Quilts made by African slaves have long been a part of American folk art, but perhaps in different ways than many people have come to believe. In the early years of U.S. history, quilts in general were rare because weaving sheets and blankets as a single piece was the most efficient way to make bedding. On the other hand, a quilt required that there be a top layer of fabric (either a single piece or one made with pieces of fabric sewn together), a bottom layer of fabric, and some kind of filling (fabric pieces, cotton, or the like) in the middle. The quilter would bind together the edges of the quilt and sew through all of the layers to secure them.
When quilts were made during the 1750–1825 period, they were of several kinds: whole cloth quilts (made with a single piece of fabric on the top), a central medallion appliqué quilt (in which the quilter sewed a design from another fabric onto the top layer of fabric), or a mosaic piece work (in which the quilter sewed together random pieces of fabric to make the top). When one thinks of quilts in the twenty-first century, one envisions blocks of various sizes and shapes arranged in exact designs. Yet block quilts of this type were not commonly made until sometime in the 1800s.
In plantation households, a great deal of textile work took place. Depending on how self-sufficient the plantation owners wanted to be, it might include growing the cotton or flax, or raising sheep. Sheering sheep, carding wool or cleaning cotton or flax, spinning thread, and weaving fabric all had to be done before any sewing could take place. In Africa textile production had been a man's job, but in America it fell to the women for the most part. Slaves were taught trades, and textile work was one of them. Larger plantations had small buildings used as sewing houses and loom rooms. The diaries of plantation mistresses reveal that making clothing and bedding for everyone on a plantation occupied an enormous amount of time each year. Yet both necessity and social pressure stressed that the domestic pursuits were the woman's paramount responsibility.
It has been difficult for historians to locate quilts that can be proven to have been made solely by slaves because quilting is often a group activity, and there is little information about the manner in which mistresses and slaves worked together on quilts. Also, regardless of the situation of their creators, few early quilts were signed (had information sewn onto them) to indicate their origin. Nor in contrast to the making of clothing for the slaves have historians found much evidence in the diaries of plantation women of quilting by slaves. Despite the ravages of use and washing in hot water and lye soap, theft during the Civil War, and use as bandages, some slave-made quilts have survived to testify to their creators' industriousness and creativity.
Although many female slaves worked in the fields during the day, some of them also sewed in the evenings to provide necessities for their families. Even the men and children helped with these household tasks, often with the men threading needles or weaving chair bottoms of cane and the children holding up candles for light. "Mr. House did not give blankets, the slaves were required to make the necessary cover by piecing together left over goods. After this process was completed, it was padded with cotton and then dyed in much the same way as homespun. After the dyeing was completed the slave was the owner of a new quilt" (Rawick 1972, vol. 3, p. 180). After fulfilling the plantation owner's requirements for textile production, the slaves might make products, such as quilts, to earn "side money." Many slave men could, and did, many textile tasks, including sewing, quilting, knitting, crocheting, and embroidering (decorative sewing), and many slave women were also apt at carpentry and ironwork.
SEWING FOR FREEDOM
While the role of quilts as signals for slaves' gaining freedom is shrouded in mystery, historians know that sewing was used to support the abolitionist cause. Groups of abolitionist women quilted, sewed, crocheted, and knitted a variety of items that were sold at antislavery fairs. At such a fair in Boston was a cradle quilt made by one of the fair's organizers, Lydia Maria Child. It was a patchwork of small stars with a larger star in the center. On that star Child had written in permanent ink:
Mother! When around your child
You clasp your arms in love,
And when with grateful joy you raise
Your eyes to God above—
Think of the negro mother,
When her child is torn away—
Sold for a little slave—Oh, then,
For that poor mother pray
(Brackman 2006, p. 85).
Slaves also used their sewing skills to buy their freedom.
