Textiles & Women’s History: Part Three

It is extremely important to remember that free women were not the only ones to use textiles as a means of expression and resistance to oppression. In this third installment of “Textiles & Women’s History,” I will be exploring how African American women, especially those who were enslaved, used quilting and other crafts to create their own unique culture and to resist the subjugation the system of slavery.

The Agency of African American Women

Enslaved women, especially on large plantations, used quilting as a reason to gather together after the day’s work and socialize, creating strong community bonds that helped sustain them through the daily horrors of enslaved life. Since many of these women lost family members through these brutal realities, they used female kinship networks as a means of creating new family networks, even if unrelated by blood. This resilient choice was itself an act of rebellion against the attempts of slaveholders to disrupt enslaved culture and family life. Leah, one of the enslaved women on the Vance plantation, exhibited similar agency when she chose to create and maintain her family even with the ever-present fear of loved-ones being torn from her. 

Leah and Sandy Erwin went to the Freedmen’s Bureau office in Asheville on August 25, 1866 to record their marriage of 25 years. From the Cohabitation Records, Buncombe County Register of Deeds, Asheville NC.

African American textiles, especially quilts, often contained patterns and colors unique to African culture, which enslaved women used to tell their stories and keep their heritage alive in the face of racism and brutality. Their very approach to quilting was to subvert the usual order, and therefore defy their oppressors. Where white European tradition valued the symmetry of uniformity in quilting, African American women’s quilts counteracted this by valuing diversity in color and pattern. Click here for an example of a quilt made by a formerly enslaved woman in Georgia, courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Textiles & Identity

There were other ways in which enslaved women resisted the abuses they endured each day from slaveholders that also involved textiles. Slaveholders generally issued out a certain amount of cloth or clothing to each enslaved individual annually. Some owners gave intact, immediately wearable clothing to enslaved families, but the clothing was uncomfortable, ugly, shapeless, and impractical for hard labor and certain types of weather. Others simply issued cloth to enslaved workers and had them sew their own clothing and textiles on their own time. Either way, the materials given to enslaved women to provide clothing, warmth, and shelter to themselves and their families was often unserviceable and low in supply. Enslaved families commonly went without needed clothing in cold weather, and those working the fields went through their clothing quickly because it was not durable enough to withstand daily hard labor in the elements. 

As Harriet Jacobs, a formerly enslaved woman in North Carolina, stated in her memoirs; “I have a vivid recollection of the linsey-woolsey dress given me every winter by Mrs. Flint. How I hated it! It was one of the badges of slavery (Jacobs 13).” To Jacobs, this clothing marked her as a slave, the lowest member of American society, and it was a mark she was forced to wear daily. Clothing during this time was one of the many outward ways in which a person could immediately define the social status of another, and enslaved people knew that their clothing broadcasted their bondage to everyone, and further took away from their culture and individuality. 

Drawing of Harriet Jacobs by Keith White, 1994. Image from the State Archives of NC.

To fight back against this dehumanization, enslaved women often found ways to make their own clothing to wear on special occasions, such as to church, at slaveholder-ordained gatherings, and at illicit gatherings orchestrated as acts of rebellion by the enslaved themselves, where they could socialize and enjoy themselves in some capacity without supervision. Enslaved women, despite spending all day and into the night working for someone else, used their limited free time to create beautiful works of art in the form of dresses, quilts, blankets, headwraps, and jewelry that they could wear as badges of pride and cultural heritage, instead of badges of bondage. They incorporated traditional African designs into their clothing and even created clothing similar to that of wealthy white women, in order to mock their oppressors. Time spent working on these crafts was time for enslaved women to express their artistic creativity and to hone skills that could be used to create textiles that they could sell to earn funds to buy their own freedom. 

Enslaved women worked together to obtain the materials needed to make their art, whether it was through taking materials from their masters and mistresses, or buying material through funds they managed to earn. These women were admirably resourceful, and often used castoff clothing to create their desired attire for themselves and their families or to create needed textiles for their homes. 

