Until the middle of the twentieth century, the majority of quilts from Gee's Bend were made from worn-out work clothes, whose stains, tears, and faded denim patches provide a tangible record of lives marked by seasons of hard labor in the fields of the rural South.
"I farmed. That's all I did do—farmed cotton, pulled corn, worked for my daddy. We come up hard back at them times. Didn't get much schooling. I had nine children. Two of them died. I had to make quilts for them, and all my quilts was scrapped up out of old clothes back then." —Lutisha Pettway (1925 - 2001)
"Housetop" variation (1920s) by Henrietta PettwayOriginal Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
Pockets removed from old trousers not only provided additional fabric for repairing holes, but also unsheathed vivid, unfaded navy shapes floating on the paler, dusty blue pants seats.
In the absence of dramatic highlights, clothing remnants' seams, ended or patched tears, folded areas, stains, and pockets became important design elements.
"Cover up under it for love"
Beyond the needs of mere survival, there was a spiritual dimension to these quilts. They recycled what were often the only surviving possessions of deceased spouses, parents, siblings, or children, thus holding the power, or at least the memory, of departed loved ones.
Blocks and strips work-clothes quilt (1942) by Missouri PettwayOriginal Source: The National Gallery of Art, Museum Purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
With her daughter Arlonzia, Missouri Pettway made this quilt in the early 1940s from the field clothes of her husband, Nathaniel, who died in 1941.
Arlonzia describes the quilt: "It was when Daddy died. He stayed sick about eight months and passed on. Mama say, 'I going to take his work clothes, shape them into a quilt to remember him, and cover up under it for love.'"
"Housetop"—center medallion (c. 1930) by Arie PettwaySouls Grown Deep Foundation
Arie Pettway pieced this quilt out of her old field clothes,
Including her bandana, the center medallion.
The beauty and nuance within these otherwise dull work clothes contrast with the enforced outer plainness of southern rural African American life in the Jim Crow South, whose code of black subservience tolerated little open display of material excess.
Creating work-clothes quilts required mastering resistant materials and narrow registers of color to learn the expressive language of the quilt.
"Housetop" (c. 1970) by Nellie Mae AbramsOriginal Source: Minneapolis Institute of Art, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
Despite the limited palette of a farmer’s worn clothes,
plain denim pants, broken in by seasons of use, offered a spectrum of blue tones.
“I made all of my quilts out of old shirts and dress tails and britches legs. I couldn’t never get no good fabric to make quilts, so I had to get the best of the old clothes my peoples wore or old clothes I got from other peoples. I get the best of the shirt sleeves or whatever part of the pants wasn’t wore out, like the back of the pant legs, ’cause the knees mostly be wore out—we pick the cotton on our knees.” —Loretta Pettway (b. 1942)
In a purely aesthetic sense, the more simplified constructions of the work-clothes quilts provided a blank canvas for experiments with a range of improvisational strategies, including sudden shifts in patterning, broken borders, irregular shapes, asymmetry, syncopation, and dissonant juxtapositions of prints and colors.
During the early 1960s, Loretta Pettway created a captivating trilogy of quilts with vastly different and highly imaginative designs, all miraculously rendered from the same dreary batch of men’s clothing scraps.
As a wider variety of cheap fabric became available in the second half of the twentieth century, work-clothes quilts became less prevalent.
Yet, their defining ethos of frugality, reuse, and commemoration remains central to Gee's Bend quilting, and many quilters continue to enjoy the challenge of working with a limited palette and thicker, tougher materials.
Work-clothes quilt (2002) by Mary Lee BendolphOriginal Source: New Orleans Museum of Art, Museum Purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
For Mary Lee Bendolph, the continued transformation of old and worn fabrics into beautiful and comforting quilts serves as a metaphor for surviving hard times.
“They remind you of where you have been and where the Lord have brought you from.”