Skip Navigation Website Accessibility
Open Tuesday-Saturday 10 am - 5 pm
Open Wednesdays 10 am - 7 pm

Now open at our New Location!
(484) 920-8971

From So Little, So Much:
Thoughts on the Quilters
of Gee’s Bend

Written by Denise Martin  |  Posted on February 02 2021

Work-Clothes Quilt With Center Medallion Of Strips
Annie Mae Young 1976
Denim, corduroy, synthetic blend (britches legs with pockets) 108 x 77 inches

Center Medallion Strips With Multiple Borders

Annie Mae Young c. 1965
Cotton (shirt material, corduroy, sheeting), polyester (dress and pants material), wool
91 x 81 inches

Blocks And Strips, Tied With Yarn

Helen McCloud c. 1965
Cotton, nylon knit, polyester knit
77 x 82 inches

"Log Cabin"—"Courthouse Steps" (Local Name: "Bricklayer") Single-Block Variation
Loretta Pettway c. 1970
84 x 66 inches

In 2002, The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas mounted an exhibition of quilts by African American quilters living in Gee’s Bend, a remote area in Wilcox County, Alabama southwest of Selma. That exhibition traveled to thirteen American museums between 2002 and 2008, sparking an intense interest in and enthusiasm for the remarkable achievements of artisans who, with limited resources, created a tradition that has had an outsized impact on modern quilting.

Cruising the internet, you will find lots of information about the Gee’s Bend story, fortunately captured during the NewDeal-era when the area was deemed one of the poorest in the US and therefore eligible for federal aid. Along with that aid, the community was extensively documented by the Farm Security Administration and its photographers in the 1930s. The result is a rich visual and recorded history of the lives of Gee’s Bend artisans including its amazing quilters.

The Quilt’s of Gee’s Bend, (John Beardsley, William Arnett, et al., Tinwood Books, Atlanta) the hauntingly beautiful catalog from the exhibition at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is now out of print. You can still find copies online but they are very expensive. I was fortunate to secure a used library copy several years ago. And I would like to share some of its contents with you in this blog during Black History Month.

But here, today, let me just reflect briefly on one significance of the quilts by the women of Gee’s Bend. These quilters, African American women just a generation or two away from slavery, made do with very little. In fact, they did more than “make do.” They made art. Their materials were humble - old clothing, repurposed fabric, whatever was available - but the artistry with which they combined what they had was, and is, extremely powerful.

Let’s learn from them. Let’s have enough confidence in ourselves to go beyond the ready made, beyond patterns, and tools to achieve perfection (all of which have their place) to seek the unexpected and capitalize on it in our work. For the lesson of the quilters of Gee’s bend is “it’s not what you have, it’s what you do with what you have” that makes art.


Souls Grown Deep

Whitney Museum Exhibition Review, New York Times, November 29, 2002

PBS Video