For example, Elizabeth Keckley, the daughter of a slave and a white master who learned to sew from her mother, supported a family of seventeen blacks and whites with her talent. By 1855 she had raised enough money to buy her freedom and that of her son. Five years later Keckley opened a dressmaking shop in Washington, D.C., where she became the seamstress and confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln. Keckley wrote an autobiography Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House (1868).
SOURCE: Brackman, Barbara. Facts and Fabrications: Unraveling the History of Quilts and Slavery. Lafayette, CA: C&T Publishing, 2006.
As far as quilts are concerned, the women used cloth left over from the annual clothing allowance, old clothes, and sacks in which animal feed, sugar, and flour were sold. They also used extra income to buy such fabrics as calico, flannel, broadcloth, and gingham. For the bat between the top and bottom layers of the quilt, they used old clothes, raw cotton, end threads left over from weaving, and bits of wool. Though powdered cloth dyes could be bought in the general store (including indigo, turkey red, and madder), the slaves often made natural dies from berries, tree bark, and plant parts as well. Plantation mistresses might copy patterns from copybooks and change them to their liking and the slaves did too. When sewing for their white masters, the slaves would make quilts that looked like other quilts made by whites, but when they sewed quilts for themselves, the slave women exercised their own creativity. They might incorporate designs that had significance in their African cultures, and the color red was a favorite, though the reason is unclear.
During Saturday afternoons, Sundays, holidays such as Christmas and Easter, and days when the weather was too bad to allow working the fields, the slave owners—but more likely the slaves themselves—might arrange a "quilting." This is the term the slaves used for what later became known as a quilting bee. Often several (3-12) quilts would be made in the same day because four people could sew simultaneously on the same quilt that was stretched across a wooden frame. "Quiltin's wuz a heap of fun," recalled a Georgia slave. "Sometimes two or three families had a quiltin' together. Folkses would quilt some un' den dey passed 'round de toddy. Some would be cookin' while de others wuz a quiltin' an' den when supper was ready dey all stopped to eat" (Rawick, vol. 13, p. 6). As members of a community, the slaves helped each other by working together to make sure everyone would have enough bedding.
Over the years, a myth has grown up that quilts were somehow used as signals on the Underground Railroad. While this idea sparks people's imaginations, historians have found no evidence to support it. Quilts did, however, support the eradication of slavery in another way: As early as 1834 abolitionist women raised money to support antislavery efforts through craft bazaars. So too, sewing provided escape for some women. For example, one-time slave Elizabeth Kekldy sewed and sold her creations to earn the money to buy her freedom. Later she became the seamstress for Mary Todd Lincoln for whom she made a masterful quilt that still survives.
Beardsley, John, et al. The Quilts of Gee's Bend. Atlanta, GA: Tinwood Books, 2002.
Berlin, Ira. Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South. New York: Pantheon Books, 1974.
Brackman, Barbara. Facts and Fabrications: Unraveling the History of Quilts and Slavery. Concord, CA: C&T Publishing, 2006.
Coppin, L. J. Unwritten History. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1968.
Dimond, E. Grey, and Herman Hattaway, eds. Letters from Forest Place: A Plantation Family's Correspondence, 1846–1881. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993.
Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
Fry, Gladys-Marie. Stitched from the Soul: Slave Quilts from the Antebellum South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.
Kiracofe, Roderick. The American Quilt: A History of Cloth and Comfort, 1750–1950. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1993.
Meltzer, Milton, and Patricia G. Holland. Lydia Maria Child: Selected Letters, 1817–1880. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1982.
Rawick, George P., ed. The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. 19 vols. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1972.
Schlissel, Lillian. Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey. New York: Schocken Books, 1982.
Smedes, Susan Dabney. Memorials of a Southern Planter. Baltimore: Cushings & Baily, 1887.
Yetman, Norman. Voices from Slavery. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970.
