The Famed Quilters of Gee’s Bend Are Using Their Sewing Skills to Make a Face Mask for Every Citizen in Their Small Alabama Town

The artists are working to make several hundred masks.

Mary Margaret Pettway, the board chair of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, making masks. Photo: Kyle Pettway.
Mary Margaret Pettway, the board chair of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, making masks. Photo: Kyle Pettway.

From creating visuals to promote public health tips, to producing posters that celebrate hospital workers, artists of every ilk are using their skills to help fight the coronavirus pandemic.

Even down in Gee’s Bend—the tiny Alabama hamlet formally known as Boykin that has nurtured three generations of quiltmakers—artists are lending a hand, using their skills to make masks for members of their community. 

The project started when two of the community’s longtime quilters, Mary Margaret Pettway and Mary McCarthy, saw an article about medical professionals in a neighboring city dealing with a face mask shortage. Included in the story was a template for how to make masks at home—which is exactly what the quilters did. 

Masks made by Gee's Bend quiltmakers. Photo: Kyle Pettway.

Masks made by Gee’s Bend quiltmakers. Photo: Kyle Pettway.

“I started making a few samples two or three weeks ago,” Pettway tells Artnet News over the phone. “I’ve been a sewer all my life, so switching from one thing to another is not hard.” She and her crew focused on providing masks for local community members whose health leaves them particularly vulnerable, since the patterns were not medical grade but would still offer some protection. 

Eventually, Pettway and McCarthy’s plan grew, and others joined in to help, coordinating their efforts over the phone. Now the six or seven quilters are working to make 500 masks—enough for the entire community. 

The Souls Grown Deep Foundation, which is dedicated to promoting and preserving work made by artists from the American South, is paying the artists to create the masks and assisting by distributing materials to the quilters and delivering the finished products.

Mary Margaret Pettway, Souls Grown Deep Board Chair, making masks. Photo: Kyle Pettway.

Mary Margaret Pettway, the board chair of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, making masks. Photo: Kyle Pettway.

“Because this is an elderly community, we’re trying to keep them safe,” says Pettway, who also serves as the chair of the foundation. “We’re going to drop off the masks on their doorsteps and in their mailboxes—whatever we can get to. I’ll call and let them know that they’re there. We have a senior nutrition center down here as well, so we’ll leave a few down there too.”

Much of the fabric used for the non-medical masks comes from American Giant, a clothing company that has been working with the quilters in an ongoing collaboration. The business has also reconfigured its factories in North Carolina to produce medical-grade masks certified by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services

Masks made from American Giant cloth. Photo: Mary McCarthy.

Masks made from American Giant cloth. Photo: Mary McCarthy.

When they aren’t making masks, the Gee’s Bend’s quilters are creating what New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman has described as “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.” Their dazzling geometric artworks have traveled around the globe and been reproduced on official US postage stamps.

But for the foreseeable future, the quilters are applying their skills to a more urgent cause. If Pettway, McCarthy, and the other quilters meet their goal of supplying every person in the Gee’s Bend, they’ll move on to the next town.

“We’ll start going up the road,” Pettway says. “We’ll go as far as we can. It’s simple. We want to keep people safe. Everything that we can do, we’re doing it.” 


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