Along with other forms of subtle resistance, enslaved women used domestic chores like textile work to stake a claim on their individuality and cultural identity. It would be remiss to assume that, just because the Vance plantation was smaller than other southern plantations, the enslaved women working there did not also participate in acts of resistance. 

Aggy, who was one of the few, if not the sole adult enslaved woman working on the plantation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, would have had to perform a vast variety of chores each day for her enslavers. The fear of being separated from her husband Richard and their children likely hovered in her mind for much of her life. Yet she, like Leah, still had the agency and resilience to keep her family connected and well. Along with Aggy and Leah, Venus, who acted as a nanny to the Vance children, resisted oppression by forming valuable bonds with her enslavers that gained her certain privileges and opportunities. These women had to form these bonds with their oppressors in order to survive. If they used such actions of rebellion against the system, who is to say that they did not also rebel through artistic expression in their chores, such as weaving and sewing? 

Ca. 1800s floor loom on display at the Vance Birthplace.

Final Thoughts 

Textile work has connected American women from all classes and ethnic backgrounds together in some way or other, and many of these women used this domestic task to accomplish more than a simple obeisance to the patriarchal gender ideal of womanhood. These arts have lasted until the present day because generations of American women have passed their skills on to each other, and it is significant that, in an age when such work is no longer necessary for women to perform for survival, we still engage in these activities on a regular basis. There are still quilting bees, sewing circles, knitting classes, and embroidery workshops. American women today are not so far removed from the craft of previous generations of women as we often think! I hope that these posts have shed some light on the diversity and importance of textile work in the narrative of American women’s history, and that you will be inspired to learn more about the crafts that these women created!

Further Reading

Blue Ridge Heritage Trails

Textile Art from Southern Appalachia

Journal Articles:

“Slave Cloth and Clothing Slaves: Craftsmanship, Commerce, and Industry”

“Kinship and Quilting: An Examination of an African-American Tradition” in The Journal of Negro History 80, no. 1 (1995): 30-41, by Floris Barnett Cash, doi:10.2307/2717705

“African-American Women’s Quilting”


Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South by Stephanie M.H. Camp

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

Textiles & Women’s History: Part Two

After taking a break to post about Independence Day, we are now going back to our discussion of women and textiles. Today we will talk about the ways in which embroidery and quilting were important in colonial America!

Also, thanks to everyone who attended the embroidery workshop on July 11! Lauren did an amazing job leading the class, and we had a great turnout. It was wonderful for all of us to learn together. Learning to do those stitches makes it even more impressive that six year old girls were learning them hundreds of years ago!

Colonial American Women and Textiles

While textiles made by European colonists in America were at first largely utilitarian and were in short supply in the early colonies, the eighteenth century introduced a larger, more developed consumer society. Leisure time increased, especially for elite white women. Both the northern and southern colonies at this time supported a society in which women were required to restrain themselves inside the domestic sphere and allow men control over their lives and their interactions with the outside world. While wealthier families were able to send daughters to school, female education primarily consisted of learning skills that would be useful in running a household and attaining a stable and beneficial marriage.

Priscilla Brank would have grown up in this world, spending her early years developing domestic skills that would help her in her marriage to David Vance Sr. in 1775. While it is unclear if Priscilla, like many of her female contemporaries, attended school and learned embroidery and other needlework there, it is likely that her social and economic status would have allowed her to interact with embroidery at a young age. Girls who were wealthy enough were either taught decorative embroidery at home or at school, and their very first projects were called samplers. Many girls completed a simple sampler between the ages of five and six, which taught them basic embroidery skills and allowed them to simultaneously learn their letters and numbers. An example of a basic sampler from 1786 in Cabarrus County, North Carolina, is displayed below, image and information courtesy of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts online object database. 

In adolescence, girls would then complete a more complicated sampler that showcased their talent, patience, and family values. Such samplers were often framed by parents and displayed in common rooms of the home in order to attract the attention of potential suitors. Some samplers, depending on the girl’s skill, could become quite intricate, as seen here, also courtesy of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts database:

These samplers are often the only testament to the existence and experiences of the girls and young women who created them that we have today. 

