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African American Quilting

From EverybodyWiki Bios & Wiki

African American Quilting is dominated by women and started due to the need for slaves to aid in the making clothes and other items for the owner's family or the slaves themselves. Early quilting showed signs of all types of styles of styles and forms, from European influences to African styles and symbols being used. These quilts were also used later during the civil rights movement, where quilting became a tool for African American women to use their autonomy and create their own identity.

Early Slave Quilting

African American slaves during this time did not exactly quilt a lot of their own designs. Many of the quilts that they made were under demand from their white owners. Therefor the patterns and styles used during this period of time were mainly white and european. Some slaves did have the chance to occasionally make their own quilts to sell to white people. While this didn’t provide a sustainable income, it provided the slave with a freedom many didn’t have.

During this time period quilts were used for something very important to slaves. Quilts were often used along the underground railroad to portray safe-houses or routes to take. While these quilts were not made by slaves, they played a huge role in helping slaves escape to the North. While all gendered slaves worked in the fields, it was mainly women who did the quilting. The women who did gained a real skill. They became very skillful at quilting and would quilt with scraps left over from making things for the owners.

Post Emancipation Quilting

During this time period, as in parallel to many other subjects of this time, African American quilt-makers were being overshadowed by white, wealthier quilters. This is seen through early quilt histories, many made up through books and pamphlets, neglecting to mention any sort of African American influence in quilting.However, it was after the civil war that African American quilting really started to become more independent. African Americans could now sell their own works and quilts to anyone. It was still difficult though, because of the traps put in place like sharecropping, African Americans were often dragged back into slave-like conditions after being freed. This again left quilters very little time to do anything substantial with their work. Many of the quilts that they had time to make were for themselves or their families.

Civil Rights Movement Quilting

With the rise of the civil rights movement came more autonomy for black quilters. African American quilters were able to get their foot in the door by joining integrated quilt groups in places like Maryland, Indiana, and Tennessee. Black people started to create their own quilts, becoming a helping hand in the rise of Afrocentrism in black art leading up to the 1960s and 70s.

The emerging theme of African heritage was extremely influential in African American quilting during the civil rights movement. This is embodied in groups such as the “Freedom Quilting Bee,” a group of African American women who sold quilts, specifically those incorporating African styles and form. However, African American quilters like the Freedom Quilting Bee came onto the scene at a time where quilting was seen as old-folk art, as ideals of femininity and domesticity that had been in place for so long were declining with the women’s liberation movement, and quilt-making was seen as an extension of those ideals. As black quilters, specifically women, were beginning to gain recognition, quilting itself started to lose its importance and impact on the arts.

Modern African American Quilting

Although original quilting lost its popularity during the civil rights movement, there was a rise in the 1970s known as the “art-quilt” movement. This movement was moving away from the original styles of quilting, and welcoming inconsistency, invention, and new styles, paving the way for African American quilters as there was no authority over the quilting world. There was a separation, some might say, from “mainstream” or white washed quilt-making.

By the 1980s, many art scholars were taking note of the distinguishable qualities between mainstream quilt-making and the quilt style used by working class African Americans. The interpretations of many different scholars, as well as publications and exhibits that were listed, indicate that interest in African American quilt making was rising.

With the rise in interest in African American quilt-making came a rise in coverage over its history. For example, the book Hidden in Plain View: A secret story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad  helped African American quilting gain traction into popular culture. The book was about slaves using quilt designs to send secret signals and messages in the underground railroad, and was endorsed by Oprah in 2007, propelling African American quilt-making and its history into the mainstream media.

Starting in 2002, the exhibit known as Quilts of Gee Bend traveled around art, folk art, and historical museums in cities around the United States, displaying many different styles of quilts up until 2008. Many of the quilts being exhibited were made by low-income black women in Alabama during the civil rights movement, and there works were adored as masterpieces created by gifted artists, further expanding the popularity of African American quilting and its rich history into the modern day.


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