The production of textiles featured prominently among the duties of female slaves in the Americas. In addition to their work in the fields or the house of the slaveholder, most female slaves were also assigned tasks such as spinning, weaving, and sewing. The textiles created by African and African American slaves, despite the conditions under which they were produced, provide evidence of a continuation of African textile traditions as well as the creation of new forms closely linked to the social traditions of the slave community.
Types of labor
The sewing, spinning, and weaving performed by slaves may be grouped in three categories. First, slaves worked to clothe their own families. A narrative of 1856, described as the personal recollections of a former slave named Peter Still and his wife, Vina, recounts her many tasks related to the family's needs: "She made all their clothes herself, and washed and mended them by night. Their stockings, too, she knit, though she was obliged first to card the wool and spin it" (Pickard 1856, p. 177).
A second category of textiles produced by slaves comprises clothing and other items made for the slaveholder's family; these included woven fabric, bed coverlets, and quilts, often made under the supervision of the mistress. Slave women who had labored in the fields all day were required to spin, weave, or sew at night, usually to fulfill an imposed quota. From these enterprises emerged a third category of textile production: those made for sale. Often the textiles made by female slaves were sold by the slaveholder as an additional source of income; in some cases the textile enterprises were quite successful.
In addition, female slaves were often trained as seamstresses and dressmakers; their services were hired out as yet another source of income for the slaveholder. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ads for runaways reveal that many of these women, who had highly marketable skills, fled. Others were able to purchase their own freedom by sewing. For example, Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (1818–1907), born in Virginia, became a skilled dressmaker while still enslaved. The slaveholding family hired out her services to such an extent that Kekldey developed a loyal clientele, some of whom loaned her the funds to buy her freedom; she easily repaid the loan, as she was finally able to keep her own wages. She eventually moved to Washington, D.C., became dressmaker and companion to First Lady Mary Lincoln (1818–1882), and in 1868 published her book Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House.
By far the most well-known textiles produced by slaves are pieced quilts, which were created using pieces (often scraps) of printed fabrics or handwoven cloth, stitched together using an appliqué technique, usually in a geometric design, sometimes further embellished with embroidery. Though some scholars have pointed to the influence of the European pieced-quilt tradition on African American slave quilts, others note the similarity of pattern to the woven and painted textiles of West and Central Africa.
It is certain that quilt-making became an important part of the slave community, particularly on the plantations. According to the account of Peter Still and Vina:
All the fragments of their worn-out clothes the careful mother saved, and pieced them into bedquilts. She managed to get help to quilt these, by inviting in the other women on Saturday nights. They were not allowed to leave their cabins after the blowing of the horn for them to go to bed; but they were welcome to sit up and work till morning, if they could furnish themselves with lights. (Pickard 1856, p. 177)
Such quilting bees or frolics were opportunities for unsupervised socializing, and the events often included storytelling, singing, dancing, and the sharing of food. Slave narratives reveal the prevalence of this practice, which must be recognized as a significant element in maintaining cultural tradition.
A somewhat controversial theory has suggested that the quilts made by African American slaves contained secret codes related to the Underground Railroad. In Hidden in Plain View: The Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad, authors Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard (1999) present a system of codes, revealed to Tobin by Ozella Williams (d. 1998), an African American quilt vendor in South Carolina. According to Williams, quilt motifs such as flying geese and bear's paw were used by quilt-makers to suggest escape routes. Slaves hung the quilts outdoors, as if to air, to alert others of plans to escape; the quilt's motif conveyed a message, such as the planned route or the location of a safe house.
Other scholars have refuted this theory, citing lack of evidence in slave narratives, which often discuss escape routes but make no mention of a quilt code. Many of the quilt patterns discussed were not named until the early 1900s; the monkey wrench, cited by Tobin and Dobard (1999) as a signal to prepare for escape, was not invented until 1858, so it seems unlikely that it could have been used as a code.
There is consensus, nevertheless, on the importance of sewing and quilting in the maintenance of tradition and community among enslaved African Americans. Two quilts by Harriet Powers (1837–1910), a former slave, reveal the powerful use of narrative textiles among a largely illiterate group to convey and preserve belief and tradition. Her Bible quilt, dated 1886, is composed of narrative panels that relate the biblical stories of Moses, Noah, Jonah, and Job. Though they originate in a Judeo-Christian tradition, these stories, which frequently appear in African American musical tradition as well, are widely thought to have represented liberation and redemption among the slave community.
Fry, Gladys-Marie. Stitched from the Soul: Slave Quilts from the Ante-bellum South. New York: Dutton Studio Books, 1990.
Pickard, Kate E. R. The Kidnapped and the Ransomed: Being the Personal Recollections of Peter Still and His Wife "Vina," after Forty Years of Slavery. Syracuse, NY: W.T. Hamilton, 1856.
Tobin, Jacqueline, and Raymond Dobard. Hidden in Plain View: The Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. New York: Doubleday, 1999.