Crafted Lives: Stories and Studies of African American Quilters

By Horton, Laurel | Journal of American Folklore, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Crafted Lives: Stories and Studies of African American Quilters


Horton, Laurel, Journal of American Folklore


Crafted Lives: Stories and Studies of African American Quilters. By Patricia A. Turner. Foreword by Kyra E. Hicks. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009. Pp. xii + 216, 32 color photographs, notes, index.)

Crafted Lives is a landmark addition to the growing body of work on African American quiltmaking traditions. Turner presents her findings in two sections: "Stories" features biographical sketches of African American quiltmakers, while "Studies" consists of five essays exploring "the ways in which African American quilts and quilters have been depicted, criticized, and characterized" (dust jacket). This division offers a very useful juxtaposition between the personal, the lived experience of the quiltmakers, and the political, the larger context in which quilts and quilters function in American society. Turner effectively brings these two perspectives together throughout the book with reflections on her own experiences in various roles-student, folklorist, college professor, quiltmaker, and aunt-over a period of some twenty years.

The "Stories" are drawn from interviews with nine individuals, showing how they use their quilts and their quiltmaking activities to create meaning in their lives. Although the makers reflect a variety of backgrounds and motivations, Turner makes clear that these selected stories are not intended to capture the full range of African American quiltmaking. Other authors have published profiles of contemporary African American quilters, often in conjunction with exhibitions (for example, Roland Freeman, A Communion of the Spirits, Rutledge Hill Press, 1996; Carolyn Mazloomi, Spirits of the Cloth, Clarkson Potter, 1998; Eva Grudin, Stitching Memories, Williams College Museum of Art, 1990). Turner's profiles are generally more detailed than those in previous publications and, in contrast with exhibition catalogs, focus on the quiltmaker's life, activities, and motivations rather than on specific material results. (The color plates include quilts, but they are shown with people in their homes, not in the "passport-photo" format favored by museum catalogs.)

The "Stories" are not only interesting in themselves, but their inclusion also provides a useful grounding for the "Studies" that follow. These five chapters, "intended to demonstrate the ways in which the status of African American quilts and quilters reflects the obstacles, challenges, and achievements of black Americans" (p. 100), together offer the most significant historical, contextual, and interpretive discussion to date on African American quiltmaking. Although Turner is not the first academic scholar, nor the first African American scholar to address this subject, her broad understanding of African American history and culture and her ability to examine quiltmaking within this larger context make this book particularly useful.

Since the 1970s, a number of books have been published on African American quilts. Arguably, these works might be categorized by the authors' motivations, including books that selectively present quilts that match a preconceived interpretation (Maude Southwell Wahlman, Signs and Symbols, Studio Books, 1993; Eli Leon, Who'd a Thought It, San Francisco Craft& Folk Art Museum, 1987); and those that, in reaction, try to demonstrate the wider range of African American quiltmaking (Cuesta Benberry, Always There, Kentucky Quilt Project, 1992; Marsha MacDowell, ed., African American Quiltmaking in Michigan, Michigan State University Press, 1997; Kyra Hicks, Black Threads, McFarland, 2003). Gladys-Marie Frye attempted to address the dearth of information on antebellum African American quilts in Stitched from the Soul (University of North Carolina Press, [1990] 2002). Though the examples in her book more accurately reflect quiltmaking of the late nineteenth century, Frye's work remains the primary compilation of material on pre-twentieth-century African American quiltmaking traditions. All of these pioneering efforts have brought needed attention to the work of black quiltmakers, and Turner acknowledges these authors, some of whom served as mentors for her early research efforts. …

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