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Sat, 03.18.2023

Black History and Quilting, a story

*African American quilt history is celebrated on this date in 1800.   Today, the third Saturday in March, is National Quilting Day.  Historic influences since the 17th century are the foundation of Black African cultural heritage in quilting.  

West African weavers called this cloth by its original name, Nsaduaso.   In Ghana, Nsaduaso is also known as Kente. Kente cloth requires many hours of careful weaving and is very expensive. Originally, Kente was made exclusively for and worn only by members of the royal clan.  The Middle Passage brought Black Africans to the Americas by the millions and with them the traditional appliqué form of quilt making.  According to legend, a safe house along the Underground Railroad was often indicated by a quilt hanging from a clothesline or windowsill. These quilts were embedded with a code so that by reading the shapes and motifs sewn into the design, an enslaved person on the run could know the area’s immediate dangers or even where to head next.  

Some examples are:

Bow Tie = Dress in disguise to appear of a higher status

Bear Paw = Follow an animal trail through the mountains to find water and food

Log Cabin = Seek shelter now; the people here are safe to speak with

The heritage of African quilting made it through chattel slavery, honing a Black legacy of being free of a white system of bondage.  Black people worked in secret, equipped with needle and thread, engaging with a visual language, and doing their part for freedom.   

Also, what is known can be traced back to the prominent influences of four civilizations of Central and West Africa: the Mande-speaking peoples (in Guinea, Mali, Senegal, and Burkino Faso); the Yoruba and Fon peoples (in the Republic of Benin and Nigeria); the Ejagham peoples (in Nigeria and Cameroon); and the Kongo peoples (in Zaire and Angola. Also, the Asante and Ewe cultures of Ghana practice strip textile weaving.   Blending appliqué with other European styles, Black quilters are largely responsible for turning the American patchwork quilt into an instrument of storytelling and historical documentation.  Additionally, Black artists brought a flair for color uncommon to the Anglo population of the day.  Appliqué wall hangings were, even in the young days of our country, a centuries-old tradition for recording the histories of West African kings. 

Though men traditionally made the native West African wall hangings, the art form here on the North American continent has been dominated mostly by women.  Originally in Africa, most of the textiles were made by men. Yet when slaves were brought to the United States, their work was divided according to Western patriarchal standards, and women took over the tradition. However, this strong weaving tradition left a visible mark on Black quilting by women.  In fact, slave women who could sew, spin yarn and thread, and weave cloth brought a much higher price on the auction block.  African American quilts were born by combining traditional African appliqué techniques with traditional European quilting styles.  Black quilts tell stories, document family trees, maintain memories of departed loved ones, and share faith in God. 

Perhaps no one person demonstrates the development of the African American Quilt better than Harriet Powers.   She was once a slave in rural Georgia, but her intricate quilts make her a celebrated artist today. Her story quilts depict biblical tales and local histories. She was born in 1837 and created two best-known and well-preserved quilts of the Antebellum South and the black quilting tradition still in existence. Using the traditional African appliqué technique, European record keeping, and biblical reference traditions, Powers recorded on her quilt’s local historical legend, Bible stories, and astronomical phenomena.  She began exhibiting them in 1886 at the Cotton States and International Expo.  She was "discovered" at a local county fair by a white woman named Jennie Smith when she was approximately 65 years old.  Smith documented her encounter with Powers in a personal diary.  Although Smith tried several times to get her to sell her quilts, Powers steadfastly refused. 

The two women remained in contact, though, and when the Powers fell on hard times, Harriet sold the quilts at the urging of her husband.  Mrs. Smith's diary reads," Last year, I sent her word that I would buy it if she still wanted to dispose of it. She arrived one afternoon in front of my door in an oxcart with the precious burden in her lap encased in a clean flour sack, which was still enveloped in a crocus sack. She offered it for ten dollars, but I told her I only had five to give. After going out consulting with her husband she returned and said 'Owin to de hardness of de times, my ole man lows I'd better tech hit.' Not being a new woman, she obeyed. After giving me a full description of each scene with great earnestness, she departed but has been back several times to visit the darling offspring of her brain. She was only in measure consoled for its loss when I promised to save her all my scraps."   Today, Harriet Powers' quilts are preserved and displayed at the Smithsonian Institution's American Folk-Art display. 

The traditions of quilt-making have been passed on through generations and continue today.  In Africa, the demand to recognize people from far distances was crucial for aggressive tribes and traveling hunting parties. This textile tradition of using large shapes and bright colors is a heritage trademark.  A specific pattern did not regulate traditional African weaves. The creator of the weave was free to change and alternate the pattern. The goal of the work was to create a large fabric of separate weaves sown together rather than one repeating pattern. Recreating and changing old patterns was especially important to many African tribes. A break in a pattern symbolized a rebirth in the ancestral power of the creator or wearer. And a break in a pattern also helped keep evil spirits away.

Evil is believed to travel in straight lines, and a break in a pattern or line confuses the spirits and slows them down. This tradition is highly recognizable in the black improvisation of white American patterns.  21st-century Black quilters have revived interest in this centuries-old art form and continue to create magnificent works that tell stories, record history, and captivate the imagination. 

To become a jeweler, seamstress, textile/fine artist


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