Black History Month, Quilting Edition: Part One

Quilting has a very interesting history in the African American community, much of which is unfortunately overshadowed by the Underground Railroad quilt myth. I am splitting this post into two parts: Part One features African American quilt history and contemporary artists; Part Two is devoted specifically to the Underground Railroad quilt.

Moving along in rough chronological order……

  • The American Studies web site at the University of Virginia presents African-American Quilting Traditions, a brief (and colorful) discussion of pattern and style influenced by African and African-American cultural and religious traditions.
  • Harriet Powers, a former slave, created two quilts which have survived to this day. Her quilts reflect a mix of African and European-American influence. The site contains close-ups of one of her quilts which is breathtaking in its fine work and attention to detail.
  • Although much is made of the free-piecing techniques and asymmetrical patterns, African-Americans have not been limited to this form of expression. A striking example is the work of Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, dressmaker for Mary Todd Lincoln. This quilt, in the collection of the Kent State University museum, is purported to be made of scraps leftover from making Lincoln’s dresses. Surviving quilts made by Jane Bond also demonstrate a mastery of “traditional” quilt patterns.
  • In From The African Loom To The American Quilt, Gladys-Marie Fry, Fellow & Professor at the University of Maryland, discusses themes emerging from an exhibit of 37 quilts created by African-American women since 1920. This article, written and photographed in 1998, highlights pattern and piecing approaches later made so famous by the Gees Bend quilt exhibit.
  • In African-American Spiritual Quilts, PBS’s Religion and Ethics Weekly hosts a video that features contemporary quilters of color, with an emphasis on religious elements of their quilting.
  • Rosie Lee Tompkins is a contemporary quilt artist who is deeply influenced by her African-American herititage — but, as noted by Lawrence Ridner, belies the notion that the style is driven by deprived economic circumstances.

Visit Part II for a discussion of the Underground Railroad Quilt Code.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief survey of African-American quilting, and learned something new along the way.

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