The Importance of Textile Crafts to White American Women

White American women who had the time and skill during both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries could spend hours on embroidery, decorating seat cushions, bed hangings, clothing, wall hangings, and other textiles, and often used their skill as a form of artistic expression in order to convey their personal values and ideas. Some women even used their talent as a means of making a name for themselves in their communities and making extra income. In a world where few women were taught the skills needed to procure paying jobs and even fewer were allowed the independence to pursue skills that could lead to more income, many transformed traditional female domestic skills into a means to obtain autonomy and to influence the trajectory of their lives. Embroidery in itself is a craft that lasted into the twentieth century in America, and it is likely that Mira Baird Vance and her daughter-in-law, Hattie Espy Vance, both encountered the art and even participated in it during their lifetimes, especially since they were members of the relatively wealthy southern Appalachian elite in the nineteenth century. 

Of course, embroidery was not the only textile craft American women used on a daily basis. Quilting and weaving have also been important skills studied by women for millenia. The women living at the Vance Birthplace had access to a loom for weaving. While the enslaved women on the plantation did the weaving itself, as was common in the American South, white mistresses like Mira Baird and Priscilla Brank would have known something about the loom and would direct the enslaved women’s labor. 

Quilting would have also been a familiar task for these women. Even if they did not always create quilts themselves, they certainly would have been familiar with the process and the patterns involved. Patchwork quilting was a convenient and useful way to recycle unused cloth and became popular in the eighteenth century. Quilting as a whole actually became extremely important to the southern Appalachian region in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and it is probable that the women living in the Reems Creek valley during this period would have been familiar with the craft. 

Quilting and other textile crafts presented an opportunity for groups of women to gather together and socialize whilst working, and consequently fostered cultural connections and female friendships and bonds that provided resistance to the patriarchal oppression and the daily drudgery of isolated rural frontier life. Below is an example from North Carolina made between 1840 and 1857 of a symmetrical quilt created by a young woman in a prominent family in her community, courtesy once again of the MESDA collections database: 

You can learn a bit more about quilts in the mountain South by looking at Lauren’s video on quilts from the Vance birthplace posted on the site facebook page on April 29!

Tune in next week to discover the ways in which African American women, enslaved and free, utilized textiles as modes of resistance, vehicles of self-expression, and tangible expressions of love.

Further Reading Links:

“Schoolgirl Samplers and Embroidered Pictures” in The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 23: Folk Art, edited by Carol Crown and Cheryl Rivers, 184-87, University of North Carolina Press, 2013.

MET Museum Essay/Collections

American Women’s History: A Very Short Introduction by Susan Ware 

Priscilla, Aggy, & Indepence Day

Marriage license of Priscilla & David Vance, dated September 21, 1775

Mary Priscilla Brank married David Vance Sr. in 1775 and was only married for a year before her husband left to fight with the Continental Army in the American Revolutionary War.

Like thousands of women before and after her, Priscilla kept her husband’s property running while he was at war. She also raised a newborn and cared for several family members.

We will never know how Priscilla felt on July 4th, 1776, but we do know that, despite the sacrifices women made that proved vital to the success of the new nation, Priscilla and her female contemporaries were denied political, financial, and even physical independence—even as thousands of men died for ideals of freedom and self-government.

Priscilla was not alone in her struggle to keep her home running while David was serving as a soldier. Aggy, one of the women enslaved by Priscilla and David Vance Sr., likely spent July 4th, 1776 working for her enslavers, putting aside her personal beliefs and aspirations in order to fulfill the wishes of the people who owned her. She and other enslaved women, men, and children watched as slaveholders fought for independence while denying the enslaved any freedom at all.

100 years ago, American women did not possess the freedoms laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. 40 years ago, African Americans still did not have access to many of those same rights.

As you celebrate Independence day, we hope you’ll join us in pausing to reflect on the stories of Priscilla and Aggy, and ask yourselves:

How well are we living up to our founding ideas today, and how do we work to make sure all Americans have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

Textiles and Women’s History: Part One

Embroidery fragment on display at the Vance Birthplace.

