In the hands of Lesyslie Rackard and her sewing sisters, quilts talk.
Listen to this story told by The Laundress, a quilt Rackard dedicated to her Auntie Maggie Bell Rackard, a domestic worker who migrated in the early 1940s from Daytona Beach, Florida, to Poughkeepsie, New York. Immortalized in fabric, her aunt stands at the ironing board, wearing a blue dress pieced from a scrap of her favorite house dress. Next to her is a laundry basket and washboard, honoring Lesyslie’s mother, also a domestic worker. Two quilts within the quilt tell more of the story: One, on the wall, depicts the North Star, symbolizing the Underground Railroad and the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North; the other, on the ironing board, represents the quilter herself.
The 45-inch-square piece, which she made in 2017, is Rackard’s riff on a vintage quilt design, her way to tell a family story spanning almost 80 years.
“My quilting style has changed,” says the 72-year-old Rackard, who lives in the South End and has been sewing since she was in elementary school. “I still like the tactical side of cutting pieces and putting them back together. But I’m also liking the idea of being socially conscious of what’s happening around us. … Always [being] inspired by something real. So that’s what I do now.”
Rackard’s not the only quilter grounding her work in the real world. Following a centuries-long tradition of narrative and social commentary quilts, such as those promoting abolitionism, modern quilters use fabric to record history, tell cultural stories, and promote social justice. Among those leading the charge are quilters of color, including Rackard and the other members of Sisters in Stitches Joined By The Cloth, a Boston-area quilt guild founded in 1997. The guild, which defines itself as multiethnic and has a core of 15 members, is one of dozens around the country centered on Black traditions dating back to slavery.
“The most prevalent kind of quilt in the African-American community is the narrative, and we’re a people with a lot of stories to tell,” says Carolyn Mazloomi, the director of the Women of Color Quilters Network. Mazloomi, a quilter and retired aerospace engineer who now lives in southern Ohio, founded an African-American quilt guild in Los Angeles in 1981 and organized the network four years later. She wanted Black quilters to share traditions, gain exposure, and earn financial benefits from exhibitions and sales. Mazloomi curated a current show of quilts on display at Minneapolis’s Textile Center and other venues in the city, created by a diverse group of artists in tribute to George Floyd. Organized around themes of racism, liberation, resistance, and empowerment, the exhibit includes a quilt made by Sisters in Stitches president Susi Ryan that honors Black and indigenous medical pioneers.
Mazloomi says she wanted her exhibit to “blanket” Minneapolis with quilts. “There needed to be narratives of the Black experience in the United States that people could see,” she says. “Narrative quilts are like historic documents.”
Quilts have long been a way to keep warm or add protection. Some historians date quilt-making back to an ancient Egyptian carving of a Pharaoh wearing a quilted mantle, and cite examples of quilted clothing in medieval art. Quilts evolved as insulation for clothing, armor, and bed coverings made by stacking at least three layers: a top that was often decorative; a center batting of fabric or materials such as straw; and a backing.
The actual quilting stitches that connect this three-decker sandwich can be as intricate as the maker wants — straight lines following pieced edges or elaborate loops and swirls. Some quilters still quilt by hand but most rely on “long arm” sewing machines that can handle large pieces of fabric. Many send their tops out to be quilted by seamstresses who own the equipment and charge by the square inch. Tops can be all one piece or a patchwork in either a traditional pattern, such as one called log cabin, or in abstract designs that are sometimes so topsy-turvy they are called “crazy” quilts. Sometimes figures or other designs are cut from fabric and appliqued, or sewn, onto the top to create a design or picture. Some quilts have embroidery or other bits — buttons, shells, crystals, or whatever imagination allows.
