A Century of African-American Quilts

Black History Month reminds me to take another look at the quilts created by African-American women through the decades. As many textile enthusiasts already know many African-American women are known as some of the world’s most exquisite quilters. If you happen to be in Virginia, you can now see a collection of some of these quilts in A Century of African-American Quilts, open until May 2018. 

The exhibit tells us on plantations and in wealthy households prior to the Civil War, slave owners often used black women for spinning, weaving and sewing quilts. These quilts were almost exclusively made for upper class white people. Though many African-American women became greatly skilled quilters, little time was left in the day for them to create textiles for their own families, nor did they have access to fabric. Because of this, not much remains today of quilts made for African-American owners.

After the civil war, black women, working in households and small farms, made quilts out of necessity using whatever scrap material they could find, including the intact parts of discarded clothing, and feed sacks.

The Williamsburg exhibit showcases twelve quilts, half of which have never before been seen by the public. Here are two of them:


Log Cabin Top, 1875-1900 (with some earlier textiles), possibly by Anna “Jane” Parker, Missouri or Illinois


House Top with Green Ties, 1965-1975, Susana Allen Hunter, Alabama

The unique geometric patterns of these quilts lead me to think about the gorgeous quilts of Gee’s Bend. The women of Gee’s Bend – a small, remote, black community in Alabama- created hundreds of quilt masterpieces dating from the early twentieth century to the present. Few other places approach the extent of Gee’s Bend’s artistic achievement, the result of both geographical isolation and an unusual degree of continuity of the quilting culture through multiple generations. The non-uniform designs transform recycled clothes and fabric remnants into bold eye-catchers.

All of the quilts of Gee’s Bend may be called improvisational, or “my way” quilts. Uninhibited by the norms of fine art, the Bend quiltmakers let themselves be guided by a faith in personal vision. Most start with basic forms and head off “their way” with unexpected patterns, unusual colors, and surprising rhythms. 

Here are five examples:

Roman Stripes Variation, Plummer T. Pettway, 1967


Strips, Lousiana P. Bendolph, 2003


Blocks and Strips, Sally Mae Pettway, 2003


Stacked Bricks, Nell Hall Williams, 1955


Housetop Variation, Lousiana P. Bendolph, 2004

To see more of these fascinating and beautiful quilts: http://www.soulsgrowndeep.org/gees-bend-quiltmakers 


January 20 2018

Hello and welcome to my blog! I’ll be writing about all things fiber – quilts, art quilts, sculpture, women and art, the history of art, collectors, innovators, and perhaps some of my art-in-the-making. I hope you find something that interests you and maybe even inspires you to create.



I recently read a review in the NY Times about a book describing the origins of crafts, An Inquiry Into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Craefts by Alexander Langlands (W.W. Norton & Co), which would’ve been a perfect resource for my own book, Dimensional Cloth: Sculpture by Contemporary Textile Artists (Schiffer Publishing) due out in June 2018.

Here’s an excerpt of the review by Michael Bierut:

“As daily life becomes increasingly virtual, it might seem like a paradox that making things by hand is suddenly big business. Stores like Michaels and Hobby Lobby feature aisle after aisle of sequins, tassels, imported papers, chenille stems and pompoms, Etsy, the e-commerce platform for selling homemade goods, features nearly two million active sellers serving 30 million eager buyers . . . Part therapy, part self-expression, our homely obsession with crafts is poised to take over the world.”

The book defines craft, from craeft, an Old English word, as an indefinable sense of “knowledge, wisdom, and resourcefulness.” Author Langlands, an archeologist and medieval historian, describes how many functional objects were made, from the Neolithic on, and he delights in using the language specific to each craft, such as carding, retting and scotching for textile production; stocking and mattocking for leather working; and pugging and wedging for pottery preparation.

According to the author, that we no longer use or hear this language indicates “…we have lost the conception of those skills and what they can do for us.” Specifically, he suggests we are missing out on opportunities where the here and now “. . . blurs and vanishes before your eyes, the moment when you lose track of time . . . [when] your breathing moderates and you become methodical, more controlled. This is a marathon, not a sprint.”

In other words, making things puts the individual in a meditative state with all that the process of meditation confers, namely, profound concentration and the sense of one’s ability to be active and effective, rather than, say, a passive being contemplating featureless computer screens and our other pervasive electronic devices.

Langlands suggests that by surrendering to such machines, we regress to lives devoid of contemplation. The reviewer says:

“He’s not talking about the big questions of human existence, but of the hundreds of small ones that go into something as simple – or as complex – as building a stone wall: “Which to use? How to work it? Where to strike it?” In the end, this is the case [the author] makes for [craft]. At a time when our disconnection from the world around us is not just tragic but downright dangerous, recovering our status as Homo faber, the species that makes things, may be our salvation.”

In my book, I, too, discuss what drives people to create. Many of the artists I interviewed seek to transmit through their art ideas that are of great import to them. For others, their work signifies nothing other than itself – an object that simply exists in the world. However, for all, the process of making is the primary force that compels them to action.