For my first blog post related to historical content for the Vance Birthplace, I decided that I wanted to delve deeper into the history of textile work, especially needlework, in America. In researching this topic, I went a little overboard and found enough information for at least 10 separate posts; therefore, this is only the first post in a three-part series on the topic, so stay tuned for that!

Women (and men in many cultures) have been creating textiles since human beings decided that it was necessary to stay warm and clothe themselves. It is easy to pass textiles off as necessities that women had to create in order to survive, or as symbols of the domestic sphere in which many women have been forced for centuries to confine themselves to, and nothing more. 

Likewise, in historical fiction novels, we often read about women and girls who rebelled against such traditional “women’s work” and were far more interested in pursuing activities considered inappropriate for girls throughout history, like swordplay, sports, and politics. As a child and adolescent, I myself had always felt that when adults encouraged us girls to participate in activities such as sewing or knitting, they were only trying to reaffirm traditional gender roles that would hold us back in the future. 

However, textile work has long been a way for women to express their creativity when they were given no other outlet and even became a method for resistance against oppression. This craft allowed women to show their personalities, influence change, and tell their stories, even in a society that repeatedly tried to silence them. Textiles are not just the result of regular housework, but are also building blocks in the cultures and narratives of countless American women. 

As a women’s historian in the making, I feel that it is necessary for me to learn about and understand the work women did on a daily basis, and what it meant to them. The women who lived and worked on the Vance plantation had access to a loom and a spinning wheel. They would have been engaging in textile work on a regular basis while fulfilling their domestic responsibilities. It is important to understand how their experiences with these household chores connects them to the wider story of American women’s history. I hope you enjoy learning about this topic with me! 

Cherokee Women and Embroidery: 

The Reems Creek Valley was inhabited by the Cherokee for hundreds of years before white settlers like David Vance Sr. and his wife Priscilla Brank arrived to settle on the land. Cherokee women (and men in some cases), among countless other Native American women, had already been creating intricately embroidered clothing, blankets, sashes, belts, shoes, and other textiles long before European women arrived in the Americas and brought their own textile culture with them. 

Cherokee craftswomen worked with deerskin, wool, and other cloth-like materials, but they also used seed beads made from shells, pearls, and later glass, to create beautiful and meaningful embroidery patterns on many of their textiles. They made needles from animal bones, and were able to use plant fibers to create thread.

The patterns in Cherokee beadwork and textile art held specific tribal meanings for centuries, but much of the knowledge of those symbols and meanings have been lost to time and to discrimination and oppression against the Cherokee and other Native American nations over the years. Many of the personal stories and the artistic legacies of the women who made these textiles have been lost with them, but modern artists are trying to preserve their heritage and continue the tradition.

Beadwork embroidery, along with Cherokee traditional crafts such as finger weaving, were not only a means of creative expression but were important for cultural events and religious rituals. Below you can see an example of Cherokee finger weaving from the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual Inc. website, which I will also link here. Give the site a look to see more examples from some amazing artists!

Finger Weaving

These crafts were used as a means for Cherokee women to help support their families outside of the home as well. Many Cherokee traded textiles for needed supplies, and when the market economy in America became more prominent, they sold their wares for profit as well. Cherokee women, as the primary textile artists, were able to use their work for self expression, as a means of making money, in support of cultural institutions, and for the survival of their heritage in the face of European invasion. 

Learn more about the history of textile production in America next week as I explore how white women honed their craft in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

If you want to learn more about embroidery specifically, check out our upcoming workshop at the Vance Birthplace. Assistant Site Manager Lauren May will be holding a virtual class for beginners on sunflower embroidery, inspired by a textile artifact on site that has a sunflower embroidered on it. The workshop will be on July 11th from 1-3PM, and you can register through the Vance Birthplace Facebook page for this event! The cost per person is $20.00, and make sure you register in advance with enough time for Lauren to mail you the embroidery kit! 

Further Reading Links: 

Cherokee Heritage Center

Oconaluftee Indian Village, Cherokee NC


The Cherokee Diaspora: An Indigenous History of Migration, Resettlement, and Identity by Gregory D. Smithers

Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835 by Theda Perdue

Art of the Cherokee: Prehistory to the Present by Susan C. Power

Meet Elizabeth Bailey

Hi everyone! 