Quilt historians say the African-American quilt tradition began with the first enslaved Africans brought to the Jamestown Colony in 1619. While they might have quilted fancy geometric designs for their white enslavers, they were relegated to using fabric scraps to create quilts for themselves. Although many Black quilters followed the patchwork patterns that became popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they also developed motifs based more on opportunity than geometric precision. It’s an aesthetic that researchers say was dismissed by traditional — and often segregated — state fairs or quilt guilds. Now, quilters, galleries, and museums appreciate these quilts for their bright colors, sense of design, and use of figurative story-telling. It’s a style that’s influenced many contemporary quilters.
“Modern quilting — the lines don’t have to be straight. ... It doesn’t have to be a perfect 90-degree angle between pieces,” says Tarsha-Nicole Taylor, who lives in Dracut and belongs to Sisters in Stitches and four other quilt guilds. One of her recent quilts is called Butterscotch after her favorite candy and features diagonal gold stripes interspersed with colors evocative of stained glass.
By the mid-20th century, quilters and artists were experimenting outside the lines of traditional quilt designs. But the pieced, abstract quilts created by the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, widely exhibited in the early 2000s, including at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, were among the first African-American quilts to get wide public exposure.
Then there’s Harriet Powers, who was born into slavery in Georgia in 1837. Powers is the “mother of the African-American story quilt tradition,” says Tiya Miles, Radcliffe Alumnae Professor in History at Harvard University, who is researching a book on Black quilting.
Powers first publicly showed a quilt in 1886 at a cotton fair in Athens, Georgia. Two of her quilts are known to survive today. One featuring 15 figurative blocks of Bible stories, such as the crucifixion and Jonah and the whale, is in the permanent collection of the MFA. It will be part of an exhibit on the history of quilting in America due to open once pandemic restrictions further loosen. Both surviving Powers quilts will be exhibited together for the first time and will hang with historic quilts ranging from Colonial coverlets to the colorful figures of contemporary Black fiber artist Bisa Butler.
“The MFA exhibit,” Miles says, “comes at a time when our society desperately needs some of the elements of Powers’s quilts: beauty, faith, unity in diversity, and resilience against the odds.”
The Sisters in Stitches use their quilts to tell their own stories, as well as to speak out on topics dear to their hearts. For them, quilting goes beyond sewing or craft to connect them to one another as well their families and culture. “We create with purpose because we know that we have our ancestors behind us, near us, within us,” Ryan says. “And we’re also making a statement that we can do this and our stuff is going to be accepted.”
Tina Guthmann, for example, a software development test engineer from Wilmington, turned a traditional bow-tie quilt pattern into African-style drums to honor her husband’s musical family. Juandamarie Gikandi’s pieced quilt In God We Trust, based on a traditional pattern called courthouse steps, incorporates the Adinkra symbol from Ghana meaning “only one God.” Featuring blocks in graduations of blue bordered by fabric she printed herself in Ghana, it protests Black incarceration. Another of her quilts showcases a batik orchid representing a woman’s vagina. It is one of 16 she and other volunteers made for Kimya’s House, a residential treatment home for formerly incarcerated women and girls due to open in Dorchester this year. One of Rackard’s other quilts shows Langston Hughes and was inspired by his poem “I Too” about inclusion. The nonprofit Mass Humanities chose it for the cover of its 2020 collection of essays, We, Too, Are America.
Christle Rawlins-Jackson, another member of Sisters in Stitches, is a graphic artist who lives in Boston. Much of her family is from Nova Scotia and were Black loyalists during the American Revolution. Eventually, they migrated back to New England. She captured some of her history and photographs in an ancestor quilt that has a cast of her mother’s face at its center. “In honoring your mother, you honor her mother before her, and her mother before her, and it goes on and on and on,” she says.
In non-pandemic times, the Sisters in Stitches hold monthly “quiltings” — a centuries-old tradition that includes sewing, teaching, and show-and-tell — in an Arlington church. Ryan describes them as the 4 Fs: friends, food, family, and fun. They miss the tactile and communal experience of sewing together (to say nothing of the food). And they can’t go on quilting retreats or exhibit or demonstrate quilting at places such as Mount Holyoke College, regional museums, and the MFA. Every year, they make a quilt to raffle for charity, each member working on a square or two. They liked last year’s so much that this year they decided to make two: one to raffle and one to share among the members.