Jeanne M. Lesinski
Quilting is a technique whereby layers of fabric are sewn together, usually in order to make a warm bedcovering. Quilting can be performed in many ways, but a quilt frame is often utilized to stabilize the layers while a quilter or group of quilters uses needle and thread to sew a running stitch through all the layers across the surface of the quilt. Hand-quilting was standard practice until the 1980s; by the twenty-first century, many quilters used sewing machines or long-arm quilting machines to sew the layers together. Sometimes the quilting stitches follow a decorative pattern; other times they are made in a basic grid format simply for their functional purpose of attachment.
Typically, a quilt consists of three layers. The top layer, often simply called the quilt top, is usually made up of fabrics sewn together to create a decorative design, either through the use of piecing (seaming fabric pieces together along their edges), or appliqué (attaching fabric pieces to a ground fabric). Whole cloth quilts are those whose tops are made up of a single piece of fabric (or pieces seamed together to imitate the appearance of a single piece) and which feature the quilting as their sole design element. The middle layer of a quilt is the batting, a sheet of loosely joined fibers, which provide loft and warmth. Traditionally, wool and cotton were used as batting; however, polyester also came to be used. The backing of a quilt, usually less decorative than the top, is usually made from plain muslin, a single printed fabric, or from old bed linens. Once all three layers have been attached with quilting stitches, the raw edges on all four sides are covered and joined with a long narrow piece of fabric called a binding.
Quilting in History
Quilting has been practiced all over the world for millennia. Quilting frequently was used in the past to construct warm or protective clothing. Evidence of quilted garments reaches as far back as pharaonic Egypt, as seen in a thirty-fifth century b.c.e. ivory carving (in the collections of the British Museum) depicting a pharaoh wearing a mantle or cloak that appears to be quilted.
In medieval Europe, quilted garments were used first as stand-alone armor and later as supplements to metal armor. Worn under metal armor, quilted garments protected the wearer from bruising and scratching by the heavy outer armor and absorbed some of the shock of weapon blows. Surviving kaftans and other garments in the collections of the Topkapi Saray Museum in Istanbul show that around the same time (sixteenth to seventeenth centuries), quilted clothing was also popular in Turkey.
By the eighteenth century, quilted clothing had become the height of fashion in Europe and colonial America. Although waistcoats and jackets were also sometimes quilted, quilted petticoats were especially popular. Dress styles eventually evolved to have an open panel in the front, extending outward and downward from the waist to the hem, in order to show off elaborately quilted petticoats.
By the late eighteenth century, quilting in Europe, the British Isles, and America was mainly used in the construction of bedcoverings. Although quilted bedding had been made for centuries in Europe (the earliest surviving pieces are from Sicily, c. 1395), quilts became more common as fabrics imported by the East India companies and domestic textile production increased the availability of materials. Most of the late eighteenth-century quilts were whole cloth quilts, sometimes constructed from recycled petticoats (which had largely gone out of fashion by 1775). Whole cloth quilts were sometimes plain, with quilting as the main decoration, and sometimes embroidered. Piecing and appliqué were not as common, although extant pieces, such as a dated 1718 patchwork coverlet in the collection of the Quilter's Guild of the British Isles, prove that these techniques were not unknown.
Appliqué and piecing became the predominant techniques for creating quilt tops in the nineteenth century. Appliqué was more common during the first half of the century, but was largely superceded by piecing during the second half. Some quilts from the first half of the century, such as those in the so-called broderie perse, or cut-out chintz appliqué, style are thought to have been made to imitate palampores, printed Indian bedspreads. Baltimore album quilts, made in the Baltimore, Maryland, area between 1840 and 1850, are often considered the peak of the appliqué style, featuring highly detailed scenes and motifs.
The invention of the sewing machine during the 1840s, and its widespread use following the American Civil War, made piecing a faster, and therefore more popular, technique for creating a quilt top. Log cabin quilts are often the most recognizable nineteenth-century pieced style. Others include nine patch, triple Irish chain, and Bethlehem star.
