Martha Jane Pettway (1898–2003), Blocks and strips work-clothes quilt, 1920s
Cotton, denim, corduroy, 67 x 72 in.; Philadelphia Museum of Art, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
The tradition of the patchwork quilt was born of scarcity and resourcefulness, arising in times and places where the shortages of cloth called for the inventive salvaging of fabric scraps and remnants. In Gee's Bend, this recycling practice became the founding ethos for generations of quiltmakers who have transformed otherwise useless material into marvels of textile art. Until the middle of the twentieth century, the majority of quilts from the area were made from worn-out work clothes, a palette of old shirts, overalls, aprons, and dress bottoms 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.
During the Great Depression, government representatives learned that Gee's Bend had unofficial leaders, including Little Pettway and his wife, Martha Jane (1898 - 2003), who helped persuade the other families to participate in the New Deal social programs and were among the first to purchase a " Roosevelt" house. Pettway’s quilts reflect this time when Gee’s Bend's Wilcox County was one of the poorest in the country. Quilting In this time of scarcity called for the inventive salvaging of fabric scraps and remnants, including worn-out clothes and feed sacks. Her son Nathan describes:
My mama and them didn't have nothing good to make them quilts out of, but they made quilts for us children. They get old odd stuff, whatever they could find, and make a quilt out of it. It would last a year sometimes, and then us tear it up before the year out.
Martha Jane Pettway’s work is in the permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and The Studio Museum in Harlem.
Learn more about Martha Jane Pettway here.
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