In the southwestern quadrant of Alabama, surrounded on three sides by the winding Alamaba river, sits the rural town of Boykin, which is known to everyone as Gee’s Bend. There, among the town’s 275 residents, a multi-generational network of women has been making quilts by hand for centuries. While this statement could be probably applied to any number of regions across the United States, this isolated community along with its formidably creative residents and their material output is far more extraordinary.
Founded as a plantation in 1816, many Gee’s Bend denizens are direct descendants of the enslaved Black people who farmed cotton on the land. Geographically isolated and relentlessly disenfranchised throughout their lives, the women of the town developed a bold, improvisational, and immediately recognizable style of quilting — borne out a need for self-sufficiency and limited resources — producing what the New York Times called “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.”
“These are not like traditional quilts with patterns that are floral or botanical or geometric,” adds Maxwell Anderson, president of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation and Community Partnership — which has been involved with the community since the 1990s. “They’re irregular. The compositions are unique, powerful, and, in some cases, expressive.” Since the early 2000s, exemplary quilts from the town — household objects dating back to the 1920s, pieced together from “pieces of cloth, old shirts, old pants,” explains contemporary quilter and lifelong Gee’s Bend resident Doris Pettway Hacketts — have traveled to museums like New York’s Whitney Museum and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. 10 different quilts, dating from 1940 to 2001, were featured on postage stamps in 2006 as part of the Postal Service’s American Treasures series.
Despite the quilters’ remarkable personal history and glowing recognition from venerable cultural institutions, the quilts made in Gee’s Bend have only been available to customers willing and able to make the pilgrimage to the isolated enclave (which is over two hours by car from the neighboring city of Montgomery). However, that changed last week when maker marketplace Etsy, non-profit artisan agency Nest, and Souls Grown Deep announced that nine quilters from Gee’s Bend had launched their own individual shops on Etsy, where anyone can now purchase hand-made quilts directly from the women who made them with a few clicks of a mouse. “It stopped me in my tracks,” says Etsy trend expert Dayna Isom Johnson said of the launch. “It’s time for [the quilters’] story to be heard, on a much larger scale than ever before. This is really preserving history.”
The historic launch has been incubating for years and involved the collective efforts of all three agencies, who provided the community with the resources and guidance they needed to bridge the “digital divide” — in the words of Nest founder Rebecca van Bergen. (The average annual income in the town is $12,000, and well-documented infrastructure issues abound in the so-called Black Belt region where Gee’s Bend is located. After a spate of civil rights activity in the region in the 1960s, the racist local government retaliated by closing the local ferry, cutting off the community’s access to the county seat and, consequently, the resident’s ability to vote.)
In addition to creating a dedicated landing page for the quilters and marking each Gee’s Bend shop with a custom badge so that customers can differentiate from the scores of handmade textiles that are “inspired” by the region’s output, Etsy is waiving its customary transaction fees for at least seven months from the launch date. In addition, the partnership is ongoing, and the opportunity to take advantage of Nest’s guidance is available to any quilter from Gee’s Bend. “If you are a Gee’s Bend quilter and you see now that it’s working and people are selling and you want to join, Nest will help you get on board,” Nest founder Rebecca van Bergen explains.
Scores of designers and craftspeople draw influenced from the singular style of the Gee’s Bend quilts — one of the most visible shout-outs in recent memory came from the painter Amy Sherald, who cited the influence of the quilters in her groundbreaking 2018 portrait of Michelle Obama that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. “Many of the Gee's Bend quilts are masterpieces just as works of art,” says Ama Schulman, the designer behind the textile shop All Very Goods, who sells a linear-patterned bandana inspired by the quilters. “They break rules about color, symmetry, and (I think) all the rules about what traditional quilts are supposed to look like.”
In addition to being a significant moment for the legions of Gee’s Bend fans across the fashion, design, home, and craft industries, it’s a watershed moment for the quilters, who are finally getting an opportunity to profit directly from their handiwork — in Isom Johnson’s words, “the chance to really thrive, and get the flowers that they deserve.”) “I always loved [to quilt],” explains Doris Pettway Hacketts, “but now it definitely has more purpose. Someone else can enjoy my work and let it live on. You want to leave something behind so that you can be remembered, you know?”
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