During the first part of the twentieth century, technological advances strongly influenced quiltmaking. Quilt kits made from die-cut fabrics in "Easter egg" colors produced with synthetic (rather than natural) dyes, are trademarks of 1920s to 1940s quilts. Amish quilts, first made during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, flourished in the first half of the twentieth century and became icons of American quiltmaking. Quilts made by Amish women often feature simple pieced designs and intricate quilting designs similar to those found on whole cloth quilts of the late nineteenth century, hearkening back to an earlier era of quilting.
After declining in popularity during the middle decades of the twentieth century, quilting has experienced a resurgence in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Sparked in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the women's movement and a few pivotal quilt exhibitions and conferences, quilting has enjoyed a revival that endured. In addition to the creation of quilts in the styles of earlier eras, studio artists are making quilts that push
the boundaries of the traditional quilt aesthetic. Artists such as Michael James, Nancy Crow, and Faith Ringgold are creating pieces that prove that quilting continues to grow and thrive as a medium of expression.
Bassett, Lynne, and Jack Larkin. Northern Comfort: New England's Early Quilts, 1789–1850. Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 1998.
Berlo, Janet, and Patricia Crews, eds. Wild by Design: Two Hundred Years of Innovation and Artistry in American Quilts. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003.
Colby, Averil. Quilting. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971.
Holstein, Jonathan. The Pieced Quilt: An American Design Tradition. New York: Galahad Books, 1973.
Orlofsky, Patsy, and Myron Orlofsky. Quilts in America. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.
Rae, Janet. Quilts of the British Isles. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1987.
Smith, Tina F., and Dorothy Osler. "The 1718 Silk Patchwork Coverlet: Introduction." Quilt Studies: The Journal of the British Quilt Study Group 4/5 (2002/3): 24–30.
Tezcan, Hulye, and Selma Delibas. The Topkapi Saray Museum: Costumes, Embroideries and Other Textiles. Translated by J. M. Rogers. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1986.
Marin F. Hanson and
Patricia Cox Crews
A quilt consists of two layers of fabric—the quilt top and the backing—with a third layer of soft insulating material between them, called the batting. Hand or machine stitching holds the three layers together. A quilt can be "whole cloth" (which means the top is one piece of material) but the more colorful and popular forms are patchwork and appliqué.
In patchwork, small patches are sewn together to form larger patterns, while in appliqué the motifs are stitched onto a background fabric. Patchwork quilts are more likely to be arrangements of geometric figures, such as squares and triangles. Appliqué is more frequently used for freeform or representational designs. In either style, the quiltmaker first completes the top by piecing, then quilts together the sandwich of two layers of fabric with batting in between by stitching through all three layers.
Quilts were made even in the earliest civilizations—for example, in ancient Egypt and Central America. In Europe, the Crusaders brought the idea back from the Holy Land around the twelfth century. However, it was in America that the patchwork quilt blossomed into a distinctive and ubiquitous folk art form.
On the frontier, fabric was a valuable commodity, and quilts were a practical way to use leftover scraps and worn-out clothing. Pioneer women soon discovered the artistic possibilities of quiltmaking, and it became one of the few outlets for creativity and beauty in a difficult life. Quilts also became a valuable cultural record. To those who often did not have access to written media, quilts were a way of chronicling important life events: births, marriages, or even something so humble as a treasured friendship.
Over the generations, the practical importance of quilts diminished. Today, anyone can go to the store and buy a factory-made comforter. But over the last 30 years quilting has enjoyed a tremendous renaissance as a hobby and as a form of artistic and social expression. Fabrics and tools are now available that would have astounded previous generations of stitchers.
Many traditional quilt designs are mathematically based, even if their inventors had no formal training in mathematics. A common geometric motif is the square. In the nineteenth century, many girls' first sewing project was a "nine-patch," a simple arrangement of nine squares in a grid. Another common figure is the isosceles right triangle, obtained by cutting a square along the diagonal. Hundreds of traditional blocks consist of these figures, arranged in different sizes and orientations to form stars, animals, buildings, or whatever the quilter's imagination suggested.
