Learn Some Quilting Traditions Passed On For Generations

quilting traditionsFamily quilting traditions have been passed on for generations since the 1600’s or even earlier. In those days, the women (sometimes the men too!) in the family created a quilt as present for a family member who is about to get married or was expecting a child. Quilts were considered as heirlooms and were treasured by the family. As a result, quilting traditions were also cherished and passed on for many generations. I have collected some hand quilting practices for this article and perhaps these cherished traditions could get you started on your own family quilting practice too!

quilting traditionsThe African-American Quilting Traditions

Less popular than African music and dance, the African-American quilting and textile tradition is influenced by four notable African civilizations. When African slaves were heavily trafficked in Southern United States, Central America and the Caribbean, the textile and quilting tradition of four distinct African regions intertwined so that by the time early African American quilting became a distinct tradition, it was already a combination of these varied quilting practices.

quilting traditions

Of Reed Strips, Bright Colors and Large Shapes

In Africa, men worked on textiles and quilts but this practice disappeared when they were brought to the Americas as slaves and the women took over the quilting work. What was left of this practice is the use of reed strips in the African-American quilts.  Also, in the olden times, to be able to recognize people from afar was very important for the many African warring tribes as well as for their hunting parties. For this reason, African quilts utilize bright colors and large shapes in textiles and this is also evident in their quilt making traditions.

Inventiveness and Multiple Uses of Patterns

Changing and recreating old patterns is sacred to many African tribes because it signifies the rebirth of the familial power of the quilt maker.  It also helps to drive evil spirits away who are believed to follow a straight line when they travel. As such, a discontinuity in the pattern is designed to confuse and stall these malevolent spirits. This tradition can been seen in African American quilts that blend famous European American patterns such as the “Diamond Strip,” the “Log Cabin” and the “Wedding Ring” patterns with more traditional designs which are highlighted by the lack of straight lines and asymmetry.

quilting traditionsApplique, Multiple Patterns and Keeping the Family’s Records

Often in African textiles and quilts, the number of patterns or changes in the pattern directly correlates to the owner's status. This tradition was especially important to royalty members and priests as it conveys prestige, power, status, and wealth to the wearer. Improvisation and multiple patterning also protect the quilter from anyone copying their quilts so that this particular tradition allows for a strong sense of ownership and the expression of creativity.

Harriet Powers‘ Bible Quilt show below made in 1886 is perhaps one of the best examples of this quilting tradition that also preserves African heritage and tells the stories of the bible.  Using the applique technique, characters in the Bible Quilt are attached to a durable fabric. Popular among African tribes, this quilting practice continued up to the early African-American time in the US. Since they record family events like birth, marriage as well as faith and location, it gives us a cultural glimpse of life on the plantation.

quilting traditions

Harriet Powers Bible Quilt 1886

Religious Symbols and Protective Charms

In many African quilts and textiles, the diamond and circle patterns are popular. They symbolize the life cycle where each of the points in the diamond pattern signifies the different life stages such as birth, marriage, rebirth, and others. Protective charms are also used in African quilts and textiles in the form of native scripts and symbols that are stitched into the patterns. These quilts are considered holy and they also represent intellect, power, and knowledge.

The use of charms in quilts is popular among African-American religious societies. These charms are usually made by a medicine woman or a priest and are designed according to the needs of the user and are attached to the quilt. As such, these quilts as said to heal and drive away evil spirits.

I hope you all enjoyed reading about the fascinating quilting traditions of the African-Americans. The second part of this article will be discussing the quilting practices of the European-American quiltmakers so watch out for it!

Read More In Part 2 Below

More Quilting History Passed On For Generations: Part 2

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11 Responses to Learn Some Quilting Traditions Passed On For Generations

  1. crispeacock says:

    Wonderful article! I got interested in quilting when I was getting my art degree and came across Faith Ringgold’s amazing painted narrative quilts. Had to start quilting! Now I am living in Hawaii and get to see so many beautiful traditional Hawaiian quilts –also with a rich history. Thank you for sharing this wealth of information!

  2. B D Straw says:

    My grandmother made beautiful scrap quilts. Her husband was disabled for most of my father’s childhood and life was very difficult. I grew up with those quilts and still have some. When he tucked me in, my father would point to different pieces and tell me the garment they came from, a dress of his sister’s, a blouse his mother wore to church. It was one of the few ways he could remember his childhood happily. To me, quilting is memory. It is pure magic.

  3. Kerry Davidson says:

    I’d like to know what each of the squares of the Bible Quilt actually means. I could figure a lot of them, but not others – it’s quite obvious though that it tells the story of a couple.

  4. karen says:

    I do not quilt myself, but these remind me of folk art. Several artists paint pictures like these quilts. I think the quilts are more difficult to make and spectacular to look at.

  5. Marita says:

    I love the bright colours and the figures.
    Also interesting to read about the meaning of patterns etc.

  6. Charlie says:

    Interesting comment about nightmares. I think I’d like to educate my child about other cultures instead of assuming nightmares. The african motifs are closer to nature than I grew up with in America. Having been to Africa, I can see the tie-in.

  7. happygirl says:

    Very interest ing,more please and maybe a pattern?

  8. Carolyn Frahm says:

    I do not like these kind of quilts. They look like the natives are restless, would not want them on my bed or a childs Might encourage nightmares.

  9. Marty says:

    GREAT ~ love to read more ethnic history of quilting and textile arts and especially interested in commonly used techniques, colors, motifs and patterns; thanks much!

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