When Caster Pettway, 67, was a girl, there were always quilts around. They were on the beds and couches in her house. Sometimes, her mother would hang a quilt on the porch 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 grew up in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, a tiny community on the Alabama River. Many of its residents are descended from enslaved people who worked on a cotton plantation there, started in 1816 by Joseph Gee.
When Caster was growing up, in the 1960s, Gee’s Bend was a remote community of cotton farmers. Now, the town is 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 out of necessity: They needed blankets to keep warm. They didn’t have proper fabric, so they cut up old clothing and sacks, and sewed the scraps together.
Over time, these women developed a unique style. They didn’t use patterns seen in traditional quilts. They improvised. They cut their fabric into large, often irregular shapes. Their bold, beautiful 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 so impressed that he visited the town and bought the quilt. He returned again and again. In 2002, Arnett arranged to display these quilts in museums and galleries around the country.
They took the art world by storm. Many experts compared the Gee’s Bend quilts to paintings by European artists like Henri Matisse. A critic for the New York Times called the quilts “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.”
A New Generation
Today, locals are making sure that the community benefits from its renown . In February, Gee’s Bend quilters began selling their work online for the first time. Leaders are promoting the town as a tourist destination. This has inspired the next generation to carry on the tradition.
Pettway says some of her young family members have taken up the craft. “And I’ll tell you what,” she says. “They’re getting pretty good.”