Black Women Are Bringing Back the Historical Family Tradition of Quilting

From navigating the Underground Railroad to telling a family's story, quilts are more than an heirloom to Black families—they're an act of woven resistance.

Artist Bisa Butler poses with her quilt "Three Kings" at the 2018 Art Basel Miami Beach
Photo: Sean Drakes/Getty Images

The history of quilting—a decorative art of stitched and layered fabrics—is lined with a story of poetic justice. It sews a tale of turning a tool of oppression into an expression of liberation. It has long-standing cultural significance in Black communities and has profound roots of woven resistance in the rural South.

That significance dates back to the 19th century when enslaved Black women were forced to sew bedding, clothes, and other materials for their enslavers, while often weaving their own family's clothing to keep warm and survive.

Weaving scraps together became a metaphor for threads of resilience stitched to preserve remnants of culture, faith, and hope. In essence, Black women serve as originators of today's needle and thread technique, though often not attributed with bringing the tradition to the U.S.

Known for her African appliqué technique, Harriet Powers was the first freed slave to use her intricate hand-stitched panels to launch a successful business in the post-Civil War era. Known for her bright quilts in the rural lowlands of Georgia, Powers debuted her first exhibit in 1886 at the Cotton States and International Expo. Today, her infamous Bible Quilts exhibit hangs in the Smithsonian.

It is also theorized that enslaved Black women may have used quilting codes to memorize and navigate the Underground Railroad.

Completed quilts were also treated as a way to forge lasting bonds between the original quilters and their family by passing down their pieces as heirlooms. Some even chose to make their own coded quilts and teach the skill to their daughters.

Go Back and Get It

Award-winning Kansas-based fiber artist and author Marla Arna Jackson keeps notable Black figureheads, like Langston Hughes and Martin Luther King, alive through quilt work while giving back and passing the stitching torch on to future generations.

"Sankofa is a word from Ghana that means 'go back and fetch it'. Taking knowledge, going back to your community, and sharing it," Jackson told Sankofa Lessons about her Sankofa quilt that hangs in the Spencer Museum.

In addition to passing down knowledge, Black women have historically used quilting to gain financial and civic independence. One hallmark example is the Tutwiler Mississippi Quilters, whose substantial quilting program has been thriving for the past 30 years. Founders Anne Brooks and Maureen Delaney came to Tutwiler to work at a local clinic as physicians and saw the healing power that textile and quilting had on Black women.

"Delaney and Brooks formed the program in 1988 to create new revenue streams and sources of income for Black women, and our members have done just that for over 20 years," said TCC Executive Director Melanie Powell, who now oversees the program.

For centuries, Black women like them have sewn "herstories"—or womens' histories— as a way of recording their family traditions, preserving keepsakes, and creating artistic legacies that could be passed down to generations.

Stitching Together Community

Quilting bees were one of the most prominent ways to foster sisterhood and community activism among Black women during the early 20th century. During the Civil Rights movement in 1966, the Freedom Quilting Bee was created for Black women from Gee's Bend, Alabama, to earn money for their families by selling their collaborative quilts. Many members also participated in the Selma to Montgomery march to rally for the right to vote. Soon, the Bee's collective began to sell quilts throughout the U.S., raising awareness and popularity of quilting as a growing American art form.

Since then, the historical significance of quilting has echoed across other creative mediums. Notable Black women, from quilters like Harriet Powers, Faith Ringgold, and Rosie Lee Tompkins to writers like Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Lynn Nottage, have used quilting as a catalyst for change and to inspire conversations about race.

Linking the Past and Present

Today, fiber artists like Bisa Butler are bringing that tradition back.

Butler is a contemporary artist whose quilts illustrate daily Black life in vibrant colors and patterns. Her signature style created a new genre of quilting by layering portraits to look like paintings of fabric. Her life-sized billboards of embroidery take ordinary and well-known historical figures, like Frederick Douglas, and bring them to life. With precise attention to detail, she strategically selects fabrics, because of their history or the imagery of the prints, to reinforce the narrative she wants to communicate in each quilt.

"In my work, I am telling the story—this African American side—of the American life. History is the story of men and women, but the narrative is controlled by those who hold the pen," said Bisa Butler to the Claire Olive Gallery.

Layering materials and meanings, Butler brings personal and historical experience to her stories of Black life. Originally trained as a painter, the New Jersey native shifted to quiltmaking during her graduate studies. Butler made her first portrait quilt, a photo of her grandparents, as a way to connect with her ailing grandmother, who first taught her how to sew. Now, she is internationally renowned and holds exhibits throughout the United States, Asia, Europe, and Africa. In 2021, one of Butler's highest-auctioned pieces sold for $75,000.

Though Butler's quilt portraits originated from her own family history, the tradition of connection to quilting originates from enslaved people arriving in America. Butler's work communicates between the ancestors, modern-day art gallery viewers, and quilt buyers alike. Butler's work speaks to the African-Ghanaian Kente tradition of textile work that tells stories and preserves tradition through vivid patch blocks.

Today, these family quilting traditions have transcended into large gatherings to pay homage to other Black icons, like the annual Atlanta Quilting Festival, which will be honoring the late congressman John Lewis this August.

From community festivals to national exhibitions and other quilting celebrations, the history of quilting never truly ends. Instead, each new piece adds another page to the Black ancestral legacy of patchworking.

Jenae Barnes provided research that contributed to this story.

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