A traditional full-sized quilt is often composed of many copies of one basic block. Sometimes two blocks are alternated in checkerboard fashion, as shown in Figure 1. In both quilts, the individual blocks are difficult to discern once they have been incorporated into the completed quilt.
Quilters have learned that the skillful use of contrasting fabrics can lead the eye to see larger "secondary patterns," camouflaging the underlying grid. The traditional pattern called Jacob's Ladder illustrates this technique. As Figure 1 shows, the quilter can use the same geometric pattern yet can make the quilt look completely different by varying the colors. In the quilt on the left, the dominant color creates an illusion of two rectangles with broad borders, positioned diagonally across the quilt and intersecting one another at right angles. In the quilt on the right, the rectangles are barely visible because the color is muted. Instead, the dominant feature on the right is the series of long gray ladders ascending diagonally across the quilt.
Circular symmetry is another common geometric theme. Many quilts, instead of using a repeated pattern of square blocks, feature an elaborate
symmetric "medallion" in the center, such as an 8-pointed Lone Star or a 16-pointed Mariner's Compass. The quilt shown on the cover of this encyclopedia shows an 8-pointed star.
Measurements and Tools. In order to make the pieces of a quilt fit together correctly, quilters depend on precise measurements. If the diagonal lines in Jacob's Ladder were off by even a quarter inch, the sense of continuity from one block to the next would be ruined. The finished quilt can also develop unsightly ripples or bulges if the patches are not measured and cut with accuracy.
A little mathematics comes in handy, too. Because it is impossible to sew two patches together edge-to-edge, quilters cut out each patch a little larger than it will appear in the final quilt. To make a 1-inch square, quilters know they need to cut out a 1½ inch square, adding in a ¼-inch seam allowance (a standard amount) on each side. But it is trickier to figure out the correct cutting size for an isosceles right triangle. Adding ½ inch to the length of the short side is not enough, because this leaves no seam allowance on the long side, as shown in the figure below. The extra length needed, inches, can be computed from the Pythagorean Theorem, making a total of inches to add to the short sides of the triangle. Most quilters know the "rule of thumb," even if they do not know that they owe it to Pythagoras.
Modern quilters have access to an array of specialized tools for design and execution. The rotary cutter, a device somewhat like a pizza slicer, can cut more swiftly and accurately than scissors. When used with special see-through rulers that have grids and oblique angles marked on them, the
rotary cutter also allows quilters to skip the tedious step of marking fabric with a pencil. Other measuring devices associated with mathematics include protractors, compasses, and both rectilinear and isometric (triangular) graph paper. In recent years, some quilt designers have begun to use computer programs to design, preview, and calculate yardage.
Mathematics in Design. In addition to using mathematics as a tool, a few quilters have begun to use mathematics as their inspiration. In Caryl Bryer Fallert's Fibonacci Series #3, the long rectangles have side lengths that form a Fibonacci progression: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and so on. (See Figure 2.) Although not shown here, Jane LeValley Kerns's prizewinning Fractal ingeniously ties together the mathematical concept of a fractal (in this case, a cube made of smaller cubes made of smaller cubes) with a well-known optical illusion called the Necker cube. Other quilts with mathematical themes have been based on space-filling curves, logarithmic spirals, and nonperiodic tessellations . The mathematical motifs provide an inherent sense of rhythm and balance that partners well with the color and tactile satisfaction of the quilting medium.
see also Fractals; Fibonacci, Leonardo Pisano; Geometry, Tools of; Patterns; Pythagoras; Tessellations; Transformations.
Seward, Linda. Successful Quilting: A Step-by-Step Guide to Mastering the Techniques of Piecing, Appliqué and Quilting. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1987.
