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The inspired quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend turned a rural riverside community in Alabama into a highly influential destination for those interested in the confluence of heritage craft and contemporary art-making. The area is isolated by a topographic turn of the Alabama River that makes the town all but an island, and is largely populated by descendants of freed enslaved people who once worked on the local Pettway plantation — many still bear Pettway as their surname. Through their ingenuity, artistry, and skills of improvisation, generations of Black female fiber artists have made the name Gee’s Bend synonymous with quiltmaking; they’ve also collectively authored an oft-elided chapter of art history and carried it into the present day.
For Nest, a nonprofit dedicated to the support and expansion of the “handworker economy,” with an emphasis on women workers and their wellbeing, the quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend are natural partners. Their collaboration began in 2019, with information-gathering sessions that revealed a desire on the part of quilters to have better access to platforms that could help scale up awareness and sales of their works. Since featuring the quilters in the Makers United Craft Marketplace in Birmingham, as well as offering e-commerce and marketing support, Nest has enabled over $100,000 of additional income for the Gee’s Bend quilters, according to a press release announcing their newest initiative in partnership with Etsy and Souls Grown Deep.
Launching on February 1, in honor of Black History Month, each of nine Gee’s Bend quilters is premiering their own shop-in-shop on Etsy’s main site. As part of this ongoing partnership, Etsy made a $50,000 grant to Nest to provide the Gee’s Bend quilters with the resources and education needed to open up their own individual Etsy shops.
Each shop features the quilter’s story and their array of offerings, with prices on works that range from $27 to $5,500 per piece. There are handsewn masks by Loretta Pettway Bennet; wall hangings by Kristin Pettway and Mary Margaret Pettway; and full quilts by Doris Pettway Hacketts, Sharon Williams, and Emma Mooney Pettway. Some are strongly geometric, like those by Lue Ida McCloud and Caster Pettway; all employ the signature improvisations, handmade flourishes, and traditional motifs of Gee’s Bend, including the popular “housetop,” nicely showcased in the offerings of Doris Jean Pettway Mosely.
These featured shops are indicated by a special shop badge on Etsy, and will hopefully continue to provide new opportunities for Gee’s Bend quilters, leveraging Black History Month into Black artist futures.