Mystique Surrounds Afro-American Quilts

As seen in The Antique Shoppe Newspaper, September, 2005

 


Birds, pieced quilt, attributed to Blanche Ransome Parker (1884-1981), 1840s. Cotton. Courtesy:   DAR Museum, Washington, D.C. Friends of the Museum Fund.

One of the most exciting aspects about Afro-American quilts is the continually unfolding information about them. Until the 1980s little was known about them, and in fact, author/African quilt expert Cuesta Benberry said, “I have not seen any quilts having an African influence during my forty years of research.”  She went on to say that “in the case of “ slave produced quilts their talents depended on the skills of their mistress, who instructed them.” A lot has changed since then. Now, not only have many Afro-American quilts been so-identified, along with distinctive patterns, but how they were possibly used as signals to slaves escaping via the underground railway.        

In a recently published book, “Official Price Guide To Quilts”, authors Liz Aleshire and Kathleen Barach point out that the earliest African-American quilts authenticated are two pictorial Bible quilts made by Harriet Powers in 1886 and 1898, long after the days of the underground railway.       

However, the possibility that certain quilt patterns were used to signal run-away slaves and direct their escape was posed in another book, “Hdidden In Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad”, by Jacqueline L. Tobin, an instructor in Women’s Studies at the University of Denver and Raymond G. Dobard, PhD    and art historian at Howard University. It was published in 1999 and is still a subject of controversy and intrigue. According to the Tobin book, an interview with Ozella McDaniel Williams, a black quilt vendor in Charleston, South Carolina, a sampler quilt was carried from plantation to plantation by Eliza Farrow a freed black woman. She and her husband used this to teach a “Secret Quilt Code of Africa”.

Certain quilt blocks such as “Drunkard’s Path”  would be code for “Don’t travel a straight path or you could be followed.” Another intriguing aspect to the underground railroad code is the use of knot placements. These twine ties held the layers of a quilt together.

Supposedly these knots would have been clues to distance and location needed to be traveled.

CLUES: How do African-American quilts differ from those of their white counterparts?

According to African-American quilt expert Dr. Maude Southwell Wahlman, there are seven clues. They include: vertical strips that relate to a West African tradition of strip quilts; bold, bright colors; overly large designs; multiple-patterning; asymmetry; symbolic forms. And, in the twentieth century, especially with contemporary quilters, improvisation.       

Another clue is the use of bright, contrasting colors, used close together. Some typical color combinations might be purple and yellow or orange and green.       

While traditional quilts use 10-12-or 16 inch uniform size blocks, African American quilts use large scale designs.       

African-American quilt makers also made quilts in the traditional Anglo-American style, but adding their own distinctive touches. Before their techniques were identified as African-American, they were considered examples of inferior quilting.

So, the next time you judge a quilt and the workmanship and color combinations look amateurish, take a second look. It could be an African-American quilt.

Proof of growing interest is the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) Museum inclusion of a quilt attributed to the African American quilter, Blanche Ransome Parker, in their collection. This boldly designed quilt is believed to have been made in the 1940s. The fabrics used are utilitarian cottons, some faded. But, it is the design of stylized birds and abstract strip that make it unique.        

Hopefully, many more of these historically important quilts will surface as the public becomes more aware of them.


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