The Folklorist Next-door: Heritage Scraps
Heritage Scraps from Heritage Hands was released Jan 13, 2023, as Episode 6 of Texas Folklife's Podcast Series The Folklorist Next-door.
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Heritage Scraps from Heritage Hands
By Laura Casmore
Laura: Welcome to the African American Vintage Quilter Talks. I am Laura Casmore, not your traditional vintage quilter, but a lover of vintage quilts.
Over the years, I've had the pleasure of meeting many who have had great memories of their family members quilting when they were younger.
African American women have been making quilts since the 17th century. They started out as enslaved women, quilting, sewing, weaving in anything they could do with their hands for the plantations and other wealthy houses. Differences in fabrics used are documented between the north and south and America.
In the north, heavier fabrics were used, but in the south where it was warmer, lighter fabrics were used for clothing and quilting. When they could, they would take the scraps on the items made and make quilts to keep their families warm throughout the cold night. These quilts were later branded utilitarian quilts. Those made with a purpose.
After Emancipation Proclamation and the freeing of slaves, a lot of African-American women went to work as domestics and some moved north to work in factories. This new freedom did not give the African-American women free time. They still had long hours of working for others.
Quilts were still being made out of necessity using fabric scraps, feed sacks, and old clothing. The skills of these women created patterns such as sawtooth, feathered star, nine patch, and many other complex designs. Because they created patterns and learned patterns from others, the women were able to make quilts not only purposeful, but also beautiful.
The women began to make quilting bees where they would gather at one home to collectively finish a quilt. This quilting time together was as much social as functional. Young girls were taught young how to sew and quilt as a skill to provide for their family. Let's listen to Deloise Kendrick speak of how she was introduced to quilting growing up.
Deloise: I came up as a young girl. I was about six or seven years old that I stayed with my grandmother and my grandmother, both of them really. I used to see them all get together and the ladies would come over and they would get pieces together and sit down and start putting 'em together and piecing together.
Me being small, they would always say, well, you gotta get back into it. But I'm so inquisitive, so I just sit there and watch 'em, you know, do it.
Deloise: And they would all get together and put the pieces out on this big old canvas board. They said a stick house, but they would all, you know, start piecing and all of them would do it.
My grandmother, she would sometime already have pieces already laid out like a, you know, equivalent and I didn't know at the time, all I seen was little cubes of stuff. Uhhuh, . And they would take all kinds of stuff. They would take the clothes that they wear and cut them. and make pieces out of it, you know?
And then, uh, sewing on the sewing machine, I got experiencing the paddle one. I never had seen that little-
Laura: The trailer.
Deloise: And I couldn't put my foot on it, but I was trying my best. They let me got up there, they hold me there, put my feet up on it, and that was exciting to me. I was always the one that I stay inside with the elders. You know, and they would always teach me stuff. They gave me little remnants of the fabric to make dog clothes. So I've been sewing just by with the needle and thread myself for a long time because that's what they would give me to kind of get me contented, to be in that area where they were at when they would be Wilton
Laura: Quilting bees were formed through church groups and sometimes it was a family thing, sometimes an impromptu gathering to celebrate an event. Rhonda Masters talks about the quilt she inherited from her grandmother and grandmother's sisters.
Rhonda: My interest in quilt-making came from my grandmother. She and her sister's quilted. My grandmother Blanche Masters and her sisters quilted, and they were from Central Texas, the Marlin, Texas area.
And we had a few quilts at our house, but when my grandmother passed away, they brought us to the family home and told us to take whatever memorials or keepsakes that we would like to have. And then my mother said, oh, what about grandma's cedar chest? Later when I actually really explored into the cedar chest, many unfinished quilt tops.
And so it was like, oh wow, these are great. And at the time when my grandmother had passed, there was a lot of discussion in the family about grandma's quilts. And my father, I remember he took a few quilts and they were like, I guess now we will call them a utility quilts. And he's, he talked about, oh, I can remember sleeping under these, and they were so heavy and the cotton, and the, the ticking fabric.
Laura: When a lot of, a lot of times when people talk about, uh, African American vintage quilts, they always thought, I mean, we made utility quilts, but they always, they refer to our quilts as scrap quilts. I'm looking at this beautiful quilt and here grandmother or auntie has pattern, they made patterns.
Rhonda: Yes. And this is not really a scrap book. This is-
Laura: this is not a scrap cook.
Rhonda: This is all the same fabric with the basic.
Laura: It's the, it is the same color wave-
Rhonda: with the yellows and oranges. And it's a flower sack. You can, some of you can see the stamp feed sacks.
Laura: Hand quilted.
Rhonda: Look how the quilting on the back...
Laura: Mm-hmm. .
Rhonda: It's lovely.
Laura: Phyllis Simpson has fond members of inheriting her Aunt Matt's quilt.
Are there any other quilt makers among your family?
Phyllis: Yes. My grandmother was a quilter and she passed it along to my oldest aunt, who was a quilter. And both ladies quilted by hand. And my grandmother had a, a treader machine and she would let me pump it. And so, um, I pumped while she quilted.
And my aunt, I never actually quilt with her. I just saw the results of her quilt. In fact, when she died, her daughter gave me all the tops that my Aunt Matt had made and she had accumulated 42 tops. My cousin gave them to me and I proceeded to quilt them with a long arm quilter, not by hand like she had done.
And, and again, going to my Aunt Matt, learning from her some of the patterns that she used - in today's society, I would consider them pretty hard to make. Yet, way back in the sixties and the seventies, she was making these hard quilts.
Laura: As a second generation quilter. I have had the opportunity to hear wonderful tales of how these ladies would gather together and work on a quilt weekly for someone. These beautiful works of art have now become extinct due to the generations now not knowing the treasures they hold, both in heritage and culturally.
Walking the floors of international quilt fests in Houston and sitting in various lectures throughout the years, I have heard those that think they are authoritarians on African-American quilting speak as if our work was secondhand. The world seems to have forgotten the works of the enslaved woman who worked dust to dawn, creating beautiful items for the big houses. Historians like to focus on the written word, not the spoken word or quilted.
Today, and always we have quilted in the same styles as other cultures. Yes, we may have included our African influences of strong color contrasts, asymmetry and large designs as a twist to the Euro-American works. Yes, we as African-American quilters have our own way of producing things, but our work is beautiful in its own right.
I hope you have enjoyed listening to the African-American Vintage Quilter Talks.
This episode was hosted and directed by Laura Casmore, a 2022 Community Folklife Fellow. The Folklorist Next Door is brought to you by Texas Folklife.
Our technical producer is J.A. Strub. Our executive producer is Jeannelle Ramirez. To learn more about the fellows and their projects, visit Texasfolklife.org.
This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
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This episode was hosted and produced by Laura Casmore, a 2022 Community Folklife Fellow.