In the same way we are sometimes starved for a patch of grass or a shady tree, we often experience an undefined yearning for organic textures and the irregular forms of the earth’s rustic elements. Without articulating it, perhaps, artists seek the sense of the haptic, the satisfaction of this demand for physicality and the call to touch.

One of the artists in my book, Abigail Brown, constructs delicate bird sculptures from fabric. She says, “I make them because of a love for the medium and for the animals themselves. I make them because it makes me happy to do so. I have no other intentions than to satisfy my need to create and my joy in learning. I hope my enjoyment spreads to the viewers of my work, too.”

Zebra Finch by Abigail Brown (www.abigail-brown.co.uk)

Another artist, Karen Margolis, works with cotton-covered wires that she rolls, colors and attaches to one another. She tells us, “Each [of my] sculpture’s form evolves through an absurd collaboration, a struggle between my determination to contain the work and its endeavor to swell out of my control.  The marks of this conflict reside in the consequential bulges and indents that viewers see.” In this way, her words perfectly illustrate and confirm Langland’s contention that the process of making reflects the maker’s sense of intention, and the feeling of self-efficacy as she sees her work forming, a concept coming to life in and by her own hands.


Omphaloskepsis by Karen Margolis (www.karenmargolisart.com)

Likewise, Beili Liu, an installation fabric artist, helps us understand what she thinks about and feels as she goes about conceptualizing her art. She says, “During a first visit to a given space, I look at the structure and volume then note the details – the mundane, the unusual, the light, temperature, sounds, the residue of memories, and the paths of those who have passed through it. I observe, stay alert to my responses, and then begin to envision the possibilities . . . “


After All/Mending the Sky by Beili Liu (www.beililiu.com)


 Now, whether these works should be considered art versus craft is another topic I will address in subsequent posts.

Thanks for visiting!    

A new book on 3D Fabric Art is coming!

I’m so pleased to announce that I found a publisher for my new book, Dimensional Cloth Art: Sculpture by Contemporary Textile Artists. The publisher will be Schiffer in Pennsylvania. They produce gorgeous art books.

Are you familiar with dimensional cloth art? Chances are, if you’re in the US, you probably haven’t seen much of it yet. The United Kingdom, especially, and Australia and Canada are way ahead of us in producing dimensional cloth artists, and in disseminating information about it. But we’re catching up.
What is dimensional cloth art? It begins with a web of natural or artificial fibers, for example, cotton, silk, wool, linen, polyester, or nylon, which is then manipulated by the artist to form a configuration that is meant to literally and conceptually stand on its own.
The manipulation can take many forms such as sewing, embedding, coiling, embroidering, piling, stuffing, painting, waxing, burning, twisting, plaiting, rusting, bonding, or wrapping, and may call for a system of supports – armature – made of metal, plastic, wood, or sturdy fibers in the form of stiff interfacing or cording, for example. The fabric can be further embellished with objects found in nature or synthetic items.

Phillipa Lack

Phillippa Lack, Spheres

Images run from the prosaic to the phantasmagorical, from a simple iconic stuffed figure to a dense population of outlandishly colored coils, from a rendering of a collection of fortune cookies to a monumental pillar of words. Yet the ideas behind most of these pieces spring from a deep wish to convey a vital message.

Susan Else

Susan Else, Nothing to Fear

For some, it’s a fascination with the natural world and its processes of germination, growth, deterioration, and extinction. Ideas about remembering, mortality, and spirituality are also reflected in many of the sculptures, as are concerns about living fully in society. Other artists possess a desire to explore the cast-off objects of our everyday lives almost as if they were finds from archeological digs. For so many, then, fabric art is art that communicates, it conveys notions that go beyond the literal meaning of the materials.
For others, however, it is the very nature of the fabric they’ve devoted themselves to that drives their work. The sensuality of silk, the diaphanousness of chiffon, the sense of decay accompanying rusted cotton. Or, it might be simply a swath of white or a swath of black that entices and moves them into action. One artist described that process as bringing fabric “to life.”

Every one of the over forty artists represented in this book brings to her work a “can do” attitude, playing and experimenting until she finds a way to bring her ideas to fruition. Yet many have no formal training in the arts. Some come from backgrounds in fashion design, landscape architecture, and education. A handful attended one of a growing number of university and private programs teaching fabric sculpture. Happily, instruction in the field is growing by leaps and bounds, making it more and more accessible to lovers of textile art.

Debbie Lyddon, Blue Salt Pots

Debbie Lyddon, Blue Salt Pots

There can be no doubt that dimensional fabric art has been and continues to be a profound and compelling movement within modern and contemporary art. All of the works shown are the product of an investigation of materials and techniques, and some an exploration of important cultural issues, as well. But beyond their inherent meaning is the beauty and artistry they offer for all of us to admire.