Martha Pettway was born in 1911 in the White's Quarters area of Gee’s Bend. White’s was called Primrose then and had its own official designation on the map. Of the four contiguous neighborhoods in Gee’s Bend—Pettway, Sodom, Brown's Quarters, and White's Quarters—White’s was the most removed from the “center” (around the old plantation house) and was the most rural—lots of woods, few houses. The Reverend Curtis Pettway, her son, recalls that she spent a great deal of time quilting with her best friends, Clementine Kennedy and Pearlie Kennedy Pettway. These women’s works, especially Clementine Kennedy’s “Housetop” quilt that very closely resembles Martha Pettway’s versions, hint at the many circles of stylistic interchange, now lost, within which the tradition developed.
Martha's best period of quiltmaking coincided with her childbearing years, the late 1920s to the 1940s. She had eleven children. Unlike most other quiltmakers, she carefully protected and preserved a dozen or so of her earliest quilts. She was one of the most technically polished quiltmakers of her era, and her preferred pattern was the “Housetop,” repeated in numerous variations. She also rethought the conventional design of the “Housetop” to create some of the most superb versions yet found. Reverend Pettway relates that his mother was constantly making quilts and clothing, and didn't mind assistance from encroaching technology. “She sewed more of her quilts and clothes with her hands, but that lady knew what to do with a machine!”