Gee's Bend: Sears Corduroy Quilts

How an unlikely material made its way into the hands of quiltmakers in and around Gee's Bend, Alabama, and onto museum walls.

Interior of the Freedom Quilting Bee (1974)Souls Grown Deep

The Freedom Quilting Bee

Founded in 1966 in Alberta, AL, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the Freedom Quilting Bee was one of the few Black women's cooperatives in the United States.

Sears Roebuck Story (1943-01) by Gordon CosterLIFE Photo Collection

In 1972, the FQB secured a contract with Sears, Roebuck, and Co. to manufacture corduroy pillow covers.

Sears wide-wale cotton corduroy cushions (1970s) by SearsSouls Grown Deep

Featured in the Sears “big book” catalogs with the promise to turn “standard-size bed pillows into smart lounge pillows," they came in a variety of colors, including “gold,” “avocado leaf,” “tangerine,” and “cherry red.”

Multiple columns of rectangular blocks and bars (1980) by Essie Bendolph PettwayOriginal Source: The Studio Museum in Harlem, Gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

Leftover lengths and scraps of corduroy were taken home by workers at the Bee or given to friends and family. The availability of corduroy—a fabric seldom used before by local quiltmakers—stimulated a profound creative response.

"Housetop"—fractured medallion variation, Rita Mae Pettway, 1977, Original Source: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
"Bricklayer" variation, Qunnie Pettway, 1975, Original Source: New Orleans Museum of Art, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
"Log Cabin" variation, Flora Moore, c. 1975, From the collection of: Souls Grown Deep
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Corduroy thrives when sheared at right angles but tends to fray and distort when cut or stretched diagonally. This meant that squares and rectangles, and larger rather than smaller forms, tended to dominate quilts made from the leftover corduroy, creating starkly rectilinear compositions.

"Lazy Gals" ("Bars") variation (1976) by Arcola PettwayOriginal Source: High Museum of Art, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

The “Lazy Gal” pattern, distinguished by long, parallel strips, was ideally suited for working with remnant corduroy. In America's Bicentennial year, 1976, Arcola Pettway arranged strips with alternate bars to suggest an American flag.

"Housetop" variation (1982) by Gearldine WestbrookOriginal Source: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

Despite the challenges associated with cutting and sewing corduroy, makers continued to pursue complex piecing of the quilts. “Housetop,” one of the most enduring local patterns, provided the perfect form for combining large color-block organization with more formal patterning.

"Housetop" (2003) by Nancy PettwaySouls Grown Deep

Nancy Pettway never worked at the Freedom Quilting Bee, but she purchased this corduroy directly from the cooperative in bundled lots and stored it until she was ready to use it in a quilt some twenty-five years later.

155-48_052721 by Loretta Pettway BennettSouls Grown Deep

The Freedom Quilting Bee's contract with Sears lasted from 1972 until the mid-1980s, but leftover corduroy from this era continues to circulate in the community.

Loretta Pettway Bennett's mother, Qunnie Pettway, was a longtime worker at the FQB. In 2021, Loretta pieced "Return to Gee's Bend" using some of her remaining strips of Sears corduroy.

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