Quilting has influenced fashion for years — now it's time for some of the most celebrated practitioners of the art form to get paid directly for their work.
Quilting exploded onto the runways a few years ago and has remained a fashion mainstay since, infiltrating fashion's ranks from the top (think Dior and Raf Simons at Calvin Klein) to the bottom (think teens thrift flipping on TikTok). Once considered a pastime for old ladies, the textile art's fashion renaissance has helped popularize it for a new generation of sewists.
All the while, quilting has remained a quintessentially American contribution to art history, and there's perhaps no group of people more revered for their creations than the quilters of Gee's Bend. A small Black community in Alabama, Gee's Bend has been described as an "inland island" because it's surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River.
"We are a calm community, a sweet community, sort of an artist colony, but we are real," says Mary Margaret Pettway, a third-generation Gee's Bend quilter. "We have real love and real pride for what we do."
Despite the town's remoteness, it has become famous for the distinctive style of the quilts its residents produce. Gee's Bend quilts are all unique, but they're known for recurring motifs of improvisation, minimalism and geometric patterns. Until the mid-twentieth century, most quilts from the town were made from scraps of worn-out work clothes. Quilts from Gee's Bend dating back to the '20s are in the permanent collections of museums all over the world — including the Met — and have inspired dedicated exhibitions at the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts. And to bring it all back to fashion, Michelle Obama's dress in her official portrait referenced Gee's Bend designs.
"The women of Gee's Bend, who are largely descendants of slaves, began quilting in the 19th century as a means for physical warmth," says Rebecca van Bergen, founder and executive director of artisan-focused nonprofit Nest. "Yet by piecing together scraps of fabric and clothing, they created abstract designs that had never before been expressed on quilts."
Though Gee's Bend has long been looked to as an icon of American creativity in the realm of quilting and textile arts, it's not been particularly easy for the community to sell their own work to the wider world and benefit financially from their acclaim. That's why Nest partnered with Souls Grown Deep, an organization "dedicated to promoting the work of African American artists from the South," to bring Gee's Bend quilts to Etsy. Nest first started working with Gee's Bend in 2019, and reports that it's helped unlock $100,000 of additional income for the community. Now Etsy has given the non-profit a $50,000 grant aimed at providing the quilters resources they need to open their own Etsy shops.
The goal is to enable Gee's Bend quilters to sell their work directly online for the first time ever.
"Though the women of Gee's Bend are globally recognized for their contributions to American art history, the fame of this important heritage craft has not translated into economic advancement of Gee's Bend due to its remote location and access limitations," says Etsy Trend Expert Dayna Isom Johnson. "We hope to help foster the long-term, sustainable economic success for these talented quilters, while also preserving the history of the Gee's Bend and the cultural value of this important historical arts community."
Nine different Gee's Bend quilters now have their own Etsy shops as a result of the initiative, and Johnson hopes to see even more in the future. (All the shops can be found on this landing page for now, but the individual shops are as follows: Sew Lolo Shop, K and K Quilted Treasure, Quilts By Lue, Kiaras Quilt Boutique, Quilts By Caster, Emma's Lovely Treasures, At The Door Quilts, Lunky's Baby and Sha's Shop Gee's Bend.) The one-of-a-kind pieces range from small wall hangings to larger bedspreads, and range in price from $27 to $5,500.
"When a quilt is created, we are not looking at the artistry of it. We are looking at the workmanship, how it can be of benefit to someone," says Pettway.
As quilts continue to gain steam in fashion and beyond, here's hoping that some of the most celebrated and prolific practitioners of the art form start to see more of the benefits of their own popularity.