We've previously written about the visually stunning work of the Gee's Bend quilters, a group of makers in Alabama. Now, Etsy has announced a unique partnership that will make the quilts available for purchase online for the first time ever.
Nine quilters will now have their own Etsy shops to list pieces they've previously made, new quilts, quilted masks, and even made-to-order items, depending on their preference. The current roster includes Sharon Williams, Caster Pettway, Emma Mooney Pettway, Lue Ida McCloud, Kristen Pettway, Mary Margaret Pettway, Doris Pettway Mosely, Loretta Pettway Bennett, and Doris Pettway Hacketts.
Etsy worked with the Souls Grown Deep Foundation and Community Partnership — an organization "dedicated to documenting, preserving, and promoting the contributions of African American artists from the South, and the cultural traditions in which they are rooted" — and Nest, a nonprofit organization "building a new handworker economy."
The quilts created by Gee's Bend makers have been displayed at institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and are important markers of Black history and culture. But a few challenges came with the growing attention. In 2008, three quilters settled a lawsuit against art dealer William Arnett. In a 2018 New York Times documentary, Mary Lee Bendolph mentions seeing her work on display and having someone sell her work; but she didn't know where the quilts ended up and didn't see any earnings either.
"The longstanding tradition of quilt-making in Gee's Bend has given rise to a number of artists, but various factors, from the community's remote location to art market biases, prevented them from earning income," Maxwell L. Anderson, President of Souls Grown Deep Foundation and Community Partnership, told Hunker. "We're thrilled that the Etsy launch will open up new pathways to direct economic opportunity for the quilters working in the Bend today."
Mary Margaret Pettway became interested in the collaboration because of the possibility of being able to run her own shop. One of her pieces, a bright red and white baby quilt called "Fan Parade," immediately catches your eye.
"It reminded me of the way a fan is being held" Pettways tells Hunker. "The original pattern was Drunkard's Path. Me and Mary McCarthy were playing with that pattern, tilting the blocks in various angles and came up with this. I like the red and white colors on this one."
Etsy hopes to onboard more quilters onto the site in the near future. The company has also given a grant to Nest to "equip the Gee's Bend quilters with the resources and education needed to open up their own individual Etsy shops," according to a press release. Rebecca Van Bergen, founder and director of Nest, tells Hunker that Etsy was the "perfect partner for this undertaking due to their ethos of serving as an on-ramp to entrepreneurship."
Each artist will have an official Gee's Bend Quilts shop icon to verify its authenticity.
"I have long admired the Gee's Bend quilters for both their rich history and craftsmanship ... " Dayna Isom Johnson, Etsy Trend Expert, told Hunker. "And because this is an ongoing partnership, I am looking forward to the additional Gee's Bend quilters who will be joining Etsy in the near future."
Developments like this one will hopefully mean that the Gee's Bend quilters can continue finding ways to get the financial and business support they deserve for their one-of-a-kind pieces.