Gee's Bend Quilters 10/14/12

Gee's Bend quilter Lucy Mingo answers a question from the audience on Oct. 14, 2012, at the Tarble Arts Center in Charleston.

Ken Trevarthan, Journal Gazette/Times-Courier

MATTOON -- The Tourism and Arts Department along with the Arts Council have set the schedule for the Gee's Bend quilters' return March 17-23.

However, before the women of Gee's Bend, Ala., arrive, a Mattoon quilter has planned a prelude workshop to help those who hope to participate in the quilters' workshop but may not be experienced quilters.

Jan Little -- who has been quilting for about 40 years -- will lead the Basics of Quilting workshop, which will be geared toward first-time quilters or those who want to brush up on their skills before taking the workshop with the six women of the Gee's Bend Quilt Collective. 

Little said several community members approached Jaime Willis, Gee's Bend event organizer, to ask about the skill level needed to attend the Gee's Bend quilting workshops.

"That's when we started discussing it," Little said. "It's for those interested in learning the beginning of quilting to prepare them for the Gee's Bend workshop."

During the two-day workshop, which will take place Feb. 17 and 20, Little will explain quilting terminology, using quilting tools, piecing and stitching basic quilt blocks and share information about finishing a quilt.

The class is $20 plus the cost of supplies, if needed. The registration deadline is Thursday, and interested participants can contact Little at to request a space in the class.

Little served on the Gee's Bend event committee for the 2012 visit, when she was able to attend several of the workshops.

"They are such a spirited group of women; they are very sharing and open," she said.

Little was moved enough by the women to visit the quilt collective on a recent return trip from Florida with her husband.

"They gather in a very humble structure that's a community building," she said. "It was a wonderful experience to visit with them one-on-one. Even people who aren't quilters should try to get to one of the events for the culture and to just be exposed to this wonderful opportunity."

Mary Ann Pettway, China Pettway, Revil Mosely, Gloria Hoppins, Lucy Mingo and Lucy Pettway-Witherspoon will arrive in March from southwestern Alabama in a village known as Gee’s Bend. They work from a quilt collective where generations of women have made the abstract, colorful quilts out of any material they can find.

The shapes and designs within the quilts are unique to the village and represent items they are familiar with in southern Alabama. Their work has been featured in Smithsonian museum exhibits and the women have traveled the world sharing their culture, quilting techniques and history, and now they’ve agreed to make their second trip to Mattoon.

Their village is located on a strip of land in a bend of the Alabama River. Willis, who has traveled to see the women at the collective, says most of the roads are rocky and made of red dirt.

Mattoon Arts Council Director Justin Grady says since he hasn't visited the women in Alabama it was tough "to really get it" before he met the women.

"I was excited last time, and you can read all about these women and what they do, but until you meet them and hear their story it's tough to really get what they are about and why they are significant on many different levels," he said. "After the last visit so many people were talking about how they just didn't get it before."

The return trip to Mattoon will be special for a number of reasons, including the fact that six of the 12 remaining quilters will be in town with about 20 full-size quilts -- that's more than any other place in the U.S. besides the collective. Three of the women who made the trip last year will return with three additional visitors. 

"They said they never had an experience like they did in Mattoon," Grady said. "They were blown away."

Their visit will include a three-part inter-generational class March 18-20. Participants will be registered in teams including an adult and child who will work on a single quilt. Grady says organizers encourage the teams to register together, but they will have adults available if children would like to register without an adult. The adult quilters' workshop will be March 21-22. This is the workshop Little will be prepping registrants for.

A free, public book signing will take place March 18 and programs will be available throughout the week for groups and guilds. Quilts will be for sale at most events, which will each take place in the Lone Elm Room of the Illinois Central Railroad Depot.

Interested participants can email Willis at to register for any event. The visit is funded by both organizations and a grant from Jaenike Access to the Arts Fund. 

Contact Zyskowski at or 217-238-6869.


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