Quilts hold an important place in American craft history. Quilting is an expression of necessity, economy, and creativity – neither utility nor style are sacrificed by quiltmakers, a common theme in the craft arts. A uniquely American quilting tradition has developed since the early colonial days, with influences stretching to Europe, Asia, and Africa. This page will trace those traditions in two significant periods of historical activism – the Civil Rights Movement and the Gay Rights Movement – and demonstrate how quilting remains more present than ever as a means of empowerment for marginalized peoples.
Quilting is deeply rooted in African American women's history. Like most of the domestic arts, quilts are a product of both form and function – they have a use beyond pure aesthetics. During the period of enslavement in American history, this merging of creativity and productivity was important for African American women with limited means and opportunities, unable to participate in other forms of artistic expression. With some creativity and ingenuity, quilts could be created with any available fabric scraps, recycling rags for piecing blocks or old blankets for quilt batting. Many quilts of this period followed a narrative quilting tradition, telling stories through imagery and colour. One of the most famous examples is the "Bible Quilt" by Harriet Powers (seen above) made in c. 1885-1886, now held at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Narrative quilts like Powers' echo oral storytelling traditions, which were and remain hugely important to African American communities.
Quilting traditions continued in the Civil Rights era, where many African American women revived the practice to raise money and awareness for the injustices in their communities. In 1966, a group of African American women in the Alabama Black Belt established The Freedom Quilting Bee, a quilting cooperative. They organized two quilt auctions, promoted as a way to help black women fight for civil rights in the South. These auctions were not only vastly successful, but they garnered major publicity: purchased and resold by department stores like Bloomingdale's and Saks Fifth Avenue, featured in the pages of the New York Times and Vogue, eventually exhibiting at the Smithsonian.
The quilters of Gee's Bend were another group contemporary with The Freedom Quilting Bee. Many of the women of Gee's Bend, Alabama had participated in The Freedom Quilting Bee, but they developed a style all their own. Characterized by bright colors, unusual patterns, and a handstitched, even improvisational, ethos, the quilts of Gee's Bend were less appealing to department stores or pattern-book publishers. But in the late 1990s, an art collector studying the history of African American quiltmaking came across the Gee's Bend quilts and recognized their significance as not only history, but art objects in their own right. Quilters such as Loretta Pettway (above left) and Annie Mae Young (above right) would utilize fabric scraps from work clothes, piecing abstract patterns from denim and corduroy. The Souls Grown Deep Foundation is committed to preserving the history of these women and the communities that fostered their artwork, especially amidst the deep poverty and inequity they face today.
Some further academic resources exploring quilting traditions among African American women:
In 1985, gay rights activist Cleve Jones was inspired to honor the over 1,000 people lost to AIDS in San Francisco. When Jones and his fellow activists taped up placards of each of these names on the San Francisco Federal Building, they realized this wall of names looked like a patchwork quilt.
In 1987, Jones teamed up with Mike Smith and a small group of activists to formally establish The NAMES Project Foundation. Jones created a 3 x 6 quilt panel – the size of a human grave – honoring his friend Marvin Feldman. The response was overwhelming. Panels were sent in from all across the country, particularly the cities most affected by the AIDS crisis: New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and San Francisco. There were also donations of sewing machines and other quilting materials.
On October 11, 1987, the quilt was displayed for the first time on the National Mall in Washington D.C., during the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. It featured 1,920 panels and covered a space larger than a football field, with over half a million visitors in one weekend. Following this triumphant and meaningful debut, the Quilt was brought on a four-month national tour across the United States, with local panels added in each city. By 1988, there were over 8,000 panels.
The Quilt has not been displayed in its entirety since 1996, but panels can be seen across the world. Since its founding, The NAMES Project Foundation and the AIDS Memorial Quilt have raised over $3 million for AIDS service organizations across North America. The Quilt is considered the largest community art project in world, and continues to this day as new panels are blocked and sewn to honor the memories of those lost. There are over 48,000 panels at this point, all of which are included in the AIDS Memorial Quilt Archive.
There has been significant scholarship on the legacy of the AIDS Memorial Quilt and how it intersects with public memory, social justice, and the construction of a community's history: