Always there: the overlooked history of quilting i...

Always there: the overlooked history of quilting in African American culture

“Just putting the needle through the fabric, I felt a connection to my great-grandmother…my grandmother, my mother.” 

Tracy Vaughn-Manley, Department of African American Studies

Prof. Tracy Vaughn-Manley is a professor of African American Studies at Northwestern and a renowned researcher in quilting, quilting history and quilt references in African American literature. But when she first began teaching at Smith college in 2002, she had no interest in quilting at all, despite many of her matriarchs being talented seamstresses. Sitting alone at a new professor orientation, a woman sat down beside her, one of the few other Black women in attendance. Upon striking up a conversation, Vaughn-Manley discovered that her colleague quilted for fun.

“I remember, silently to myself, going, ‘yawn’,” Vaughn-Manley laughed.

Further into the conversation, Vaughn-Manley found out her new colleague didn’t have a car. Promptly, she offered to give her a ride to the grocery store any time. The next day, the two went to get groceries. Upon entering her colleague’s home, she was blown away by the “soft sculptures” adorning the walls. 

“I hadn’t thought about quilts and quilting as a form of visual art in that way,” said Vaughn-Manley. “I hadn’t thought of them as paintings with fabric.”

Vaughn-Manley demanded her neighbor to teach her how to construct such masterpieces. Her neighbor proposed they form a group with any interested colleagues, faculty or grad students. While first learning to quilt in this group, Vaugh-Manley felt a visceral resonation. 

“Just putting the needle through the fabric, I felt a connection to my great-grandmother,” she said. “I felt that connection to my grandmother, my mother.” 

The tradition of quilting in the African American community is significant, especially to African American women. Black women writers like Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Lynn Nottage used quilting and the quilt itself as a marker of history, community, and legacy. In Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”, Baby Suggs leaves a patchwork quilt for Sethe as a family heirloom. In Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use,” the heirloom quilts whose cultural importance Dee (or Wangero) intends to preserve the cultural importance of her mother’s quilts by removing them from everyday use. However, the significance of quilts and quilting in African American culture is an enduring story of its own.

“In times past, even in current times, there’s a way in which [quilting] is  just reduced to a hobby or reduced to ‘women’s work,’ Vaughn-Manley says. “But it became a necessity, I would say, for Black folk under the institution of enslavement.”

Enslaved Black women were forced to spin, sew, weave and quilt fine clothing and bedding for their enslavers while they and their families lacked sufficient clothing. In his autobiography, Frederick Douglass describes the absolute lack that enslaved Black folk had to endure. He details that his yearly clothing allowance consisted of two shirts, one pair of trousers, one jacket, one pair of trousers for winter (made of coarse “negro cloth”), one pair of stockings, and one pair of boots. But most enslaved people hardly got these threadbare accommodations. 

Therefore, enslaved women learned to be highly resourceful. They used scraps leftover from making their enslavers’ clothes and bedding, along with any poor quality fabrics such as feed sacks, to make clothing and bedding for their families.

 Far from being thrown together, making quilts required attention to detail, knowledge of measurements and angles, and creativity. “It was a skill, a craft, an art, if you will, of necessity first,” Vaughn-Manley says.

Quilting also strengthened the sense of community between Black women. Quilting bees consisted of a group of Black women working together, usually on one major quilt project. The resulting quilt served as a gift at a momentous occasion such as a birth or a wedding. These quilting bees provided a space for women to come together and not be reduced to slaves, mothers, or caregivers. 

African American Women Quilters

“With all [Black] cultural production, it’s always undervalued but always appropriated,”

Tracy Vaughn-Manley

Originally, the quilt had a purely utilitarian purpose. Harriet Powers was one of the first to recognize quilting as more. Powers was born into slavery in Athens, rural Georgia in 1837 and lived through the Civil War. Powers is world-renowned for her “story” quilts. The most well-known of these story quilts is Powers’ Bible Quilt, which depicts biblical stories from the Old Testament with each panel for those who could not read the Bible.

Bible quilt Harriet Powers
Harriet Powers, “Bible Quilt” 1886 (Courtesy Smithsonian Museum)

“It’s another form of text to help people read and become literate in a way,” Vaughn-Manley says. “Instead of a page, you read a panel on a quilt and you get the message of the story.”

After the abolition of the institution of enslavement, younger generations of African American women spent more time working on farms or in cities. Still, older generations maintained the tradition of quilt making with quilting groups like those in Gee’s Bend.

The much-celebrated Black quilting community emerged in Gee’s Bend in Boykin, Alabama in the early 20th century. This close-knit community, populated mainly with descendants of enslaved Black people, established a distinct approach to making quilts. Their quilts were full of colorful and geometric patterns.

The legacy of Harriet Powers and the women of Gee’s Bends inspired future generations of quilting artists including Faith Ringgold (b. 1930) Marla Jackson, Bisa Butler, and Beverly Y. Smith. 

Faith Ringgold, an internationally renowned artist, wove into her quilts stories of African American culture and Black feminist ideology.  “Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima? flips the much-maligned “mammy” female stereotype on its head by portraying Aunt Jemima as a matriarch restaurateur. Similarly, “Flag Story Quilt” uses text and tie-dyed textiles to express her opposition to U.S. laws restricting freedom of speech in regard to the use of the American flag symbol.  She’s also well known for her Harlem-inspired quilts featured in her well-known 1991 children’s book, “Tar Beach.”

This is especially important as the work of African American quiltmakers has been historically undervalued. Vaughn-Manley says that in her experience, historians habitually attribute the detailed work done by enslaved women to slave mistresses. They deem quilts that seem improvised as slave-made and interpret them as crude or primitive In reality, enslaved people knew how to make finely detailed quilts as well as improvisational ones. 

“With all [Black] cultural production [in America], it’s always undervalued but always appropriated,” Vaughn-Manley says. “Once the appropriation takes place, the value comes.”

Ringgold, reclaiming this Black cultural production, was one of the first to officially bring quilting into the art world. Quilting blurs the line between “high art” and “low art”, allowing historically marginalized artists to participate in the contemporary Western art world. Vaughn-Manley asserts that the Black Americans who are in positions that determine value, are the reason the art world have slowly come to appreciate African Americans’ contributions to American culture.

But African American quilting has always been integral to American culture in general.

“Jazz, R&B, all of our cultural contributions get infused into this idea of America or Americana. That’s certainly the case with quilt design and patterns as well,” Vaughn-Manley says.

Today African American women continue to adopt quilting to connect with their heritage, culture and convey politically urgent messages regardless of experience level. 

There are hundreds of African American quilting groups in the U.S. and abroad, including several in Chicago such as Needles and Threads Quilters’ Guild. It’s why Vaughn-Manley started a quilting group called The Black Threads Collective in 2004, who met at the Carter G. Woodson Library every Tuesday. Vaughn-Manley purposefully chose to meet on the South Side and welcomed quilters of a variety of skill levels. She only asked that each member work on making a quilt by hand at least once, as a way of furthering the tradition.


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