Below, we share an extract from Victoria Finlay’s latest book, Fabric, as she details learning to patchwork in Gee’s Bend, Alabama and reflects on memories of her mother. The area, just southwest of Selma in Alabama, is famous for its quilts; the tradition there traces back to the 19th century, passed from generation to generation. Integral to the history of African American art, the improvisational patchworks are now held in many museums across the country.
I learned how to make a real patchwork at Gee’s Bend, Alabama, a place named after a 19th century slave owner and a loop in the Alabama River so deep that it’s like three sides of a square. The settlement was bizarrely renamed Boykin in the 1940s, after a white congressman, now remembered for his adultery, alleged bribery, and his opposition to the Civil Rights Act. But most people today still call it Gee’s Bend, and it’s famous for its astonishing quilts.
I turn up at Gee’s Bend, hoping to learn how to make them, though my emails and real letters don’t seem to have arrived, and I haven’t got through on a phone.
I know I’m heading in the right direction because I see big wooden banner boards at intervals along the road, printed with images of some of the patchworks that made this place famous. They’re all around: it feels like a pilgrim trail. I’m not sure where I’m going, but the person I ask jumps in her car to lead the way and I follow to a weatherboard community hall with “Gee’s Bend Quilters” on a sign by the door. There’s a small shop to one side and a main room with two quilting frames and several sewing machines and piles of fabric everywhere, on tables and spilling out of dustbin bags on the floor. Two women are there working side by side. One is the manager of the Gee’s Bend Quilting Collective, Mary Ann Pettway. She says she doesn’t give lessons but we can talk, so we sit down. I tell her how my book started with a plan to make a patchwork to get over my father’s death, but then my mother died first and I still don’t know how to make one.
“I’ll teach you the nine-patch,” Mary Ann says, suddenly. “My mama taught it to me when I was six or seven, and I’ll teach it to you … I never do this usually,” she says. “But I’m sorry about your mother and not knowing.”
The way she learned is by watching so that’s how she will teach me. She starts by cutting nine squares, five of one colour, four of another – “don’t worry if they’re even” – then sews them by machine into three lines of three, irons them (only on the back so that the front doesn’t get shiny) then joins them into nine.
I sew the first three sets of three squares together. I haven’t used a sewing machine for a while. Before I iron, I open out the fabric and, without thinking, press the seams open. Mary Ann stops me.
“Never open out the seams. It makes them weak,” she says, folding them back. This does mean that, as the patterns get bigger, I’ll have to make sure a seam folded in one direction doesn’t find itself needing to fold in another direction later – which sounds implausible but is something I’ll find myself doing over and over. “It’s just practice,” Mary Ann will say. “You can always undo.” I become good at undoing. There’s no pattern or template to cut around; everything’s done by eye; the playful thing is to make it a bit accurate but not too much, and then to subvert it just enough.
Once I’ve done a few nine-patch squares, she shows me how to sew a panel on the top and another on the bottom in one of the two colours. For this she uses a grid, to get the corners right-angled. “Within a block doesn’t matter, but if you want to make it easy for yourself, then make sure the edges fit.”
There’s a TV at the end of the room. When visitors are expected, which is often, it plays an hour-long documentary on a loop. The audio track of the story it tells, over and over, becomes the backdrop to my days at Gee’s Bend.
. . .
In 1992, a photographer arrived. Roland Freeman had worked for Time magazine and the Magnum photo agency. Then in his fifties, he was documenting African American quilts from all around the South for a book that would be the first large-scale survey of the subject by an African American. In Gee’s Bend, he interviewed Annie Mae Young and took a picture of her and her little great-granddaughter Shaquetta, standing outside her house with two quilts thrown over a woodpile behind them. Six years later, a white collector of African American art, William Arnett, was arrested by that photograph.
The main quilt had a wide frame of worn blue denim strips, and the centre was two big squares next to each other. One had yellow and red stripes; the other brown and red stripes, almost as if it were the first one in shadow. The result was vibrant and unexpected, and reminded Arnett of abstract impressionist art. Arnett obtained an introduction to Young and drove to Gee’s Bend. He asked what other quilters there were in the area, and eventually made contact with more than 150, documenting 700 quilts dating from the 1920s to the 1990s. Soon, there were exhibitions being held in several major US museums; in 2006, the US Post Office produced a series of ten stamps with images of the quilts; the discovery of Gee’s Bend patchworks was hailed as one of the greatest finds of ‘undocumented’ art in America.
Mary Ann told me how she spent most of her working life making uniforms at a sewing factory near Selma. Between a mortgage to pay and looking after her children, she didn’t have time for quilts. But she had a friend whose grandmother, Arlonzia Pettway (no relation to Mary Ann), was a star quilter. She used to talk about the trips they all went on, the museum openings, the workshops they gave, and one day Mary Ann joked that she was tired of hearing about these good times: she wanted to start having a good time too.
“So get quilting,” Arlonzia said.
And she watched for a bit what Arlonzia did, and recalled her childhood sewing with her mother, and then she got quilting.
. . .
In Gee’s Bend, the quilting lines are less important than the patches. But when you flip your attention away from the bright squares and blocks and focus on the stitches holding them in place, there are curves and broken patterns like the skeletal structures of a leaf, and they have a beauty too, if you stop to look. Unlike in Welsh quilts there are no templates or guidelines. This is all by eye. I do it wrong and sew my first lines very close together. I have a choice: I can set myself up for a very long piece of work ahead, or I can just accept (as I do) that it’s a practice piece, and then do the rest with wider spacing.
There are no machine sounds except a radio in the background. Mary Ann’s tuned in to a gospel station. Often they start a quilting session with a gospel hymn and a prayer, she says. There are two other quilters from Gee’s Bend this morning, one sewing, one sitting drinking coffee. Sometimes we chat – about politics or our mothers or about funny things that happened when they went to a quilting show. But usually we lapse into silence.
This is what my mother and I hoped to find when we planned to make the worst patchwork in the world. Calmness. Laughter. A sense of community. Strength. I learned from my mother that when something bad happens, I should think of how I might raise a glass to it in the future. It doesn’t mean the thing was good, just that if I can find something good in the end, then we haven’t lost. Life hasn’t lost.
If my mother hadn’t died, I wouldn’t be here, learning to quilt from someone who’s at peace with what has happened in her life, and who has opened her skill and her home and her kindness to me. And I look up to the right, as I do when I want to find my mother, and I smile, and I mouth: “Thank you”.
An extract from Fabric: The Hidden History of the Material World by Victoria Finlay, published by Profile Books, £25.
Image one: A patchwork sampler, Victoria Finlay
Image two: The Gee’s Bend community hall, Victoria Finlay
Image three: Mary Ann Pettway quilting, Victoria Finlay
Image four: Quilt design on a billboard, USA, Victoria Finlay
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