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From rags to richness: Piecing the patchwork of American culture

Reflections on the quilt as historical document
Tracy Vaughn-Manley
Though the origins of quilting within Black American culture was born out of necessity, their utilitarian purposes also extended into a performative ritual that covered the range of the Black American experience, writes Tracy L. Vaughn-Manley. Photo by Stephen Lewis

Quilting has long been recognized as an important facet of American history, and individual quilts have themselves been sought out as important historical documents.

Making quilts was predominantly a domestic chore done by women. It was not only a way to provide warmth for a family, but also an opportunity to practice household economy through the repurposing of fabrics. Quilts became, in effect, relics of a family’s life over time, pieced with a wide variety of cast-off textiles like outgrown and lesser worn parts of old clothing, worn linens or remnants left over from sewing projects.

In addition, quilting was often a group activity, affording women the chance to work together, exchange ideas, and share stories and information. The multigenerational aspect of quilting, with techniques typically taught to younger women by their elders, allows the legacy of a family, community and/or culture to be preserved. Thus, to look at a quilt today is to behold history.

Tracing back before the Civil War

Quilting as a communal act for American women in general and Black American women in particular can be traced back to antebellum times. Born out of necessity, enslaved women began to quilt in order to supplement the sparse and inadequate bedding provided for them — when, on rare occasions, bedding was in fact provided. While they were often primarily tasked with making the garments and household textiles for their enslavers, they also used whatever leftover textile resources available to them to piece together quilts that weren’t necessarily as decorative as the ones they made for those who enslaved them, but were most certainly functional.

At the same time, quilts became the creative articulation for enslaved women to assert some semblance of agency, identity and legacy during a time in American history when it was illegal for them to read and write.

As quilt historian Gladys-Marie Fry astutely observes in her study of antebellum quilts and enslaved quilt makers, “Stitched from the Soul: Slave Quilts from the Antebellum South,” quilts “became the means by which the enslaved recorded and preserved their experiences — not in words, but in stitches… It was their personal and communal history recorded not on paper, but on fabric.” Thus, the making of quilts then became not only a mechanism for physical survival, but for personal/cultural recognition and remembrance.

A ritualistic, communal act for Black women

Though the origins of quilting within Black American culture was born out of necessity, their utilitarian purposes also extended into a performative ritual that covered the range of the Black American experience — particularly the ways in which these experiences have been represented and perceived by Black American women. The designing, creating and multi-stepped process of quilting has been and continues to be a ritualistic, communal act for Black women in particular to overcome oppression, loss, misrepresentation and invisibility. 

In many cases, the spaces where Black women gathered to quilt usually centered on the collective construction of a single quilt. These gatherings enabled the women to relieve themselves of their daily cares, come together to share aspirations and frustrations, commune in spirit and in song and, most importantly, create. It was within the confines of this quilting community that a collective and individual sense of freedom was experienced. These women were liberated from their other roles of wife/partner, mother/care-giver to become artists, to cultivate community, to engage in collective and self-healing, and to situate themselves — one stitch at a time — into America’s cultural landscape.

Quilts have a life of their own

The intersections between narrative, history, visual art and material culture are located within the American tradition of quilting.

Like all forms of expressive arts, quilts have a life of their own and represent an important role in the history of American folk art. For Black Americans in general and Black American women in particular, quilts represent among other things, resilience and progress. On the one hand, quilts pay homage to their domestic, traditional, utilitarian roots, while at the same time are formal expressions of enduring artistic themes that include the beauty of spontaneity; the energy of motion; the importance of remembrance; and the imaginative use of color.

In the pieced patchwork of cultures that contribute to the richness of America, the timeless and transcendent power of quilts and the process of quilt making have been and will continue to be a representation of protection and warmth; creativity and community; healing and rejuvenation; and the brilliance and resilience of our people.

Tracy L. Vaughn-Manley is an assistant professor in the department of African American Studies, the Charles Deering McCormick Distinguished Professor of Instruction and director of undergraduate studies in the department of African American studies.