Ode to My Grandmother
Today’s black herstory month post is an ode to my grandmother, who lovingly made quilts her entire life. Her quilts followed a tradition of rag quilting she learned in the waning days of slavery and they adorn each of our beds with the love of a powerful matriarch who taught us all to value education and ourselves. (Did I mention that all of my Aunts are teachers, all of my cousins PhDs? and yes, with one exception, our generation and theirs are all women, so it is also a legacy of matriarchs and matriarchy.)
When my grandfather died due to hospital negligence, my grandmother began a quilt for all of her children and all of her grandchildren. To each of us she bequeathed a final story before letting go of this world to join my grandfather in the next. Mine hangs above my bed as a powerful symbol that grandma is still watching over me.
I have always wanted to be a better quilter to honor her artistry. My mother avoids needle and thread as toil, her memories are of big hands pushing needle through fabric to give to someone else, to keep the farm afloat. But I keep saying, lets quilt together. Let’s quilt something beautiful for grandma. My little sister smacks her gum and says “We don’t sew;” it’s the northerner in her or perhaps the 100% American, I don’t really know.
So today I quilt this post in honor of my grandmother and the amazing gift she gave us all:
While quilting in Africa was largely done by men, quilting in N. America was done almost exclusively by women. As slaves, African American women were charged with sewing, mending, and other textile work as part of household chores. They also often pieced scraps and rags given to them or discarded by plantation owners into blankets to sleep on or to cover their families in the winter months. (Scrap quilting was done during slavery but became essential afterward and could be done with all sorts of discarded fabrics not just bits of cloth)
Some have argued that black women’s quilts followed a traditional European pattern and therefore the origins of quilting are in the West. Due to the nature of the intersection of women’s and colonial histories, ie what documents were kept as “worthy” and what was discarded, the reality is far more complicated.
- black women’s quilts were seldom considered historically significant and so there are not enough early quilts to generalize about the content, pattern, or origin of African American quilts
- while saved quilts do follow mainstream trends they also contain symbols found in African textiles; the shifting meaning of these symbols to fit a N. American context do not necessarily negate shared origin or hybridity
- some black and white women quilted together during slavery potentially leading to syncretic patterns and innovations
- African textiles were traded throughout the Caribbean, Central America, and the American South along with slaves (Wahlman 1993), thus textile influence from Africa could have impacted both European-American and African-American forms prior to research on quilts
- b/c many slaves were only given scraps and sacks to sleep on, some quilting forms could have originated in the colonies as part of the emerging African American culture; one such form is the pine cone quilt universally credited to African American quilters according to quilt historian Cuesta Benberry
Originary tales flatten out a much more complex story of black women’s relationships to quilting as well as the relationship between black and white women quilters. They further posit a linear narrative that masks the circularity and communalism of the craft as well as the trials of putting together any clear history of women’s textile work in the U.S. prior to the early 1900s.
African symbols in African-American quilts continue to this day. In Africa, large patterns on a quilt were used to distinguish one’s own kin group from another at long distances; today, not only do African American quilters continue the use of large patterns but also African textiles and beadwork to establish a cultural link back to African roots. Breaks in the pattern were essential as they both confused evil spirits thought to travel in linear directions and marked significant shifts in the quilt wearer’s life or the life of his/her family. Lifecycles were also marked by the diamond shape the points of which represented: birth, life, death, and rebirth. As well will see in the “Teaching & Remembering” section of the post, these symbols not only reoccur throughout African American quilting but are important symbols in lynching quilts. The use of multiple patterns in a single quilt were also significant as the number of patterns indicated ones status; the more patterns on the quilt, the more status one had in African society.
As you can see, local quilt collectors have noted certain regular forms in both “utilitarian” and “ornamental” quilts from the African American community. As the video illustrates, innovation in pattern versus repetition seem to be key for African American quilters in general (repeated pattern is also present). Some of the unique use of emergent pattern will be discussed when looking at the work of quilters from the 1930s in the second half of this post. Seeing the images juxtaposed first with textiles made by Africans and then painting made by European artists illustrates the melding of forms I mention above, since both textile makers and painters were men, it also points to the gender difference in attention to artistic forms since both African textiles and paintings have generally received more attention than quilting until the current period. Many of the European artists chosen to compare to quilts may have originally been influenced by African sculptures and hieroglyphs, once again illustrating the circular motion of artistic innovation further emphasizing the connections between race and gender, originary tales, and mainstream art history. (Obviously, both regular and art historians are doing much more innovative work now then the developmental narratives that always begin in the west and then turn to the civilizing of the rest, however basic origin myths continue to permeate our understanding of art, as form, craft, and process.)
