Artist Profile: Misses China and Stella Mae Pettway

Oh, my goodness! Two of the unforgettable Gee’s Bend Quilters are returning to Fiber College this year! Ask anyone who had an opportunity to take a class with them, sing with them, chat with them, see their presentation, etc. in 2014 and you’ll learn about what a life-changing experience it is to experience these two incredibly vibrant women. This year, Misses China and Stella Mae Pettway are returning and will be teaching a great number of classes across the five full days of Fiber College.

A Gees Bend work clothes quilt

China and Stella Mae are related by marriage, church, and quilting. They are a lovely duo who brought us joy in 2014 and are returning because of our shared love of sewing, gardening, laughter, and conversation.

China quilts long into the night with bright colors, a bold eye, and a rhythm that bears out her reputation as being one of the leading gospel singers in Gee’s Bend. Her enthusiasm is infectious and you’ll soon be singing along while you work on your quilt. Stella Mae is more introspective. She guides with a smile and a gentle touch to your arm. She reminds you to listen to your heart and follow wherever it leads. Stella Mae tends to blend a strong sense of style with muted denim accented with bold sprinkles of color.

  • Keep Warm, Cover Your Bed will be offered on Wednesday and Thursday from 9 to 4 both days;
  • Hand Quilting Gee’s Bend Style will be on Friday 1:30-5:30;
  • Gee’s Bend Housetop and Brick Layer will be on Saturday 9-1;
  • Work Clothes: Recycle and Recreate will be on Saturday 1:30 to 5:30; and
  • the Flying Geese Runner will be offered on Sunday from 9 to 4.

Miss China and Miss Stella Mae are both SO happy to be returning to Fiber College. It’s time to learn more about them. And then, go sign up for one or more of their classes (before they all fill up!) here.

Stella Mae Pettway

Fiber College chooses a new theme each year. For 2017, it’s Re-Use, Re-Design, Re-Create.  How do you incorporate any part of this theme into an important part of your life?

This is part of all of my life. Re-use, Re-Design, Re-Create. We used to just use old dresses and old shirts [and did everything by hand—tearing and sewing]. But now, I have a chance to design with the new fabrics and now I can design my own work! Now when I sit down at my machine, I can make a block – I can make a long block with greater lengths of fabric – I can cut it apart into lots of blocks!  So then I redesign the blocks and move them in different directions. If I make a house block, I can cut it apart and see new things. Mostly, I love the NEW fabrics – I can see the colors can blend in really beautiful now – lots of bright colors – and mix it with some of the old stuff.

Stella Mae: When I think about what happened when I was growing up…we’re doing the same things in quilting but it’s easier now with the tools. We’re using the same design – old clothes – it brings back a lot of memories for me. I have some skirts and one or two dresses I wore some time ago and included them in a quilt.

Log Cabin (1960s) by Loretta Pettway

Aside from your class, what is your favorite thing about FC? What do you think new attendees just shouldn’t miss?

My favorite thing is when we were in Maine, the people were SO nice and sweet. The atmosphere – the climate was different – we have some really hot, hot weather here in Alabama.  So, one of our favorite things was the weather. And then sitting and singing with the class – how they will think up new ideas – we’re trying to get together – if they’re making THEIR design, I could use part of their design – Art is art! It’s YOUR WAY! In 1972, when we were discovered, and were told we were doing ART, I took a new perspective on that. I didn’t want to do it the way we used to do it back in the old days.  We have so many colors now – and the roller cutter! I got choices now. One of my favorite things was how I was able to see how my students were doing things. I could learn from THEM!

Stella Mae:
They shouldn’t miss enjoying different quilts on display. And living in a cabin (at the campground) was great — The only thing I could relate it to was The Three Bears!

Housetop Quilt with Work Clothes by Rita Mae Pettway

What’s the best piece of advice a mentor has ever given to you?

China: I’ve had a lot of mentors who have given me advice. One of the best pieces of advice – “You all do great art! You all do things in a different way – and you can do things YOUR way – it takes you so long to do your work – and we like the way you do your work and how you create – the way you all cut the fabrics.” [Ed. note—China reflects here on her previous visit to Fiber College – 2015—when she says her students were her mentors.]

