“I’m the seventh of 12 children. We grew up in Gee’s Bend. We didn’t have much, but I never considered myself poor because my parents grew or made everything we needed. We didn’t have beds, so we slept on the floor.
Mama made quilts from our hand-me-down clothes for us to lay on and to cover us up. We used those quilts for everything. When they got ragged from washing and drying by hand, mama turned them into a mop or sanitary napkins. We had five girls at the house, and we had to wash and reuse our sanitary napkins. That’s how poor we were. We also burned old quilts to smoke the mosquitoes away.
Mama’s name was Lillie Mae Pettway, and I wanted to be just like her. She was loved in this community and was always giving out food. We asked her why she kept giving away what little we had. I understand now that it made her feel good. When God blesses you, use it to bless somebody else.
Mama taught me how to make quilts. I used one of the old quilts we made together to cover my lawnmower. It later fell to the ground and got muddy, so I put it in the garbage. We didn’t understand the craft of our quilts back then – we made so many of them. Mama died before the quilts were appreciated. She didn’t know that what she made was valuable to anyone else but our family.
I quit making quilts and worked in a sewing factory. When the plant closed, I needed something else to do. I started quilting again in 2005. There is no plan for a quilt. It just happens. Sometimes I’m amazed by what I come up with. I have a lot of triangles and black, red, and white fabric in my work. People like the quilts just the way I make them. One buyer called them ‘perfectly imperfect.’ This quilt wasn’t planned at all. It just happened. That might be a name for this quilt, ‘It just happened.’ I’ve got to write that down. It just happened. Sometimes I’m talking and get a name.
Quilting is my only income and how I pay my bills. These quilts are made with love. I have arthritis, but I keep moving and don’t worry about the pain. It also relaxes me. I talk to myself as I make them. Sometimes, I sing or pray as I sew. I’m just grateful because God didn’t have to allow us to get up this morning. It makes me happy that these quilts make someone else happy.
Mama taught me to just live on. If I cry when I tell my story, just know those are happy tears, thinking about how far God has brought us. Look where we are now. They say Gee’s Bend quilters are some of the most famous people in the world. I thank God for it all.”
Mary Ann Pettway
Listen to Mary Ann tell her story and sing in this story about Gee’s Bend quilters for Alabama Public Radio: https://www.apr.org/post/alabama-gees-bend-quilt-makers-go-online
Listen to Mary Ann tell her story and sing in this story about Gee’s Bend quilters for Alabama Public Radio: https://www.apr.org/…/alabama-gees-bend-quilt-makers-go…
Mary Ann works with the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective to help women sell their quilts.
Thank you to the Black Belt Community Foundation for your help making introductions in Gee’s Bend.