What comes to mind when you think of quilts? As quilters, we have moved into a different phase. For years, quilters have been producing sociopolitical quilts that speak to the issues that make you think, like 9/11, our planet and the environmental issues, the MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, through projects like Peace Quilts and the Faith Quilt Project. Political quilts were and still are a part of the history of men and women. Even more so now, we have to put aside the notion of your quilting granny in her rocking chair, stitching by hand strips of fabric for family comfort.
Here again, we have to take a stand, just as women did in the early nineteenth century. Then, quilts were linked to slaves who often used them as talismans for spiritual safety. These quilts were created to tell a living story of the lives they came from, the hardships, stresses and the happiness, pains or births of a child or deaths of a family member. Although these stories were undocumented, the matriarchs within the tribes, villages or plantations passed them down when they taught children how to sew these symbols onto fabric.
Quilts were part of the movements to end slavery, as we learn in Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad by Jacqueline Tobin, a Women’s Studies professor at the University of Denver, and Raymond Dobard, an art history instructor at Howard University. They interviewed a storyteller, Ozelle McDaniel Williams, who shared an oral history of the symbols, which helped enslaved people to escape from enslavement through the running stitches pattern, knots, and applique patterns.
For example, the North Star quilt was depicted as a guiding light, leading slaves to Canada for freedom. The Wagon Wheel symbolizes enslaved people packing and preparing for their journey, especially if they were packing a wagon with supplies. The Log Cabin quilt with a black center hanging in front of a house on a fence or in a window indicated it was a “safe” house. It was not until after the Civil War ended in 1865 that some quilters were documented for their works of art.
Harriet Powers was a well-known African American quilter who produced a pictorial appliqué quilt, dyed and printed cotton fabrics applied to cotton, which is currently on exhibit in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was a former slave who became a successful seamstress and quilt-maker, civil activist, and author in Washington, D.C. She was best known as the personal confidante of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln.
In the beginning of the twentieth century, a visual transition of quilts helped the woman suffrage movement promote their agenda, which pushed for women’s right to vote. During a march or parade, suffragists stitched their messages across banners or panels. On October 11, 1987, a quilt was displayed for the first time on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., during the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. This huge quilt display was a voice to put an end to AIDS and to celebrate the lives of those who passed away. As Nina Simone said, “It is an artist’s duty to reflect the time.”
As we move into the twenty-first century, some traditional quilters disapproved of mainstream quilters and fiber artists’ involvement in the current sociopolitical climate. As stated in the Chicago Tribune, “social media has provoked a renewed surge in message-bearing quilts—and a counter surge of disapproval from other quilters who believe that issues like these have no place in the sewing circle.” However, when I attend the Mancuso International Quilt Show, my intention is to look for the quilts that make a statement, the ones that reflect a message about my ancestors, the environment, a story quilt with the grandfather’s shirts or ties that hold his memories, a family tree with photograph images of distant and current relatives, quotes or statements that reflect today’s social challenges. These quilts will spark a conversation as to how the message relates to each individual person. It conveys a full range of emotions and helps us to communicate to each other what is happening around us.
Now the challenge for quilters and fiber artists is that our art is still looked at as a home craft. But we intend to change that way of thinking. It is as much a fine art as a painting or a piece of sculpture, but because it’s made out of fabric sometimes our work is not respected or acknowledged as art. Very often people say, “That is not real art, that is just a quilt.”
As quilters and fiber artists, however, we will continue to make the public aware that art quilts are real art. Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi, who founded the Women of Color Quilters Network and has curated many landmark exhibits centered on race and civil rights, explained, “This is the importance of quilts: to tell these stories. I can think of no better way to tell a story than have a visual piece made from something that people are accustomed to wrapping themselves up in for warmth. And security. It’s safe, it tells a story, but at the same time, it’s loving as well.”
To make quilts with a specific purpose that promotes positive social change is a good reason to keep quilting. It’s my inspiration. It feels like I am participating and bringing awareness to support the issues. Also, it helps give me peace and quiet in these times of uncertainty. So, I will do what I love to do.
Lesyslie Rackard, a longtime resident of Boston, enjoys creative arts, cooking and spending quality time with her family and friends. She is grateful to her professors, great family and friends who push her to succeed and inspire her to keep learning.
We, Too, Are America is made possible through “Democracy and the Informed Citizen,” an initiative administered by the Federation of State Humanities Council through a grant from the Mellon Foundation.