They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but a quilt is worth a thousand stories. The practice of quilting has been an important folk art for African Americans since before slavery ended. These story quilts were a way to tell narrative and record histories and employed weaving and textile techniques many blacks had retained from their African roots. These intricate tapestries were often created for slave owner’s homes. Quilting emerged as a known African American art form in the antebellum era influenced by traditional black art forms including: basket weaving, woodcarving, painting, pottery, and quilting. I find that interesting as all of these techniques are typically used to create everyday objects of common use. It reminds us that there is beauty in the things we see everyday and their very creation has a story to tell.
Since early quilts were often requested by whites using their own fabrics, the true art is in the way they were put together. Especially in the South, many slave women were trained in textile weaving. This was ironic, considering that in many African countries, weaving was a male dominated field. Much of our history of these practices are only known for biographies and first hand narratives remaining from this history and the skills that were passed down from generation to generation both orally and in the transfer of techniques. One of the few examples from this period that is Harriet Power’s Bible Quilt which can be viewed at the Smithsonian Institute. Powers was born into slavery in Georgia, and has been acknowledged for creating the best examples of 19th century quilting. Power’s style was applique and included panels depicting scenes that tell a story. Some historians also believe slaves hid messages in quilt blocks to support the underground railroad. Thus these symbols and stories had a shared message and served as a means of communication.
After Emancipation, many free black women found domestic work. Here the practice of quilting continued for practical reasons to create fabric coverings and reuse and re-purpose scraps around the house from garments, feed bags, and other textiles. This practice was called “string quilts” with various strips of fabrics being sewn together to make an intricate pattern. Few examples of this style remain from the period because they were in heavy use. Another technique for quilting is the pine burr quilt. In this method, overlapping triangles are used to create a 3D effect in a radiating pattern. This style was considered to be masterpiece style like applique quilts.
The Great Migration opened up career opportunities and quilting became more of a recreational activity for black women, especially in retirement. It became an activity that was celebrated in social organizations, church groups, and senior centers. This shift from necessity to pleasure has fostered in a new found love for the art form. Looking at the Gee’s Bend collective, this group of women quilt for their love of the production of their elaborate art pieces and the preservation of a historical technique. The Gee’s Bend quilters have established a community and organization around their shared passion and have reintroduced the current generation to the beauty of quilting.
Recent trends have included the deliberate inclusion of African imagery, fabrics, and influences to reference back to our ancestry. There is much debate over whether or not there is a unique style to African American quilting that is similar or stems from textile patterns and styles from Africa. This theory becomes difficult to prove as there are few surviving examples of the work. Also, since quilting techniques were often shared across races in the South, it is not easy to determine the race of a quilter if their piece is found. Still the tradition remains in modern times as a nostalgic reminder of our past. Modern black artists like Charlotte Lewis, Erika Rae Allen, Chris Clark, Willie Birch, Donnette Cooper, Roland Freeman, and Faith Ringgold have all been influenced in their own work by the tradition of quilting and the techniques it employs.
Regardless, quilting still represents a period of our history as blacks and physical creations that came of this practice that reflect a level of craftsmanship and artistry that can be traced back to our early history in America. What I see most visible from the art of quilting is a physical collage that tells a story not just in its pattern and image but in the craft used in its production. I see the results of its strong influence daily in my travels through black neighborhoods, from accessories and garments that use quilted patterns and African fabrics to the intricate murals and panels we paint on buildings and walls. I am sure the art of quilting will be something we still talk about years from now, because ingrained in black culture is the creative practice of finding new and artistic ways to share our stories with the world.