.

When these quilts were made they tended to create the top [blocks] and back in their own homes during the winter months. In the summer they would gather to quilt as groups working on one quilt at a time. The making of the quilts, which was often accompanied with singing; provided moments joy during challenging times.

‘The creation of a quilt was a respite by comparison with endless other chores. The quilt was a “cushion,” in a very real sense of the word, against elements that invaded their log cabins chinked with mud against the wind’. p13

The learning of the quilt making would be passed on from one generation to the next; skills, designs, techniques and stories.

‘These artists are religious, patriotic citizens who for as long as anyone can remember have made the most beautiful quilts in the world.  Their masterworks are the products of both tradition and innovation: older women teaching younger women the styles and standards of beauty, a pedagogical process similar to that practiced in academic salons or formal art schools’.p6


The quilters of Gees Bend, recipients of the 2015 NEA National Heritage Award. From left to right: Loretta Pettway, Lucy Mingo, and Mary Lee Bendolph. Photo by Tom Pich


p13. Alivia Wardlow, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend. Tinwood Books, 2002.

p6. Peter Marzio, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend. Tinwood Books, 2002.


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