Woven into History

By Benberry, Cuesta | American Visions, December-January 1993 | Go to article overview

Woven into History


Benberry, Cuesta, American Visions


Why, after many years of near invisibility, have African-American quilts become so engrossing to art historians, folklorists, ethnologists and quilt historians? African Americans have made quilts in this land continuously from the late 18th century, yet their work is conspicuously absent from the many published accounts of American quilt history.

Several factors, products of the times, form the basis of the current explorations of African-American quilts. As a result of the 1960s-1970s civil rights movement, black history attained the status of a legitimate discipline. Concomitant with the blacks' civil rights actions was the women's movement, which coincided with quilt movement of the last quarter of the 20th century. Further impetus came from ecologists, who espoused the need to return to plain, self-reliant and healthy living.

A new cadre of quilt historians treated the study of patchwork quilts as a scholarly discipline, and not as a minor adjunct to the studies of art history, folklore or women's studies. These historians were determined to produce an accurate history of quilts, to document fully quilts and quiltmakers past and present, and to explore topics never before researched in the context of quilt history.

Another factor was the advent of the 1976 bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, an event accompanied by a celebration of ethnic diversity in our multicultural society. Certain historians placed a priority on investigating the ways quilts of various ethnic groups connected to the social, political and economic conditions of their lives in America.

High drama was associated with early research on African-American quilts. Scholars located a small group of quilts profoundly different visually from the accepted aesthetic of traditional American patchwork quilts. These idiosyncratic quilts from black women of rural Southern and similar backgrounds were examined closely for stylistic variances, construction techniques, fabric color choices and symbolic design references.

Most exciting of all was a linkage between black American quilts and African design traditions, believed to indicate an unconscious cultural memory in the quiltmakers of their faraway motherland. African-American quilts became one of America's newest forms of exotica.

Continued scrutiny of the quilts resulted in the promulgation of a numberof theories that were immediately accepted as fact. Visual criteria for recognizing African-American quilts (stitch length, asymmetrical organization of quilt patches, size of patches, frequent use of bright colors) were devised. Long-established canons of quilt history research, such as determining the quiltmaker's identity, the quilt's provenance, the date of making and the fabric content, were no longer deemed essential. One needed only apply the recently created visual criteria to identify with certainty quilts of African-American origin. …

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