A Multi-Generational Gee’s Bend Story, Told by One Quilt

Missouri Pettway, “Blocks and Strips Work-Clothes Quilt” (1942), cotton, corduroy, and cotton sacking, 90 × 69 inches, National Gallery of Art, Patrons’ Permanent Fund and Gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation (courtesy Hazel Marks)

In Alabama’s Gee’s Bend (Boykin), a quilt is more than just a bed covering that keeps sleeping bodies warm. With Stitching Love and Loss: A Gee’s Bend Quilt, Lisa Gail Collins merges textile and testimony in a compassionate exploration of one quilt and its abundant legacy. The story begins with Missouri Pettway (1902–1980), who, while mourning the untimely death of her husband, Nathaniel Pettway, in 1942, began stitching a quilt from his old work clothing. Pettway’s “Blocks and Strips Work-Clothes Quilt” (1942) is comprised of cream plain weave cotton, red corduroy, blue denim, and gray cotton fabric rectilinear shapes — all scraps from old trousers and shirts Nathaniel wore while farming. In piecing together the quilt, Missouri’s hands tended to her aching heart in a profoundly creative and valuable gesture. Collins locates Pettway’s quilt and others like it in various milieus: A way to keep people warm on chilly Alabama winter nights, a comfortable place for children to sit while listening to their grandmother’s stories, and an artwork on display at art museums in the United States and beyond. 

Stitching Love and Loss is an interdisciplinary study as multilayered as the pieced-together quilt at its core. Chapter one, “Woven within the Land,” narrates the history of the Pettway family, the community of Gee’s Bend, and the entwined tragedies of slavery and Indigenous dispossession that created the impoverished farming community in the 19th and 20th centuries. Collins details the circumstances of Black captivity and Indigenous displacement before Alabama was even a state at the origins of what is now Gee’s Bend, named after enslaver Joseph Gee, who arrived in 1816m just two years after the land had been seized from the Muscogee Nation. Beyond historical trauma, Gee’s Bend is a site of strong matrilineal lineage, creativity, resilience, and the art of quilting passed down through generations in the same Pettway home.

Chapter two, “Carrying History and Memory,” recounts Arlonzia Pettway’s childhood memories — cherished oral histories of her mother’s quilt. The following four chapters — “Seeking Sanctuary,” “Lined with Labor,” “Shared Care and Prayer,” and “Sacred Utility” — convey the making of Missouri Pettway’s quilt as a site of mourning and individual healing, collaborative stitching practices, a lasting legacy of laboring with/for cotton, and the vital utility of both making and using the quilt. Collins’s precise yet poetic prose evokes gut-wrenching images of a wife and mother tending to her wounds and feeling her husband’s presence through the material remnants of his life, including both his clean clothes and mud stains on the knee of his denim work garb (from farming).

4.06 Gees Bend Image No.10 Arlozia Pettway
Arlonzia Pettway on her porch (photo by Linda Day Clark)

Along with the “stitching” that intertwines the different cloth pieces and serves as a metaphor for intimacy and kinship, other verbs are relevant to the book, such as the labor of “gathering, carrying, and forwarding” undertaken by Arlonzia Pettway. Some stories are harrowing, such as one Arlonzia told an interviewer while in her 80s. She recalled a moment from her childhood in which her mother paused the quilt she was working on to quickly stitch a sack that could be used to hide their family’s belongings — sweet potatoes and corn — from a Great Depression-era raid of their home after hearing the cries of neighbors having their property seized. Considering the implications of these stories and others, Collins emphasizes the life-sustaining work of stitching: “both making and making do have been integral to the social fabric and the community’s strength and survival.”

In a coda, “Pulled to this Place,” Collins expresses sincere concern about the passing of Pettway’s quilt and others from Gee’s Bend between Western museum collections. Poignantly, she asks: “… was Missouri Pettway’s quilt — her tender textile elegy, which carries the palpable presence of its maker; her beloved husband, whom she sought to remember; and their eldest daughter, who shared its story and the memory of its making — truly theirs to give?” Collins is reflecting on the 2020 acquisition of the quilt into the National Gallery of Art collection after decades of being kept in storage with brief stints on exhibition. It can feel troubling when massive institutions acquire work from under-resourced communities because, naturally, one may wonder if the people of Gee’s Bend are compensated ethically as their work circulates.

In the book’s closing words, Collins ponders: “… it seems to me that what matters most is honoring the needs and wishes of the descendants of the creator of this wholly precious utility quilt.” That Missouri Pettway’s daughter Arlonzia (1916–2002), also an esteemed quilter, took pride in her mother’s quilt being collected and displayed in museums assuages feelings of discomfort, but it is worth taking seriously the ethical questions at the core of Collins’s unease. A future in which Black descendants could make claims on the art of their kin is just one of the many stunning images conjured by the author’s thoughtful writing. Even if acquisitions were technically legal, moving forward will we witness descendants of African American artists advocating for the return of their family’s keepsakes? 

1.04. Rothstein two of Nathaniel and Missouri Pettway s children 1937 high copy
Arthur Rothstein, “Footpaths” (1937), two of Nathaniel and Missouri Pettway’s children (Library of Congress)
5.04. Gee s Bend Quilters Collective bldg in 2014
Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective in 2014 (photo by Lisa Gail Collins)

Stitching Love and Loss: A Gee’s Bend Quilt by Lisa Gail Collins (2023) is published by University of Washington Press and is available online and in bookstores.

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