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Quilts are a thread of woman’s life
There’s no throwing anything out in Gee's Bend, Alabama, where Delia Pettway-Thibodeaux comes from.
That includes traditions as well.
As a transplant from the south, there’s no denying her roots. Pettway-Thibodeaux keeps her memories of Gees Bend alive and well through the tips of her fingers when she quilts. It’s what Gees Bend is known for, she said.
It was a way of life.
“We all quilted,” she said of herself and sisters. “We weren’t quilting for show. We were doing it for necessity. Quilts were made out of necessity. We were poor.”
For a family of 12, scraping by included using all available means.
There was no buying fabric at the store. Old hand-me-down clothes were cut and used as the patches that made up the quilts. By age 8, Pettway-Thibodeaux knew how to quilt. By 13, teen girls were expected to have finished their first quilt.
When winter rolled around, quilts were pulled out from under the bed and placed atop mattresses to keep the bitter cold away.
Gee's Bend’s formal name is Boykin, but, for natives, like Pettway-Thibodeaux, it will always remain Gees Bend. Even for a town with two names, it isn’t what one would consider something to brag about, Pettway-Thibodeaux said.
There’s only one road into the community where thousands flock to visit the famous quilters. A photographer who visited the town was so impressed by the quilts that he created a photo series based on the quilts. In the 60s, Martin Luther King, Jr. also visited the area and marched across a bridge nearby.
The exposure ultimately made Gees Bend famous, and some of the quilters were invited on a traveling exhibit to talk about the quilts around the nation, Pettway-Thibodeaux said.
According to the Alabama’s official travel website, there’s four places to visit: the Boykin Mercantile, Gee's Bend Welcome Center, Gee's Bend Quilters Collective and That’s Sew Gee’s Bend. The latter is a place where people come to make quilts, sing songs and tell the stories of Gee’s Bend.
From “Lazy Gal” to “Housetop” Pettway-Thibodeaux has made all the patterns. Over her life, she estimates she’s made about 200 quilts. Many go to friends as gifts for weddings, graduations or birthdays. Sometimes she’ll even take the quilts to schools to showcase the importance of heritage and culture.
“It’s woven as different as each person is from Gee's Bend,” Pettway-Thibodeaux said of the quilts.
To Pettway-Thibodeaux, it has always just been a part of life. It is how her descendants — many were slaves of plantation owner Joseph Gee — passed time. The Gees Bend native remembers her mother, a gospel singer, softly singing hymns while quilting.
She often finds herself doing the same.
“When I’m putting one together, it takes me back to my childhood days -- love, family and that kind of stuff. You can’t beat it,” she said. “It takes me back to laughter with my family.”
Although there’s culture where she comes from, Pettway-Thibodeaux couldn’t wait to get out and explore the world. Her father told her stories of the places he had been, and his daughter wanted to find out what was beyond Gee's Bend. So, at 17, she enlisted in the Navy.
After 20-plus years in the Navy, she retired to Kitsap County.
Kitsap County is where she continues to teach her own daughter the skill she learned as a child. It’s also where her granddaughter, Layla, laughs and dances atop the quilts her grandmother stretches out across the living room floor to show visitors.
While she’s passionate about quilting, rheumatoid arthritis often keeps Pettway-Thibodeaux’s quilting stints short. She has a star quilt that’s been in the works for 25 years that she insists on getting done this July.
With more quilts than she has time to piece one together, Pettway-Thibodeaux still picks it up with her daughter, Tiffanye Cameron, a few times a month. It’s the only way to keep alive the unique form of quilting Pettway-Thibodeaux learned so many years ago.
While their styles of doing it may be different — Cameron likes to use scissors and her mom just rips the fabric — doing it together has created a bond tighter than a quilt’s thread.
“I still do things the same way we did in Gees Bend,” Pettway-Thibodeaux said.
Even now, the pair will use fabric from old clothes instead of buying new fabric. Old work pants and stained shirts are fair game for being cut and stitched.
“I really love the tradition and what it stands for,” said Cameron, who finished her first quilt in 2007. “Sometimes I think about it and it just blows me away to have something that dates so far back. And to be a part of that bloodline and heritage is very,very important to me. It is definitely something I will pass on to my daughter.”
Pettway-Thibodeaux has yet to meet anyone in the area who knows how to do Gee's Bend quilting. Even in her own family she has watched the tradition become lost. Many of her nieces have no interest in learning the craft, she said. It makes her grateful her daughter was willing to learn.
“It was interesting to watch her. I was glad she wanted to learn,” she said. “It’s something that you can use. It’s special to me knowing that she can pass it on to her daughter.”
It is also why she will share her talent with students at Central Kitsap High School in honor of Black History Month, a celebration of contributions made to society by those of African descent.
Even though sharing her roots brings back fond memories, Pettway-Thibodeaux said there’s nothing like going home. She visits twice a year, and she’s excited for her next trip in May.
“It’s still my home, and I will probably move back there at some point in time,” she said.
The Gees Bend quilts have been on exhibit in the Smithsonian, Auburn’s Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Arts and the de Young Museum in San Francisco.