The quilters of Gee’s Bend are collaborating with British brand Marfa Stance on a collection of wearable art and blankets that will be on view in Los Angeles, California, from Thursday to Oct. 27, at Gallery C Project in an exhibition hosted by famed art dealer Joel Chen and curated by his daughter Bianca Chen and Jane Hallworth.
The collaboration was orchestrated by Nest, the nonprofit that works with artisans and makers toward greater gender equity and economic inclusion.
Nest has been working alongside the quilters of Gee’s Bend since 2019, and helped to facilitate their other collaborations with Greg Lauren and Chloé.
“Two of the things we heard from the quilters was they had a lack of market access, and they wanted to test their creativity through brand collaborations,” Ashia Sheikh Dearwester, who leads Nest’s global and domestic partnerships, said in a Zoom interview. She noted that there is a historical legacy of Gee’s Bend brand collaborations, with a Sears collection of corduroy pillow covers produced in the 1972 being one example.
Marfa Stance is a sustainable womenswear label created by Georgia Dant in 2019, with multifunctional, buildable outerwear constructed using fabrics and trims that are responsibly sourced, recycled or dead stock. (The name was inspired by the modular aesthetic of artist Donald Judd, whose foundation is located in Marfa, Texas, and the brand’s stance on responsible production.) It’s sold at Net-a-porter, Matchesfashion and Browns.
“The quilts are abstract, geometric, modern and unique. They are formed out of a need but they are also art, and I love that juxtaposition of creativity and function,” said Dant of the artwork from the rural Alabama community of Black artists. “I love the parallel of how we work and how they work but this collaboration is really to shine a light on them.”
The Marfa Stance x Gee’s Bend collection includes 14 oversize reversible hand-quilted blankets, 16 jackets with hand-quilted panel inserts and 10 framed hand-stitched mini-quilts.
Thirty-eight artisans, aged 19 to 86, came together to work on the project, with two quilters or more per item, and each piece took more than a week to make.
The Gee’s Bend artisans were given luxury fabrics for their work, including cashmeres, wools and fly-weight nylons, all left over from Marfa Stance production in Italy, which they combined with their own found fabric. Each work bears the quilters’ names.
“We’ve never worked with these types of fabrics before…we usually use cottons. The first day we were just busy rubbing and feeling the fabrics, trying to form a relationship so it would work right for us,” said Gee’s Bend quilter Claudia Pettway Charley.
The result was a rewarding experience. “We are used to working in groups, being able to share our ideas, and one of the things Marfa Stance brought back to our remembrance is the times when our grandmothers and great-grandmothers would get together around a quilting frame and work together on a piece. We had gotten away from that with doing our own thing with our Etsy shops.”
The one-off works will be available to purchase at the gallery in L.A. and at marfastance.com for $2,500 to $25,000. “We wanted to present this as an art project, not as fashion or craft, because the quilters deserve to be recognized as artists,” said Dant, who is based in London. “I think the appetite for this kind of support will be much more successful in L.A. with the nature of the products, and this is an American story so I wanted to show it here.”
The brand paid for the quilters’ work upfront, and the revenue earned through the Marfa Stance collection will directly fund a Gee’s Bend community manager role to support market expansion initiatives.
To date, Nest has been able to generate nearly $800,000 in direct income for the quilters.
“It has made a huge difference in the quilters’ lives,” said Pettway Charley. “For myself, I don’t care for student loans, and I am able to pay cash for my daughter’s college tuition. People are able to make larger purchases, and have savings, things we’ve never done before. Economically, it’s done a lot for this community.”