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Black History Month | African American Quilting

By: Lauren Anderson

Just as the enslaved from the west coast of Africa brought their music and food traditions to the western hemisphere, they also brought their textile traditions. It is possible to trace African textile techniques, aesthetic traditions and religious symbols that were adapted by African American quilters. There are 7 traits that distinguish African American quilts from those of European quilters: vertical stripes, bright colors, large designs, asymmetry, improvisation, multiple patterns and symbolic forms(1.).  

These quilts were of course, while decorative, primarily utilitarian: they were made from reclaimed clothing and other fabric scraps to create something that would provide warmth and comfort. Quilters were/are recyclers before the term was ever coined. Because they were not being created as an art form, these quilts were not “signed or dated” as a piece of art might be and therefore it is rare to be able to ascribe quilts to their makers or to do more than approximate its age. 

Fortunately, the African American quilting tradition has been passed from generation to generation, evolving in form and use from one generation to another. African American quilters today continue to use patterns that date to the 19th century. Perhaps the best, most well-known, example are the quilters of Gees Bend, Alabama. This is a relatively isolated community of quilters who can trace their quilting traditions to their enslaved ancestors. The Gees Bend quilters continue to create quilts that now receive recognition in the arts community, being exhibited in museums across the country. The New Orleans Museum of Art acquired five of their quilts several years ago. I was privileged to work with them at a retreat in Alabama and to bring them to New Orleans for a retreat at Ashe Cultural Center. Here’s a small example of their work.

Other African American quilters who have taken this craft to a high art form are Faith Ringgold and Bisa Butler.

There is an active community of African American quilters in New Orleans and two quilt groups that are predominately African American: Crescent City Quilters and the Beecher Memorial Church UCC Quilt Group.

As a quilter it is wondrous to be part of such a dynamic tradition that allows me to borrow from the past and improvise. My quilts are sometimes utilitarian, gracing some of our beds, as well as purely artistic. This is my favorite, my Harriett Tubman quilt. Each block uses designs from the 1800’s.


  1. Signs and Symbols African Images in African American Quilts, Maude Southwell Wahlman


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