As we celebrate Black History Month, I’m reminded of the artistry of African-American quilts and their makers. The tradition of African-American quilts is centuries old. Like their white counter parts, African-American women spun, sewed and quilted along with laundry, cooking and child-rearing duties. The sad difference was many African American women were slaves on southern plantations. Their quilts were made not only for the slave-owner’s family, but research has shown they gleaned scraps of cloth from discarded clothes, fabric, and feed sacks to make personal quilts as well. Very few of these worn, used-up quilts survive today.
The plantation mistress would have instructed her slaves on quilt patterns and construction. At the same time slave women would have shared their quilting skills with each other and developed their own patterns as well. I have come across a few antique African-American string quilts made up of narrow pieces of fabrics sewn together to make blocks that in turn create the quilt. The quilt stitching is often long crude stitching as one would expect when you are stitching through thick layers of fabric and batting. Yet, in that crudeness you find the artistry of the maker. They made do with what they had, manipulating faded and worn fabrics into works of quiet beauty. String quilts have been made famous today by the Gee’s Bend, Alabama quilters as their works have been exhibited in museums all over the United States. Their exhibition Souls Grown Deep featuring quilts made by four generations from 1930-2000 was hailed by Michael Kimmelman, in the New York Times, as “some of the most miraculous works of art America has produced.”
Fort Wayne is blessed to be the home of the Sisters of the Cloth Quilt Guild. They had an exhibit entitled “This is our Story” last summer at the Allen County Public Library.
I learned about the exhibition from guild member Linda Jones. Linda’s husband “discovered” Born Again Quilts last summer when he stopped by for coffee next door. He noticed my shop, came in, looked around and said his wife “has got to see this place!” He got a hold of Linda, she came in and told me she had three quilts in the library display.
I’m glad I took the time to tour it. There were quilts with a nod to traditional quilts such as Amy Powell’s The Choir. It featured a traditional square-within-a- square design with women choristers in colorful robes exuberantly giving praise in the center of the block. It showcased a nice blend of traditional and modern techniques. Another quilt featured Sisters of the Cloth and their motto “Each One, Teach One”. It depicted an elderly woman teaching a young girl how to sew, another woman pressing a piece of Kente cloth on the ironing board, where another woman explains quilt patterns to her rapt audience.
Now one of Linda’s quilts was the best example of mixing up the old and the new. It mixed traditional nine patch, pinwheel and square-within-a-square quilt blocks with family photos and vegetable fabrics! Linda’s father, Walter Hayden’s photo is surrounded by bowling pin fabric, as he took home the first- place award of $10,000 at the Ponderosa Singles National Bowling Tournament in Lima, Ohio. The quilt photo is of a GTE newsletter article and photo. The article related how he almost didn’t participate, and when he won he spent a good chunk of his earnings on a phototypesetter for his home printing shop. Way to go Walter and you too Linda for creating such a personal family memory quilt! Other photos of the quilts will be posted to the Born Again Quilts Facebook page when the article goes online.
If you missed the exhibition The Sisters of the Cloth will have quilts on display at the Appleseed Quilter’s Guild’s Festival of Quilts at the Turnstone Center on March 20-21.