Juneteenth Quilts

Quilts made by African American women (and possibly a few men) can vary in style just as much as those made by any other cultural group during a particular time period. But with the national discovery some 15 years ago of the quilts of the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama and the subsequent major museum tours of these quilts, a particular look has been popularized. This look often mixes traditional West African stylistic elements with 20th century American ones. This look can also translate some minor African elements, such as certain asymmetries, into major focal points.

The six quilts of the show were selected specifically because they reflect this purposeful blending of traditions. Their makers remain anonymous. They were purchased at antique shops across New York and Pennsylvania. Only the history of one can be guessed at. The others must stand solely on the merits of their own vibrant integrity.

Double-sided Strip Quilt

cotton and cotton blend fabrics machine stitched to an inner muslin
some plain machine quilting
ca. 1955-1965

The vertical stripes of horizontally pieced fabrics on the one side echo the West African aesthetic of what is called “strip cloth” – cloth made from sewn together strips of cloth woven with narrow horizontal bands.  Double sided quilts are fairly uncommon in any quilting tradition.  This one mixes the log cabin motif with the West African style.  Both design styles combined in this quilt use pieced narrow strips of cloth as a unifying element.

“Union Made” Strip Quilt

cotton, cotton/linen, and cotton blends, hand stitched
interior material – cotton batting
backing – stripped cotton flannel
hand quilted in concentric arcs
ca. late 1950s – early 1960s

The fabrics for this quilt are comprised mostly of scraps from heavy-duty work clothing.  The prints may be from dresses, the heavier ones from draperies.  Union labels still survive on many fabrics from a clothing manufacturer in Florida.  The use of recycled clothing is not uncommon in African American quilts from the South.  This may be a continuation of the tradition set during the Great Depression by quilt makers all across the country.
This quilt was purchased from an antiques dealer who had bought it at an estate auction.  The auction was of the contents of an old farm/orchard located close to the south shore of Lake Ontario east of Rochester.  The quilt had been in an outbuilding for a number of years and was very dirty.  It is a good educated guess that the quilt was made in Florida by a women who worked for the clothing factory – Headlight Mfg. Co.  It is a very heavy quilt; heavier than one would probably ever need that far south.  It would be a good possibility that she made it for her husband who was a migrant worker, who came north to pick fruit, probably apples, in the fall.  The quilt remained at the orchard where he worked.

Tied Strip Quilt

cotton, wool, and blends, machine stitched
no interior material
backing – black cotton
tied with wool yarn
ca. 1955 – 1965

The asymmetry in the pieces of fabric themselves as well as that of the long pieced strips and their occasional interruptions with narrow and more horizontal fabrics is a continuation and magnification of such asymmetries found in West African cloth.


rayon crepe de Chine, rayon corduroy, and cotton, hand stitched
no interior material
backing – cotton blanket
hand quilted in concentric arcs
ca. 1935-1945

The name “Housetops” for this pattern comes from the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama.  The term is now used universally for this design.  Although the pattern may have evolved out of log cabin, the asymmetrical aesthetic which is common to so many African American quilts is very much present here.  Pieces of fabric aren’t of equal size or shape; lines don’t always meet; and color placement is irregular.

Housetops variation

cotton and cotton blend fabrics, machine stitched.
interior material – cotton batting
backing – cotton print
quilting – hand stitched
ca. early 1960s

As is common with African American quilts, the backing folds over the front and is stitched down.  Also common is hand quilting in broad, somewhat uneven, concentric arcs.

This quilt demonstrates the stylistic elements of discontinuity and asymmetrical quality also common to so many African American designs.  Some housetop squares are not quite completed and the patterns are occasionally interrupted with shapes that seem out of place.

Stripes in Squares

machine stitched pieced cotton and cotton blend fabrics
interior material – cotton and wool blanket
backing – striped nylon
quilting – machine zigzag
ca. 1955-1965

As is stylistic for many African American quilts, the backing is folded over the front and stitched down.

Much traditional West African cloth is constructed by first weaving long narrow strips which are then sewn together side by side.  The strips themselves are woven with narrow horizontal stripes and other designs so that when sewn together, they create a grid of vertical and horizontal interest.  In this quilt, the maker has used this aesthetic to eye-dazzling effect.


One Response

  1. […] African American Quilts (see Juneteenth Quilts post) and International exhibit is being held in conjunction with the International Freedom Festival and […]

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