The online sales allowed Gee’s Bend quilters control over their work
Quilts created by generations of women from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, are on display at the Met and the Whitney and in the Smithsonian Museum of Art. In addition, they’ve been displayed in exhibitions and galleries around all over the world. However, if the quilters wish to sell their world-renowned quilts — colorful, often asymmetrical, captivating pieces, made by hand to provide warmth from scraps of fabric they’ve waited for buyers who might be interested in showing up.
It requires a trip deep through to the Alabama Black Belt, along red dirt roads that have little to no cell coverage and through a secluded area of meadows with grass and pine forests, before arriving at the community that lies deep within an oxbow of Alabama River that, if the ferry’s not operating the entire 40 miles away from the nearest hotel supermarket, pharmacy, or supermarket.
At the very least, this was before February 2021.
Despite their popularity, quilters’ fame is because people share their work outside of their communities, and the financial rewards were distributed to those outside their community. Sometimes, it is returned through one-time gallery sales and copyright royalties. However, it’s not enough to bring these Black communities, well-known in the world of art, out of what United Nations has called some of the most difficult circumstances of poverty in the world’s developed countries.
One thing that Gee’s Bend quilters needed was a more efficient method to sell their quilts directly. Then, they can control the products they sell, set prices, and earn all profits. Thus, one year ago, the three generations of Gee’s Bend quilters launched their own Etsy shops, which transformed the online marketplace into the affluent direct-to-consumer selling opportunity that they’d been missing.
They had never utilized Etsy previously, though certain of them were familiar with the site — and not just for the chance it provided. For many years, a group of crafters from all over the world was selling their #geesbend-inspired quilts via Etsy. As they made sales that benefited from the Gee’s Bend name, the people behind their most popular search phrase continued to quilt whenever they could find joann fabrics.
Today whenever fourth-generation designer Claudia Pettway Charley spots a “Gee’s Bend-inspired” quilt on Etsy, She’ll call the seller to inquire what their relationship is to her or her community. She would like to bring them into an open discussion on appropriation. Unfortunately, she is not often able to get any response.
“We put a lot of work into it, and it’s about our life,” Charley states about quilting. Charley recently was appointed to the position of community manager at Gee’s Bend, vetting partnership opportunities and acting as a link between the outside world and her local community. “We had a lot of work to do. The clothes were made from scraps. A few were old denim pieces that was used by my father, cut and faded. My grandmother made use of feed bags and corn washed them, and occasionally bleached them for various shades. This wasn’t about ‘I’m just going to make this. We made quilts to keep warm. It was about our struggles and survival.”
As per Nest’s Director of brand strategy and sourcing Amanda Lee, once her team and the initial group of quilters decided on the system for Etsy, they had to face the reality of starting with a blank slate and trying to compete against established sellers is no simple feat on its own. And before, there were higher barriers to entry. For example, many quilters did not have technical skills, knowledge, internet connection, mobile signal, or the ability to capture their work or market the job effectively. Once the online shops were operational, however, they’d have to deal with another issue that was a bit more difficult to solve: only a few residents owned cars and had driver’s licenses. And the closest post office with full service was more than thirty miles from the nearest post office. There were a few who had no banks to make payments. Some had zero experience filing taxes.
Etsy provided a way to get there in the right direction, removing their usual 5 percent transaction fee for the year and donating an amount of $50,000 to assist Nest with everything from marketing, photography, and workshops for building brands to financial literacy training.
Ten shops for quilters were launched on the same day, January 1, 2021, within 48 hours; some of them had gone through their inventory which accounted for $72,000. In August, that was $300,000. By the end of December, there were more than twelve Gee’s Bend quilt shops -each by the officially licensed Gee’s Bend logo to set them apart from other shops — had made more than half one million in revenue, according to figures from Nest.
This is a significant amount of investment for any maker however, for those who are in Gee’s Bend, its impact is colossal. “I’ve actually gotten a very small house built, thanks to Etsy and a few more people,” says Mary Margaret Pettway, a third-generation quilter selling quilts as well as wall hangings that are pieced on Etsy. (Pettway is a popular name in Gee’s Bend, because it was settled by the formerly slaved inhabitants of their Pettway Plantation.) Her son, 19, recently auctioned his very first piece of quilt. “It helps us acquire items we require. I know several women who’ve bought cars. They’re paying off the debts they incurred. They’re able to help their families.”
Charley has used a portion of her profits to cover her daughter’s tuition fees to college -and without student loans. However, she says, Etsy’s benefits extend beyond the predictable income and financial security. for the first time, Etsy puts its makers in charge.
“Etsy gave us an outlet and a platform where we were able to keep up with our own inventory, set our prices, and receive 100 percent of the proceeds,” Charley states. “That alone was completely different. When you’re able to do your own business and take care of what you want to do, they say it was something completely new that we had to experience.”
Delia Pettway Thibodeaux is a Gee’s Bend quilter who, having retired from a position in the Navy as well as the Department of Defense, splits her time between her home in Gee’s Bend as well as Washington state. She also has an online shop on Etsy. She says it’s increased the number of public’s view of quilters and also create opportunities for lesser-known artists such as “the silent quilters” -within the quilting community.
“Gee’s Bend is a major brand,” she declares. “A lot of people don’t have art money now, so we are able to make some custom works according to budget, style, spaces people have in their homes, and helped us reach a whole new genre of people.”
In the Bend you might spot Claudia Pettway Charley quilting with her mother of 85 years Tinnie as well as her aunt Minnie and her 19-year-old daughter Francesca with her. They all sell their works on Etsy.
“We keep it going from one generation to the next, and we continue to work, and we don’t stop,” Charley states. “The concept is to will not die out. We’re not going anywhere. We’re determined to keep going. Etsy is the best option we’ve found to make sure that we’re in control that we’ve never had the chance to enjoy, and we can control our destiny the Gee’s Bend method.”