Rita Mae Pettway (b. 1941), "Housetop"—fractured medallion variation (detail), 1977
Corduroy, 80 x 76 in.; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
In 1972, the Freedom Quilting Bee, a sewing cooperative based in Alberta, Alabama, near Gee's Bend, secured a contract with Sears, Roebuck to produce corduroy pillow covers. Production of the Sears pillow covers left little room for personal creativity, as labor at the Freedom Quilting Bee was divided to maximize daily output. Yet despite the standardized and repetitive process involved in producing the pillow covers, the availability of corduroy, a fabric seldom used before by the Gee's Bend quiltmakers, stimulated a profound creative response. Leftover lengths and scraps of corduroy were taken home by workers at the Bee. Given to friends and family or bundled for sale within the community, the scraps were transformed from standardized remnants into vibrant and individualized works of art.
Rita Mae Pettway (b. 1941), known as “Rabbit” was raised by her maternal grandparents, Ed O. and Annie E. Pettway, after the death of her mother when she was four. Hers is a rare example of a family group with surviving quilts by four generations of artists: Annie E. Pettway, her daughter Nellie, Annie's granddaughter Rita Mae, and Rita Mae's daughter Louisiana Bendolph.
Pettway described their techniques, which were adapted to the limitations of space and the sociability of quilting.
The way we used to quilt them, it ain't the way we do it now. I have horses now, but we had the frame; we had four frames, one on each side of the room; tied it up to the rafters. When we got ready to use the frames, we untied them and eased them down to the level we going to sit down to quilt at. When you done for the day, you hash it back up to the rafters. Nellie and Mary Lisa, they quilted with us, too, right in the same room. Piecing them up, you do that by yourself, but quilting, we all did it together.
Rita Mae Pettway’s work is in the permanent collections of the Toledo Museum of Art and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Learn more about Rita Mae Pettway here.
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