Quilts made by the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, are, according to the New York Times, “Some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.” They’ve been immortalized on U.S. postage stamps and hung in the Met. When Amy Sherald painted Michelle Obama’s stunning official portrait, she said that the quilts of Gee’s Bend inspired her depiction of the First Lady’s dress.
And yet the women quilters of Gee’s Bend—most of whom are descendants of enslaved people forced to work on the Gee’s family cotton plantation—have reaped few financial rewards, despite decades of acclaim. Quilts bearing the Gee’s Bend name may have graced museum walls from the Smitshonian to the de Young in San Francisco, but the majority of households in the town have an income of under $10,000 a year, Bloomberg reported in 2018. Part of the problem is that the quilting collective hasn’t been able to monetize their art. Gee’s Bend, officially known as Boykin, is far from a tourist destination; it’s surrounded on three sides by the Alabama river, under-funded and isolated.
That’s not an accident. In 1962, white politicians shut down the Gee’s Bend ferry to prevent Black residents from voting. “We didn’t close the ferry because they were Black,” the Sheriff reportedly bragged. “We closed it because they forgot they were Black.” Martin Luther King, Jr. visited Gee’s Bend three years later. “I came over here to Gee’s Bend to tell you, you are somebody,” he told the fired-up crowd, which included Gee’s Bend’s civil rights quilters who participated in the famed Freedom Quilting Bee.
But the government didn’t think so—the ferry service stayed defunct, and Gee’s Bend was inaccessible except by 40-mile rural car ride, for four decades. Images of Gee’s Bend quilts have literally been printed on Visa debit cards, but the town is hardly a shopping destination. Basics like grocery stores and even consistent sanitation are lacking, let alone hotels.
Soon, the online site where you bought everything cute in your apartment will also sell the world-renowned quilts of Gee’s Bend. Etsy is partnering with the quilting collective, as well as their associated nonprofit Soul’s Grown Deep, and the women arts worker-focused non-profit Nest, to enable the women to sell on a global online platform. It’s fitting—Etsy is a place where women in particular have created small businesses selling, often, beautiful versions of practical objects.
Doris Pettway Mosley, 61, is a seventh-generation Gee’s Bend resident. She grew up watching her mother and other ladies in the neighborhood go house to house in groups, quilting. “Most everybody down here is family,” says Pettway Mosley, who regularly works a full-time job and quilts in her free time, laying fabric over her lap and focusing on her pattern late into the night. She can complete a quilt by herself in a week, she says. And she’s already at work on the eight-generation of community quilters: “I have a grandbaby—sometimes I give her a needle and let her have her way with it,” she says, laughing. “Sometime she do good and sometime she don’t.”
Her quilts—with mesmerizing abstract patterns and bold colors characteristic of Gee’s Bend style—make up one of nine new shops marked with the official “Gee’s Bend Quilts” logo on Etsy. Rebecca van Bergen, the founder and executive director of Nest, says this project is close to her heart—she inherited a tradition of quilting passed down from her great-great grandmother. Partnering with the quilters to get them ready to sell online, she says, “The support ranged from the very tactical, like setting up bank accounts to enable digital payment and personalized trainings on shipping logistics, to more strategic, like guidance on their short and long-term business and sales plans.”
For Kristin Pettway, one of the younger quilters at 23, this is an exciting opportunity to sell her quilts beyond just the small groups of people who make the trip to Gee’s Bend. She picked up quilting by watching her mom, her aunt, and her grandma. “When I was younger it just seems like a pastime, like we were just hanging out and talking and making quilts,” she says. “At the time it didn’t seem like making art, it was just how we passed the time together.” To art critics, the Gee’s Bend quilters are responsible for priceless works. But asked if she thought of the pieces that way growing up, Doris Pettway Mosley laughs. “No, I did not!” she says. “When my mother was making those quilts they really was making them to keep us warm.”