Quilts in North America are a form of art; amongst the most interesting, and sometimes the most troubling, are the quilts made by and for slaves – usually when they made their flight to freedom.
The images on these quilts are stories that often tell troubling tales of abuse, lynching, slave chains and even the horrors of a slave ship.
Quilting on the Plantation
Slave quilts are as old as the history of North America. Black slave women who made clothing for members of the household were often also skilled quiltmakers, lending them the designation of “sewing slaves.”
While these sewing slaves often worked alongside of the mistress of the house, they also made quilts for their own use, incorporating many African designs in the appliqué quilts that they made. The quilts created for their own use could not illustrate African languages or religions, but they did display a rich sense of colour and design inspired by African tradition.
Although these women had learned at an early age how to make vegetable dyes in order to turn rough slave cloth into every colour of the rainbow, they also used worn clothes and scraps from the mistress of the house. Unfortunately, these quilts were precious commodities and their owners used them until there was nothing left of the fabric. Consequently, few of these quilts have survived.
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Harriet Powers: Born a Slave
One particularly talented quiltmaker was Harriet Powers. Born a slave in Georgia in 1837, Powers created quilts that combined traditional African appliqué techniques with the European traditions of storytelling: stories from the Bible, local historical stories and astronomical phenomena.
Powers’ frequently displayed her skill at local craft fairs and many appreciated her work at the Clarke County Cotton Fair in 1886. A southern white woman, Jennie Smith, admired one of Powers’ Bible Quilts and tried to purchase it from Powers. At sixty years of age, Powers was rather attached to her traditional appliqué quilts, but she acquiesced at a later date when finances forced her to sell. As a result, these new quilt owners preserved her talent for future generations to enjoy. Her Bible Quilt is in the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., and her Pictorial Quilt is at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts.
Quilts and the Underground Railroad
Slave quilts and abolitionist quilts helped to pass messages in code along the route of the Underground Railroad. Slaves escaping north to freedom would look for quilts hanging on a line depicting the abolitionist cause patterns: Underground Railroad, Jacob’s Ladder, North Star and Slave Chain. For the many illiterate slave runaways, these colourful appliqué quilts hanging outside signalled respite or directions along the long and often dangerous journey to freedom.
The Uniqueness of Slave Quilts
The creative styles of the slave-owners often dictated the patterns to the sewing slaves; the mistresses sometimes claimed the finished products as being their own. Since few examples remain of the slave quilts the slaves made for their own use, we can only conjecture as to their uniqueness.
Like other modern American quiltmakers, today’s African-American quiltmakers are eclectic in their approach and designs. The tradition of rich storytelling in quilts provides the key to the uniqueness of slave heritage expressed in quilt designs.