When Caster Pettway, 67, was a girl, there were always quilts around. Sometimes, her mother would hang a quilt on the porch. This was to show it off to the neighbors. She always seemed to be sewing a new one. “And everybody in every house, they did the same thing,” Pettway told TIME for Kids.
Pettway is from Gee’s Bend, in Alabama. Many residents are related to people who were enslaved on a cotton plantation in the 1800s.
Pettway grew up in the 1960s. Back then, Gee’s Bend was a remote community of cotton farmers. Now, it’s seen as the birthplace of an important art form.
A New Style
Women in Gee’s Bend took up quilting sometime in the 1800s. At first, they made quilts to keep warm. But they didn’t have proper fabric. So they cut up old clothing and sacks. They sewed the scraps together.
Traditional quilters use strict patterns. These women did not. They cut the fabric into large, irregular shapes. The results were bold and beautiful. The quilts were unlike any others in the world.
In 1998, art collector William Arnett saw a photo of a Gee’s Bend quilt. He was impressed. Arnett visited the town and bought the quilt. In 2002, he arranged to display Gee’s Bend quilts in museums. The quilts took the art world by storm. Experts compared them to work by Henri Matisse. He was a famous European painter.
One critic called the quilts “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.”
A New Generation
Today, the people of Gee’s Bend are making sure the community benefits from its renown . In February, quilters began selling their work online for the first time. Leaders are promoting the town as a tourist destination.
This has inspired a new generation of quilters. Pettway says some young family members have taken up the craft. “And I’ll tell you what,” she says. “They’re getting pretty good.”