“The guild, it’s a great group of women,” says Taylor, who describes herself as a “multicrafter” and is one of three Sisters in Stitches who are engineers. “With Sisters, when I decided to join them, I walked in and I felt like I was home,” she says. “You don’t feel that often.”
Mazloomi worries that the guilds will not be enough to protect African-American quilting traditions. Her network has shrunk from 1,500 members at its peak to several hundred — and members are aging, she says.
“We have not been successful at attracting younger people, and I think this is with any kind of intense craft, where young people might see it as intensive and laborious and slow,” Mazloomi says. “It’s hard in this digital age, where everything is hurry, hurry, to interest young people in quilt-making.”
Yet, there are reasons to be hopeful. The quilting industry almost doubled between 2000 and 2020 and is now at $4.2 billion in sales, based on a 2020 survey by Premier Needle Arts, which owns several fabric brands. And shows like the one in Minneapolis and at other museums showcase the power of textiles. Quilters say fabric is an excellent medium for their art — accessible, portable, and familiar.
“Traditional quilts are symbols of hearth and home — and safety,” Mazloomi says. “We as human beings have a lifelong love affair with the cloth. This is the first thing we are swathed in at birth. And it’s the last thing that touches our body upon our death.”
The Sisters continue to do their best to carry traditions forward. Ask them about cloth — a.k.a their fabric stashes — and they just laugh. Ryan’s fabric takes up half her basement, and then there’s the work space and the four sewing machines. She’s resolved not to buy any new fabric this year.
Gikandi is making no such promise. “My husband asks me, ‘Oh, you’re buying more fabric?’ And I say, ‘Do I ask you if you’re buying more books?’”
Susan Moeller is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
PLUS: 10 PLACES TO LEARN MORE ABOUT AFRICAN-AMERICAN QUILTING
1. Sisters in Stitches Joined By The Cloth
This Boston-area quilting guild focuses on African-American traditions. Members now meet on Zoom but hope to return to meeting monthly at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Arlington. sistersinstitches.org
2. Women of Color Quilters Network
3. Black Threads
Kyra Hicks of Arlington, Virginia, is the author of Black Threads: An African American Quilting Sourcebook, as well as books on Harriet Powers. Her site has links to quilting guilds, publications, and individual quilters. blackthreads.com
4. The Lynch Quilts Project
This Indianapolis-based project began with a quilt by artist LaShawnda Crowe Storm and others that pictures Laura Nelson, a Black woman lynched along with her teenage son in 1911 in Oklahoma. thelynchquiltsproject.com
5. Myrah Brown Green
This historian and quilter is based in Brooklyn and is the author of Brooklyn On My Mind: Black Visual Artists from the WPA to the Present. Her website has video interviews with African-American quilters and other artists. myrahbrowngreen.com
6. New England Quilt Museum
The Lowell museum focuses exclusively on quilts and has sponsored exhibitions, including by the Social Justice Sewing Academy, which teaches young people how to advocate for social change through the fiber arts. neqm.org
7. Museum of Fine Arts Boston
The MFA is planning the exhibit Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories. It will feature more than 50 quilts from the Colonial era to the present, including those by Harriet Powers and the Gee’s Bend quilters. mfa.org
8. Fuller Craft Museum
The Brockton museum plans to open the exhibit Peacework 2020: Racial Justice Through Protest and Handwork on October 9. It will feature textile-based works created during the social unrest of 2020. fullercraft.org
9. Textile Center, Minneapolis
The museum is part of the current multi-site exhibit We Are the Story, featuring quilts based on Black history. Another exhibit, Sacred Innovations, highlights the work of Sylvia Hernández, known for her human rights themes. textilecentermn.org
10. UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive
In 2019, the museum announced a bequest of 3,000 African-American quilts, including 500 by Rosie Lee Tompkins, considered one of the finest Black improvisational quilters. bampfa.org