African American quilting & Colonial America


African American quilting more than likely started as early as Colonial America, though few quilts made by slave woman survive to date. It is likely that women were trained to undertake textile production in plantations, from cloth making to weaving or sewing in general and quilting.
Although in their countries of origin in Western Africa, men were in charge of weaving fabric, the division of labor in Colonial America was done according to European tradition: men ploughed the fields, worked as blacksmiths, Kente Clothbricklayers, or carpenters. Women had to plant, cultivate and gather crops and do household chores, among them, sewing. Both plain and fancy sewing became desirable skills for slave women. The lines of labor division were not as clear in smaller plantations and men as well as women would have done some sewing during months when there was less field work to do.

African women were probably taught to sew by European women, and it is a mistake to assume that the quilts made by African slaves were crudely done, with large stitches, made out of inferior grade fabric or that women didn’t have the time to quilt after working on plantation fields. It is a fact that some slave women were able to purchase their freedom by hiring out themselves as seamstresses, so that fact implies a high degree of skill in sewing. The same can be assumed of their quilting.

A distinction has to be made between quilts made for the use of the slave owners and the quilts made by slaves for themselves. Two factors in this case, affect the way African American women made quilts for themselves: availability of fabric and their own cultural traditions that were reflected in the quilts they made for their own use. Both quilts from the antebellum period and contemporary quilts hold a different set of aesthetic rules from the European rules of quiltmaking. The use of vertical stripes is a reflection of the patterns used in African woven cloth. Bold colors were key to recognizing kin from long distances, as was the use of large design elements. Asymmetry, once again is a reflection of African woven cloth. African American quilters in the antebellum period made use of multiple patterns within just one quilt because in Africa, the number of patterns within one piece of cloth was a symbol of status reserved for royalty and priest. It conveyed a sense of status and power. These quilts often include meaningful symbols related to the culture of their makers.

Both patchwork and appliquéd patterns were used by antebellum African American women in their quilts. Favored patchwork patterns were the Nine Patch, the Sawtooth, Breakfast Dish, Little Boy Breeches or Birds All Over. Harriet Powers quilt Appliqué patterns were also used, and among these, two surviving quilts from Harriet Powers, an African American quilter born in 1837, are one of the finest examples of folk art of the nineteenth century. They represent biblical scenes and celestial phenomena. The tradition of appliqué was probably brought over by slaves from Benin, in West Africa who made tapestries with stories’ scenes appliquéd onto them.

Beliefs and superstitions are closely tied to quiltmaking in both European and African quilts. African American quiltmakers believed it was bad luck to start a quilt on Friday, in general to start any task on Friday if it couldn’t be completed on the same day. The color blue was one of the favored ones, as it was believed to protect the maker. Blood spilled on a quilt while quilting it was supposed to bring bad luck, but once the quilt was completed, throwing it over the roof of the house brought good luck. Straight lines were considered bad luck, because evil spirits follow straight lines. Some imperfection in the quilts would help devils get distracted at night.

Quilting parties were held in plantations, both arranged by the masters and by the slaves themselves. These parties were similar to the European quilting bees. Older women would piece several tops and these would be quilted at a gathering, in which entertainment, food, music and even a chance for courting were provided. The large, slave-owner organized parties were held at or around Christmas time. The quilts made during these parties helped increase the number of bedcovers available for slaves. And most of all, it provided an outlet for social interaction.

There is a lot of controversy regarding quilts and their importance as symbols in the Underground Railroad. Quilt historians disregard the “code” embedded in quilts to indicate safe houses when the quilts were hung on the clothesline and other coded messages in quilts. Most quilt historians consider this theory as myth.

After Emancipation and the end of the Civil War, many freed slave women went to work in small farms or as domestic helpers. They continued quilting to provide cover for their families, using whatever material was available to African American Quiltingthem. And the quilting tradition continued into the twentieth century. A group of African American women in Gee’s Bend, a small town in Alabama, formed a collective that makes quilts, impressive for their bold designs, color and departure from traditional European quilt styles. Their work has been exhibited in several museums all over the United States.

You can get this book at Amazon:



For more information on quilting for beginners please click here!

For More Like This:
What Is QuiltingGlossary Of Quilting Terms-What Is Quilting Quilting HistoryWhat Is Quilting Quilting History Ii-Civil War Quilts PeriodQuilts Of The DepressionLate Twentieth Century QuiltingAmish QuiltsAfrican AmericanQuilts ValorEntering A Quilt In A ShowFeedsack Quilt FabricScrap QuiltsHawaiian QuiltsIndigo Fabrics in QuiltsQuilting SuperstitionsPatriotic QuiltsBaltimore Style Quilts

Share Us With Your Friends