A Stitch in Time
In the early 19th century, the ‘pieced’ or ‘block’ quilt becomes fashionable and remains the most broadly identifiable American quilt style. With industrialization, developments in transportation made a diversity of fabric available to the average household. Trains and steamboats were being used by the 1830s. The roller printing machine, introduced into the general usage by 1825, meant fabrics were produced, printed and sold readily in vast numbers.
While quilts were useful things that provided warmth and comfort, they are and have always been primarily a means of creative expression, an outlet for women who didn’t have much of a voice. This is particularly true of the African American quilting tradition, the roots of which were introduced to America with the arrival of African slaves.
Textiles in Africa were primarily woven, so there was not a developed quilting tradition there. However, the aesthetic of African textiles; boldly colored stripes, squares, and triangles with repeated patterns provided natural inspiration for pieced quilts.
While working on plantations in the Southern states, African American women learned the craft of quilting from their mistresses. Slave women would help their mistresses with quilts keeping with the European tradition, but they also used the skills to create their own quilts which reflected traditional fabrics from their home countries.
The African American quilting tradition draws on patterns and themes from both European and African history. Quilters would apply an African twist and aesthetic to the established European American patterns.
African American quilts introduced bold colors, asymmetrical designs, and spontaneity. They show a respect for mistakes and inconsistency, and are more expressive than traditional European American quilts which stuck to established patterns and rewarded perfection.
While the influence of this distinct style didn’t immediately spread widely due to very obvious limitations and oppression of slaves and their descendants, there has been a major stylistic impact on contemporary quilting. Especially since the exhibitions and wide documentation of the fantastic quilts of Gee’s bend. These quilts also bridged the worlds of craft and fine art – eschewing symbols and using instead expressionist blocks of color that paralleled contemporary art movements.
In the 1970s, quilts started to become widely accepted as their own distinct form of fine art, rather than only a craft for women at home. As the feminist movement developed, quilts became primarily a means of expression rather than useful objects. Artists such as Faith Ringgold, Yvonne Wells, and MC Lamb were leaders of the contemporary quilting movement.
What type of quilt would you make? Which colors would you choose?
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