GreenSpace: Quilters were green before it was cool

Posted: September 22, 2008

Nettie Young, jaw set, a pink scarf over her hair, pauses to compose herself as she remembers.

"When I was growing up, you didn't have nothing to throw away. No waste food, no waste clothes, no waste nothing."

It was like that for everyone in Gee's Bend, a rural community in central Alabama south of Selma. So they made do. And they made quilts.

Arlonzia Pettway's mother would "take the tail part" of a dress or a skirt, or "those old britches." And "she would cut that good part out and she would make quilts" - with patterns named House Tops and Lazy Gal and Hog Pen Pole.

The Gee's Bend quilts have since become an artistic phenomenon, hailed as extraordinary expressions of geometry, color and imagination.

But as I walked through the exhibition of 74 quilts, which opened last week at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I kept thinking about one color: green. These African American women were the ultimate conservationists.

They had to be. They were poor. "I didn't have nothing to buy nothing with," says Annie Mae Young in a film accompanying the exhibit.

But what I see in them is a kind of parable about waste and resourcefulness. Things that others might think were valueless, they kept and used.

"Every rag you see, you picked it up," says Creola B. Pettway. "Carry it on home and wash it, and you made a quilt."

In 2006, the average American generated 4.6 pounds of trash a day, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This is compared to 2.68 pounds in 1960, and it has ballooned the nation's appropriately named "waste stream" to 251.3 million tons in 2006. An astounding 12.4 percent of that was food scraps.

We're recycling more, to be sure, but one reason the waste stream keeps building is that we're buying more. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, retail sales went from $1.3 trillion in 1992 to $2.9 trillion in 2006.

Art has long been a venue for "repurposing" goods. While the Gee's Bend quilts epitomize that, plenty else is going on. A Google search for "recycled craft ideas" gets 174,000 hits.

An example of what can happen, big-scale, is the clothing Swap-O-Rama-Ramas started by New Mexico's Wendy Tremayne because she "wanted to find a remedy for consumerism."

The idea is for women to bring in old clothes, experience "total abundance" when the stuff is piled together, then start taking things to nearby sewing machines and design experts to learn how to alter them to fit or refashion them into other clothing.

Megan Haupt, leader of the Philadelphia Sewing Collective, which is having its own Swap-O-Rama-Rama on Oct. 19 at Society Hill's Old Pine Community Center, notes that more than the garment is transformed. The participants change, if only for a day, from consumer to creator.

Swap-O-Rama-Ramas are in 70 cities, and process up to 200 tons of textiles in a year; some women bring entire suitcases of clothing.

Both swappers and quilters talk about empowerment. And, oddly enough, contentment.

"It was hard, but it looked like people were happier then than they is now," says Gee's Bend quilter Nettie Young. "People got more now, and look like ain't nobody happy."

After their quilts became famous, the stitchers started getting shipments of textiles, unbidden, says museum textiles curator Dilys Blum.

Some of the women gave them away; they didn't resonate as much as their own scraps, which are rich in memory and stories.

As for the quilts themselves, surely hanging them on museum walls is a fine example of repurposing.

But I still couldn't say if it's better than Missouri Pettway making her deceased husband's pant legs and shirttails into a quilt "to remember him, and cover up under it for love," according to the exhibit's book.

Some of the quilts wear out, of course.

Blum says that in summertime, the women of Gee's Bend often burn the old ones.

The cotton smoke drives away mosquitoes.

And the ashes go back into the earth.

Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or

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