There has been much controversy over whether or not quilts symbols were used along the Underground Railroad. There are two major proponents of the theory, Gladys-Marie Fry’s book Stitched from the Soul and Tobin and Dobard’s Hidden in Plain View. Fry’s book argued that the color black meant refuge, triangles indicated prayer, etc. but offers no substantial citations for her deductions. Tobin’s book is based on the report of an African American quilter who remembered a history of using quilt patterns as a way to escape slavery; according to some, the quiltmaker was hounded by Tobin for “meaning in her quilts” and by others that her “quilt code” was given freely. This matters b/c it goes to the credibility of the account and the role of informant as possible trickster; unfortunately, Tobin’s source died before the book went to print. The patterns in question, some of which are pictured in the GLAAQN quilt to the rt, include “Bear’s Paw” to follow animal tracks north through the Appalachians, “Flying Geese” as other escapees, “Drunkard’s Path” is the erratic route, and other patterns meaning wheels, cabins, crossroads, etc. There were also symbols in the stitching and tying of quilts. There were no actual quilts made just the memorization of pre-existing quilt patterns as a remembered road map to freedom. Tobin and Dobard’s argue that this symbolic language would be in keeping with other maps to freedom like “negro” spirituals. Despite criticism from quilt historians about the utter lack of textile evidence for such a story, Tobin and Dobard remind that slaves did not make, carry, or look for quilts but rather memorized quilt patterns.
The dispute seems to stem largely from a lack of evidence in the textiles themselves, pattern dating that precludes certain pattern use, and leaps of logic that do not leave room for existing ambiguities in the known record. (see link for a list of historian and quilter criticisms of the quilt code here – scroll past the yellow block text to the actual documented piece) Others have argued that the confusion comes from popular names for patterns like the “under ground railroad pattern” pictured in the bottom left corner of the image to the right. Names related to slavery and freedom cropped up in antebellum and may have fused with oral histories of escape to create a “quilt code” after the fact. There are also stories of Tubman giving a quilt to an abolitionist, tho no mention of a quilt code. Also fictional accounts of the quilt code were published in both children’s and young adult literature, and some historians have argued that people wanting to make money manipulated the fiction(s) to turn them into fact.
What is important for this post is that regardless of whether these symbols were actually used in the railroad, they have become a part of modern symbolic language among some African American quilters. In the modern version, these elements are used to tell the story of escape to freedom, in quilts honoring Tubman, or as border art in quilts connecting our past to our present. In this way, they serve a new purpose that can be deconstructed through the quilt code but do not necessarily have to reflect an actual historical reality or worse “exotica” for capitalist gain. Instead they can be seen as reterritorialization from a largely white imaginary of black quilting forms into one of African American storytelling, like the Penny Sisto quilt to the right that frames Tubman with the supposed symbol for safe house. As elements of modern herstory technique they remain significant and need to be recognizable to those analyzing quilt content.
Women quilters used the symbols above as well as an innovations in the form developed in the colonies, to mark down the history of their families and their struggles. They were the first African American historians and their stories were invaluable at a time in which slaves were denied literacy and colonials did not care to mark their lives except in terms of ledgers and occasional notes. Despite the fact that the WPA Slave Narratives included references to the importance of quilts (for income) and later collection as art by primarily white female collectors/educators, it was most often slave ledgers and white slave and plantation owners letters and diaries that early historians went to when writing our lives back into the historical record.
Women also used quilts to protect their families and their homes. Often words or symbols for protection were woven into quilts, particularly those that hung over doors or were meant to cover children.
Both before and after slavery, quilting provided African American women with homosocial bonds. As one of the modern quilters from the Pacific Northwest African American Quilters organization argues, quilting bees allowed African American women with limited funds an opportunity to come together and socialize after church or in the evenings with very little economic investment. Elaborate or ornate quilts, like those we will see in the next section are not cheap to make, however, both more simple quilts and quilts made from shared supplies can continue to be a less costly endeavor. It is also true that quilting bees have always proliferated in working class and subsistence level communities among both white and black women.
