Tutwiler Quilters: Building Community through the Arts

Fabric, needles, and thread, in the skillful hands of community members, have created beautiful, functional art and an economic boost for the Delta community of Tutwiler. 

On February 19, 2021 at 8 p.m. CST, the Tutwiler Quilters will be honored with the award for “Arts in Community” as part of the 33rd Governor’s Arts Awards, a broadcast-only ceremony presented on MPB TV. This year, the artwork for the Governor’s Arts Awards poster and branding features a quilt from the Tutwiler Quilters collection made by Mary Sue Robertson.

More than 30 years ago, the renowned Tutwiler Quilters program was started at the Tutwiler Community Education Center by religious sisters working to improve health outcomes in the underserved community. 

“Sister Maureen Delaney was the executive director at the Tutwiler Community Education Center for years,” said Melanie Powell, the current executive director at the Tutwiler Community Education Center. “One day, she went out to do community outreach, and she ended up at Mary Sue Robertson’s house. Mary Sue Robertson was making a quilt, and she had several of her quilts on the bed. Sister Maureen left that day—story has it—with four quilts that she had purchased from Mary Sue Robertson. It was then that Sister Maureen came up with the idea of quilting being a way for the women in the community to make their own money. Thus was the beginning of the Tutwiler Quilters.”

Mary Sue Robertson

Mary Sue Robinson is considered the matriarch of the program. The program functions now much as it did at the outset of the project: as a cottage industry. Quilters work from home, at their own pace, with materials provided to them by the Tutwiler Community Education Center. Their quilted pieces include blankets, potholders, and tote bags, among other items.

The quilters often take a traditional pattern and improvise, based on the fabric provided to them. Every piece offered for sale goes through a rigorous quality control system led by longtime quilter Mary Ann Mackey at the Tutwiler Center. 

Quilters are paid for each item upon completion. The Tutwiler Community Education Center sells the items at the center, on their website, and at quilt and craft shows across the country.

The quilters and their artworks received a national boost when CBS produced a feature on them in 1999 for the program 60 Minutes. Thanks in part to this media attention, items made by the quilters are now treasured by collectors around the world who value the artistic excellence of the hand-quilted items created in the Southern African-American tradition. 

“All of our items are hand stitched, which is a process that the quilters do with pride,” said Powell. “I am always in awe of the work that they do. That’s why they have remained with hand-stitching. It’s rich in culture and rich in the tradition of quilting in this area.”

Through countless stitches and yards of material, more than 30,000 items have been made and sold since 1988.

The Tutwiler Quilters organization, now under the direction of Melanie Powell, is a member of the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi. Staying true to a mission of building community, the quilters made masks for local hospitals and others in need during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Learn more about the Tutwiler Quilters on the Mississippi Arts Hour podcast.

Find details about the 2021 Governor’s Arts Awards

Photos by Rory Doyle.