Black History Month: Quilting, Race and Ethnicity…

What, if anything, is distinct about quilts made by members of one racial group or another? The answer is easy! We cannot generalise. There are been far too many quilts made by people of different race and ethnicity to attach such generalisations.
Despite this, many curators and collectors have tried to distinguish the differences among quilts made by people of different race and ethnicity – some of these examples are below. So when reading this, keep in mind how important it is to celebrate quilt makers/groups and their quilts as individuals and not to generalise like these curators and collectors do. Every stitch is unique and special.

African American women’s quilts are said to be asymmetrical, have bright and highly contrasting colours and feature improvisation and symbolism. Rita Marshbanks’ quilt ‘Axe Bit’ (below left) is asymmetrical and improvised with bright colours. But this is certainly nor true of all quilts created by African American women. Quilts attributed to white makers have some of these characteristics too. If we look at Mary Eliza Crownbridge’s quilt ‘Pictorial’ (below right) it is also asymmetrical and full of symbolism. But again, we cannot generalise these characteristics to one racial group.


In fact, some quilts created by a person of African American origin are the complete opposite featuring symmetry, uniformity and predictability, words which have been used by some to describe European American-style quilts. Mary Jones’ and Rosa Stokes’ quilt ‘Mammy’ (below) embraces African imagery but at the same time it is repetitive and formal.

Mary Jones and Rosa Stokes)
But even more interesting are the quilts created by Carrie Severt who is white American and Catherine Somerville, who is African American , that share much in common with the other. Two quilt makers of different races from different regions, but could it be that they simply shared a thrifty attitude of making serviceable quilts from leftover fabrics?


Above left: Carrie Severt. Above right: Carrie Severt

These examples highlight that quilting techniques, styles or patterns cannot be attributed to one particular race or ethnicity. Nor should anyone try to find reasons why some communities quilt in a similar way.  We should celebrate quilt makers and their quilts as individual. No creator or quilt can ever be exactly the same, nor will they fit into a neat category and this is what makes the quilting world so interesting, culturally diverse and rich in creativity! Every stitch is unique and special.

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