The same interviewee argued that quilting also helped secure bonds between black women in the same community through “sister quilts.” Sister quilts were done by the quilting bee to mark key rites of passage, 50th birthdays, graduations, births of children, etc., and were presented to the group member only when completed. The key elements of these quilts were a combination of personal aesthetics of the recipient and memorialized oral history of her life and/or connecting her life to larger African and African American themes. Though these quilts may have different names in other parts of the country, they are common. In my own life, my grandmother made “sister quilts” for the women in our community and in our family and when my closest friend had her first child, the first thing I thought to do was ensure she had a quilt whose symbols reflected our shared African and African American pasts as well as hopes for the baby’s future. The quilt maker who helped me put it together was absolutely familiar with the form, though she had not made one for a newborn before.
The tradition of quilting was passed on along gendered lines as well. Women learned quilting from each other including white women teaching black women during slavery, black women teaching white women especially in antebellum, and especially women passing the knowledge down from generation to generation. Most modern quilters site their mothers or grandmothers work as an inspiration for becoming quilters.
Women were also an essential part of the early preservation of black women’s quilt. Museum credit white women for collecting black women’s quilts. Their diaries show a keen sense of racial difference and entitlement in procuring quilts in many of these cases that cannot be ignored; however, the recognition that these quilts were art and should be preserved ensured that we have some early quilts in the historical record. Nuns, such as the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first African American women’s Catholic Order, also kept collections of quilts from their girls school dating back to 1829. It is equally clear that the tradition of quilting and gifting quilts to one’s relatives helped preserve them as well, but given the caution with which African Americans viewed certain collectors, this treasure trove of early quilting has remained largely within families and outside of the historical record. Local museums are trying to change this by highlighting women’s textil worker from their area, where they maybe more trust and more accountability. The Old State House in Arkansas for instance has been able to collect both family and indivdidual quilts from the 1930s-1950s that might not otherwise be available. Whether pursuing quilts and quiltmaking from a place of bigoted admiration or one of actual intra or interracial sisterhood, the tradition of quilting expanded through these interactions and provided for the ongoing connections between women of all colors who quilt to this day.
As with African American quilters, white female quilters often used the form to tell stories about their lives that they could not or did not feel they had access to elsewhere. And the form became essential particularly to poor, rural, and southern white women who not only recorded their histories but also used quilting to comment on gender based violence. While many quilting bees are race specific, African American women and white women also continue to quilt together, trade forms and innovations, and offer open courses in local communities.
The First Quilters
This post continues to grow every time I sit down to write it, so I am going to cut it off here and do a second post highlighting quilters in the following order:
- first known quilters
- quilters of the 1930s-50s
- modern day quilters and quilters guilds
Both of these posts are based on a quick survey of the literature not expertise. I welcome any corrections, alternative arguments, etc. As always, shared knowledge is the best kind.😀
- Keith Mallett. Tree of Life. (His work is breathtaking)
- “Quilting from Bits of Cotton.” date of photo unknown. Queensboro, North Carolina.
- Batiste-Brown, Patricia. “Silhouettes of My People” 2008 NW African American Museum Exhibit.
- “Sanctified” quilt detail. artist unattributed.
- “Untitled.” artist unattributed. Uhuru Quilting Guild Black History Month Trunk Show 2008
- Symbols Quilt. Artist and title unknown. Part of the Michigan Quilters Network Exhibit in 1996.
- Sisto, Penny. “Harriet Tubman.” Portrait Quilt Series.
- Quilters from the St. Jospeh Historic Foundation.
- Gee’s Bend quilting bee. Birmingham, Alabama, 2005
- B Pietilla. “Color Him Father.”
- Jane and Rebecca Bond Kentuky 1828. Jane (African American) and Rebecca (White) quilted together making over 20 quilts for their children and as gifts to their communities.
- Life of the Pacific Northwest American Quilters Circle. Tacoma Art Museum Recording. 2008.
- Kyra. Black Threads Blog.
- Wahlman. Signs and Symbols. NY: Penguin, 1993