Venters, Diana, and Elaine Krajenke Ellison. Mathematical Quilts—No Sewing Required! Emeryville, CA: Key Curriculum Press, 1999.
quilting, form of needlework, almost always created by women, most of them anonymous, in which two layers of fabric on either side of an interlining (batting) are sewn together, usually with a pattern of back or running (quilting) stitches that hold the layers together. This method of securing warmth in covering and clothing has been practiced for centuries in N Asia and Europe. Quilting has been a feature of embroidery in the form of raised work. It was a distinctive type of needlework in pioneer American homes, at first mainly utilitarian, later more ornamental. Quilts were usually of the pieced, or patchwork, type until c.1750, when the appliquéd, or laid-on, quilt and the monotone quilt decorated by trapunto (padding or cording) became popular. A fad for quilted petticoats for women and coattails for men was at its height from 1688 to 1714. About 1830 appliquéd box quilts, made with tops of individually pieced, generally geometric patterns, became dominant.
While some 18th-cent. examples are extant, the American quilt as art and craft is largely a 19th-century phenomenon. Dozens of traditional patchwork patterns have evolved, such as Sunburst, Sawtooth, Log Cabin, Schoolhouse, and Bear's Paw, and have continued in use well into the 20th cent. The quilts of certain American groups are especially compelling works of art. Among the most notable of these were made by the Amish (particularly c.1870–1935) who created utilitarian quilts with geometric designs in areas of unpatterned color—deep, vibrant, and close-toned—now much sought after by collectors. The Victorian period marked the popularity of the crazy quilt, in which asymmetrical designs were made of patches of various textiles in a multiplicity of sizes and shapes often connected by decorative stitching.
Part of the American folk art tradition, quilting is still practiced by Southern mountainfolk, the Pennsylvania Dutch, and other rural dwellers and has been revived as ornamental needlework. Traditional African-American quilts have been particularly praised for their bold, asymmetrical designs and brilliant colors, often complemented by the use of tied knots. Of particular interest are quilts (1930s–present) created by the women of Gee's Bend, an historically black Alabama community—jazzy, colorful works in irregular geometric patterns of remarkable abstract power that have been widely exhibited, e.g., at the Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC (2002). The quilt has also been used as a form of textile art, as in the work of Faith Ringgold, who blends African-American tradition with contemporary art. Quilting also has a utilitarian function in modern life with machine-quilted materials used for wearing apparel and in interior decoration, particularly for bed and couch covers.
See P. Cooper and N. B. Buferd, The Quilters: Women and Domestic Art (1978); M. Walker, The Complete Guide to Quiltmaking (1986); C. L. Mosey, Contemporary Quilts from Traditional Patterns (1988); C. Benberry, Always There: The African-American Presence in American Quilts (1992).
QUILTING. A quilt is made by sewing two pieces of cloth together with a padding in between the two layers held in place by stitching that creates a design. The first quilts emerged in ancient Egypt, and the decorative art form traveled to Asia and later to Europe during the Crusades (c. 1100–1300). By 1300, quilting had spread to Italy, where women sewed bed quilts, and from there a long tradition of quilt making developed throughout Europe. Female European immigrants brought their quilting skills to the United States where the art form flourished during the colonial era. American women often created patchwork quilts made from scraps of fabric. Women also participated in quilting bees in which they worked together in groups to sew quilts. African American women began quilting as slaves with scraps from their masters and continued the art form after their emancipation. As Americans migrated west during the nineteenth century, women's quilting patterns reflected their new experiences and carried such names as wagon wheel, log cabin, and North Star. Picture quilts also emerged during this time with designs that looked like pictures sewn onto quilts. Women sewed "friendship" quilts to create an album for special events like weddings and births. The AIDS Memorial Quilt originated in 1987 as a friendship quilt to remember those who died from AIDS. Each panel of the quilt includes the name and date of death of a person who died from AIDS.
Cooper, Patricia, and Norma Bradley Buferd. The Quilters: Women and Domestic Art. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1993.
Orlofsky, Patsy, and Myron Orlofsky. Quilts in America. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.