The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
As I have gone along in my quilting journey, I have become more and more a lover of the history of the American quilt.
At this point, I am just as interested in reading a book about the history of the Log Cabin quilt, for example, as I am designing and making my own. This doesn’t mean that I’m making fewer quilts; it means I’m now spending more time thinking about them in general.
But as I read books and articles written by great quilt historians like Barbara Brackman and Cuesta Benberry, for example, I’m learning that an important question must be
asked when approaching the history of anything, really: Whose history are you learning? The question doesn’t have to be a hostile one. It’s just good sense to understand that there are about a zillion sides to every story — and what is history but one long, big story?
Take the Industrial Revolution. On balance,
a “Mill Girl” in Cherryville Mill, 1908. Photo by
Lewis W. Hine. Image: Library of Congress.good thing, right? I mean, I’m fond of refrigeration, railroads, and light switches, myself, so I’d say yes. And as a quilter, I have the Industrial Revolution to thank for the American quilt as we know it. Without the explosion of textile manufacturing in this country in the 19th century, there would be no Lone Star quilt, no Mariner’s Compass, no Log Cabin at all. We needed an abundance of cheap printed cloth to be able to make the quilts we know and love (and remake) today. Looking at it this way, the Industrial Revolution was fantastic for the American quilt. Case closed.
Then you see pictures of little girls of no more than seven or eight staring back at you from pictures taken inside the textile mills of Lowell, Mass., in the early 1800s, their faces streaked with grime, their little fingers impossibly vulnerable next to the gaping maws of the giant looms they stand between — and you pause. Oh, yeah, you think to yourself; that part, maybe, was not so great. Sure, the girls had jobs that could help support their families — families that produced quilts, in some cases — but there
is no question this was dangerous,
perilous work. Breathing in the fibers caused illness, fires in factories caused death, and no way were the countless, horrifying injuries that occurred in those textile mills accounted for (in either sense of the term.)
I’m not out to kill your quilt buzz, nor am I saying that the situation was entirely bleak; nothing is ever so black and white. My point is that “the mill girls of Lowell” would tell one history of the Industrial Revolution; the well-heeled ladies who lunched in Boston at a table covered with a lovely printed tablecloth, another.
The quilts we identify as “African-American” are another good example of a place where we can widen our historical perspective, and benefit from doing so.
When many of us think of the contributions of the African-American quilter, we think of the Gee’s Bend quilts first — and maybe last. We picture the improvisationally pieced, strippy, “funky” quilts of the Pettaway family, for example, and other quilts like them. Indeed, this style of quilt does reflect an aesthetic common to African-American quilts over time.
An African-American-made quilt — but not the only kind of quilt
made by African-Americans. Quilt by Lucy Mingo of Gee's Bend, Alabama, 1979. Collection of Bill Volckening, Portland, Oregon. Image: Wikipedia.
But it’s not the only kind of quilt made by African-American quilters. In fact, as Barbara Brackman discusses in her book, Facts & Fabrications-Unraveling the History of Quilts & Slavery, more than a few of the intricate, symmetrical, appliqué-heavy quilts coming out of the 19th-century south, and which we so admire, were made (or partly-made) by African-
Americans — it’s just that they were working as slaves for the woman of the house. There are many other examples of quilts made by African-Americans who were not slaves and who made quilts that look more like the quilts we see most often when we look at the prevailing “history of the American quilt.”
Who writes the history books? It’s important to ask (and to keep reading.) Image: Wikipedia.
So I encourage you to ask the question: Whose history do we examine when we examine history?
The good news is that when I ask that, what I find is not a total disaster or an undoing of everything I know. What I find is a deepening, a richness to the whole picture. The more I learn about the other histories of the American quilt, the more excited I am by the topic overall.
Instead of just one history that fascinates me, there are all of these other histories to enthrall me, too — and that is 100% good, no caveats.