I tell them I cut all strips – 1, 1-1/2, 2, 3, and 4 inches. I lay them next to my machine – I get my scissors and roller cutter next to me and come up with my designs – I learned from them – and they told me to Keep up the good work! And to keep doing things OUR way!

Hexagon Mosaic in Rows by China Pettway

I used to take little pieces of scraps and make something – we never complained – you could take a small piece of fabric and make something special. I would be praying, asking God’s leadership – to guide me – as I do my work – we praise our God while we create. I’m never above anybody – I don’t put nobody before God – God should be getting the praise and not man. The students tell us they like how we operate, how content we are, they love how we live.

Stella Mae: Listen before speaking!! There’s lots of talking – they could be frustrated – you should let them say what they want to say and think about how you will respond to them.

Bars Work Clothes Quilt by Annie Mae Young

Tell us about a time that you developed an exciting idea for your fiber art; where did the idea come from?  What inspired you?

Stella Mae: My mother inspired me to quilt. When I was a little girl, all I wanted to do was play outside in my homemade playhouse. We were saving little scraps of fiber. My mom said we needed to quilt – it was something we had to do by 12 years old. We needed to know how to sew, cook, and do some cleaning. When other people got interested in Gee’s Bend, things changed – I get an idea – -I either cut or tear it – I use my machine but when I sit outside or ride in the car, I can quilt (when someone else is driving!). I’ve done four quilts recently – They’re called “anyplace, anytime, anywhere” quilts – you can use them anywhere!

Another housetop variation (1970) by Linda Bennet

If you could re-design your life as a fiber artist, what would that look like?

Stella Mae: It would look like a playhouse – I’d have a room just for quilting – fixed up pretty, my quilting frame, scraps in a box, my batting, my sewing machine, and the walls would be decorated with designs I think up.  I would need to get a little picture of each design up on the wall. Everything would be all organized. My room would be so pretty.

Housetop Variation (2004) by Louisiana Bendolph

Tell us about a time that you developed an exciting idea for your fiber art; where did the idea come from?  What inspired you?

China: My mother inspired me – I made my first quilt when I was 11. My mother told me – she gave me ideas – sitting in the rocking chair out on the porch – Her fingers would be so sore from cutting up the old clothes –the scissors were so dull — and sometimes tearing it by hand – she was sitting there making a star quilt one day – I asked her what she was doing – “I’m making a quilt!” She told me to go back to the closet and bring her old shirts, old pants – a piece of paper bag – cut the pattern that I want – she cut out a star – she laid it on top of the material – she cut it for me – I want to be like my mama! I wanted to be like my mama – she was very smart – that’s why I sing – she used to sing – Every Easter, my sister and my cousins would sing songs for Easter – but my mama would make us dresses – we didn’t even have shoes. We would sing – people would laugh – I didn’t let it stop me – The ladies made the quilt tops – they came to my mama’s house to put the quilt together – people worked together back then – that’s what inspired me – I want to live up to higher heights – I try to share what I got with people – when we went to Houston and I saw my quilt on the wall in the museum – they got the quilt from under my bed and it ended up hanging on a wall in the museum. That’s why I want to share with other people.

Housetop Sampler Variation by Annie Mae Young

How does your art re-create YOU?

Stella Mae: When I quilt and I figure out a yard or two and I look at the stitching, it motivates me – it feels good!

Gee’s Bend Housetop Variation (1930s) by Henrietta Pennway

What’s the most important thing that you want potential students to know about you?

China: I am a child of God and I’m glad I’m a child of God – that I love them all – I’ll do anything I can do to help them – there is no wrong way- there is no right way – art is just art! Get two pieces of material, start putting it together and they can make something beautiful!
I’m there for them 24/7 and I will help them in any way – don’t be afraid – anything you want to ask me or show me or tell me, I’ll be there for them!

Stella Mae: I don’t like to talk about myself. I don’t like to put myself too high – I just like people to see me for who I am!

Now that you’ve met (or re-met) Miss China and Miss Stella Mae, you KNOW you want to take at least one class with them. Hurry! And go sign up here!

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