Arts & Culture

Southern Women Spotlight: Mary Margaret Pettway

The Gee’s Bend quilter and arts advocate shines a light on the Boykin, Alabama, community of artisans

Photo: Liz Bacon Photography

Editor’s note: The following originally appeared in the G&G book Southern Women: More than 100 Stories of Innovators, Artists, and Icons. The book features interviews with, odes to, and essays by musicians, actors, artists, designers, entrepreneurs, authors, chefs, public servants, and more who have roots in the region. 

One of Boykin, Alabama’s storied Gee’s Bend quilters, Mary Margaret Pettway is an Alabama Humanities Foundation fellow and an instructor at the Black Belt Treasures Cultural Arts Center, and also serves as board chair of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and promoting African American artists in the South. Here, she shares more about the history and quilting culture of Gee’s Bend, in her own words. 

“I can tell a person by their stitches. By looking at a quilt, I can tell who did which parts. I have small stitches, like my mom. Our stitches could pass as twin stitches. I’m a fourth-generation Gee’s Bend quilter. I started out as a little girl, sitting underneath the quilt and passing the needle back up. I was four or five. The boys had to learn, too. They know how to sew and quilt.

“Those first stitches I did were ugly. But these were what we call ‘house quilts’ at that point. That means you wouldn’t show these quilts, these are ones you would keep right at the mattress. Only time it got shown was when you washed it. All of these were house quilts before Gee’s Bend got known. You would put what you thought was a pretty quilt on top of the bed. But all of them keep us warm.

“I’m drawn to pattern. And I love color. The best palette I’ve seen so far is nature’s palette. I love poppy red and kelly green. I love a vibrant blue, too. It all depends on what fabric I’ve got. The fabric we use is a little of everything. Cotton, scraps from old dresses. The Beverly Hillbillies reminds me of how things used to be. Using meat grease from a hog killing to make soap; pulling water from a deep pump. You take what you had to make what you need.

“Now, when I see a pretty quilt, I’m going to ask who did it, look at the stitches, ask if I could take a picture. I laugh when I have my quilts hanging on a line and I’ll see a person drive their car past, turn around, and drive by again. Then I realize they’re taking a picture. Usually that’s fine, but they could just ask, ‘Do you mind if I take a picture?’

“One of my favorite quilts is hanging at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. You can also see part of it in the new portrait of Michelle Obama. Her skirt is made up of quilts from Gee’s Bend. One of them was one my mom kept on her bed. I’m gonna make one just like it, but bigger.

“We’ve always been a quilting community. Somebody in every house is quilting. Or they can do really, really good cooking. Around here, you can either be a quilter or a good cook. To be honest, I can cook enough to keep me and mine, but I hate cooking. I’m a sandwich person. I would rather quilt any day than cook.”