Jessie T. Pettway (b. 1929), Bars and string-pieced columns, 1950s
Cotton, 95 x 76 in.; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
Jessie T. Pettway’s versatility is represented by an elegant design of tapering strings in shades of red, yellow, blue, and gray, all framed by columns of bright red. She appears perplexed by admiration of this quilt. "That's just a lot of strings sewed together," she insists. "I wasn't trying to keep nothing in order. I turned the narrow end next to the wide end and just sewed it together." Her disclaimer is another indication of the distinction Gee's Bend women make between "pretty" and "ugly" quilts, or between those created for display or sale and those made for everyday use.
Given the name “J.T.” at her birth and nicknamed “Bootnie,” Jessie T. Pettway (b. 1929) has called herself “Jessie” after her favorite teacher since her school days. After her mother’s death, she was raised by her aunt Seebell Kennedy, who taught her how to piece a quilt.
Pettway made her first quilt when she was twelve years old. The utilitarian character of her materials—old clothes, khaki shirts, overalls, and other recycled clothing—shaped her quilting style. Instead of following traditional book patterns, she sewed her versatile materials into a mosaic of strips, bars, and “Bricklayer” variations. She recalls from her earliest quilt-making lessons:
Little Sis—that’s what we called my aunt Seebell—she’d give us lessons on how to cut out pieces and piece up quilts and help her quilt her own quilts, and that’s how I learned. My first quilt was an “Eight-Pointed Star.” I kept it until I married and the children wore it out on the bed.
Pettway’s 1950s Bars and string-pieced columns quilt appeared on a U.S. postage stamp in 2006 as part of the American Treasures series. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Toledo Museum of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Learn more about Jessie T. Pettway here.
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