https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/dec/02/equals-klee-matisse-alabama-quilt-makers-shook-america

I’ve been experiementing with paint, newsprint, collage and stitch in response to a callout from my daughter’s school for contributions to an art auction. (An initiative to raise much needed funds in the absence of regular fundraisers such as the annual summer fair.) This is my first attempt…

I’ve been feeling quite helpless in the face of current circumstances. The process of making proved somewhat cathartic, as a diversion and as a means of feeling useful. Whilst pondering these issues, I came across this interesting article: https://arts.berkeley.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Hibbert-Jones_Reflections_around_arts_utility.pdf

In quiet (precious) moments between the demands of life and work, I have been reading ‘Stitched from the Soul’ by Gladys-Marie Fry. It’s an illustrated survey of quilts made by enslaved people in the southern states of America prior to the civil war of 1861-1865. It also explores associated techniques, designs and traditions, providing fascinating insight in to the lives of first and second generation African American women and their families.

Like the author Gladys Fry, my interest in the subject was sparked by stories of my great-grandmother who earnt money to supplement the family income by sewing fabric squares into ‘Indian quilts’ (or coverlets). In the author’s introduction, Fry explains how stories about her own great-grandmother Amanda, an enslaved-seamstress with legendary needlework skills, piqued her interest in quilting and prompted a quest (lasting decades) to explore the scope and significance of associated activities ‘in the ante-bellum south’.

Fry is Professor Emeritus of Folklore and English at the University of Maryland and has curated numerous exhibitions at leading institutions across the US. On her journey of discovery, she predictably encounters difficulties, most notably arising from the lack of official written sources documenting the everyday lives of enslaved females. However, by stealth Fry pieces together a fascinating account, using quilts in historic collections as primary source material, together with the oral testimonies of former slaves (recorded through the Work Projects Administration Slave Narrative Collection, 1936-38).

Chapters in the book include a summary of the demanding duties undertaken by an enslaved seamstress, a more detailed account of how, when, where and why quilts were produced and an overview of related social traditions, such as the ‘quilting’ (a gathering or party where participants would work collectively to produce a quilt before sharing food and festivities). In particular, Fry draws attention to attributes traceable to African customs and sensibilities that have since been assimilated into western textile heritage. Most notable of these is the red and white colour palette, ubiquitous in American quilting to this day and originating from the religious cult of Shango in Nigeria.

Cot quilt, by Anon, 1840-1860

I too have employed this vivid colour palette in my practice over the years (which brings to mind amongst other things, bloodshed, sacrifice and the American flag) without hitherto understanding its full, historical significance.

Fry reveals further information about the cultural origins of various quilt designs including crosses and suns (symbols of omniscience associated with the Bakongo ethnic group) and snakes (widely associated with life and fertility across the African diaspora). She also explains that black fabric was deliberately incorporated into some quilt designs, as means of signalling a ‘safe house’ to those escaping slavery via the Underground Railroad.

‘Stitched from the Soul’ employs photos of associated equipment and architecture, plus documents written by slave owners to provide added contextual information. It paints a picture of life on a plantation, as seen through the eyes of an enslaved female. It also explores the relationships between these women and their families, communities and proprietors. The author debunks a number of myths, including the wide-held belief that slaves were too busy working for their masters to make quilts for themselves. Indeed the most inspiring illustrations included in this anthology show examples of such industry, emphasising the creativity and skill of women with scant time and resources. Sadly their names are for the most part unknown and their contribution to art history overlooked, though a few individuals are featured, together with their portraits and outputs.

This quilt was made by an enslaved female called Phyllis, who was brought to the USA from the Congo in 1818 aged 12.

Disappointingly for both the author and her readers, Fry’s great-grandmother Amanda remains an elusive figure to the end. What is gleaned however, is a sense of the person, as shared through the spoken memories and creative deeds of her contemporaries. In particular, I was struck by the level of importance these women attached to perpetuating aspects of their African heritage as well as the sophisticated means they employed (despite widespread illiteracy).  This book successfully illustrates their ingenuity, tirelessness, skill and aesthetic and is an engaging and inspiring read. I feel utterly enthused and am itching to get stitching as we speak…

For further reading I can also recommend:

Hidden in Plain View: A secret history of quilts and the underground railroad, Jacqueline L.Tobin and Raymond G Dobard, Anchor Books, New York (2000)

Workt by Hand: Hidden Labor and Historical Quilts (ed) Catherine Morris, Brooklyn Museum, New York (2013)