My name is Elizabeth Bailey, and I am the Summer 2020 intern for the Vance Birthplace. Since I am unable to come to the site day in and day out to work due to the Covid19 restrictions, my internship will be mostly virtual for the rest of the summer. Consequently, you will be seeing more of me on various social media and web platforms associated with the Vance Birthplace.

I am currently a graduate student with the Public History department at Appalachian State University, and my research interests focus on women’s history, American military history, and the history of women in medicine. I plan to graduate in May 2021 with an M.A. in History with a concentration in Public History. I have always loved museums and historic sites since childhood and would like to use my knowledge and historical skill to teach others about history. I have an undergraduate degree in Social Studies Secondary Education, so I enjoy teaching and learning in multiple different outlets. 

Some “fun facts” about me are that I read everything I can get my hands on, and combining my books with my mother’s often makes our house look like a library; and outside of history I have a strange interest in ocean science, especially if it’s creepy. Other hobbies include crochet and cross stitching, along with drawing and watching documentaries. I have a ten year old dog that I am obsessed with, Sophie, who you can see below. 

This summer my big project will be to create a virtual timeline that gives voice to the histories of the women of the Vance Birthplace, both white free women and the enslaved. My goal is to open up dialogue about the lives these women led and the agency they exhibited in changing their own lives, the lives of those around them, the Vance Birthplace, the Reems Creek Valley, or Western North Carolina in some way. I feel that women have been repeatedly silenced throughout history, and since my area of research has been focused on women’s history since my undergraduate career, I plan to bring their stories to light in any way possible. 

During this internship I will also be learning how interpretation is done, or at least the basics of it, the daily requirements of running a historic site in terms of online work and historical research, and how to create more inclusive interpretation and present the history of controversial topics to the public online. Hopefully I will be able to visit the sight at some point this summer to interact with some physical artifacts and to engage with the buildings on site, pending a loosening of restrictions! 

I appreciate you taking the time to learn more about me by reading this and am excited to continue my work for the Vance Birthplace this summer! I am enjoying getting to know the history of the Reems Creek Valley and am optimistic about the projects I will be completing this summer!

Stay safe and sane during the chaos!

Elizabeth Bailey 

Leah Erwin and Emancipation

Illustration of West Asheville after the Civil War. Leah and Sandy Erwin moved to Sulfur Springs Township, now part of West Asheville, after emancipation.

Leah Erwin, or “young” Leah, was enslaved by the Vance family from 1800-1865. In her old age, Leah was finally able to experience what many enslaved men and women before her did not live to see: emancipation.

Enslaved people across the nation celebrated emancipation, but often suffered little positive change in their circumstances. Because former enslavers were unhappy with emancipation, they made efforts to circumvent the system in their favor. Many formerly enslaved people had no other place to go after emancipation because they had been prohibited from making a living for themselves and pursuing land ownership. Many did not know where their family members were, as they had been sold away to other enslavers. While hundreds of enslaved people resisted the destruction of their families or escaped slavery to protect their families, poverty was a huge threat post-emancipation. With little support from the government or American society, formerly enslaved people had few chances of social mobility.

Enslaved women sometimes had a harder time than men making their way forward after emancipation. They were often single mothers and grandmothers, aunts, older sisters, and surrogate parents to either their own children or another enslaved family’s children. Fathers, brothers, grandfathers, and other male family members were frequently sold away during slavery. Many others sought freedom by escaping their enslavers, even when their children and female relatives were unable to follow. Enslaved families also suffered abuses from both armies during the Civil War, and the destruction afterward was so far reaching that it was difficult for freed people to find a place to live and make enough money to support themselves.

The intense racism prevalent throughout the country during this time also prevented people of color from truly enjoying the rights and freedoms promised by emancipation. Jim Crow laws began being instituted in the South, cleverly manipulating the system to keep people of color from voting, holding office, interacting with white people, holding jobs, and accessing facilities and citizenship benefits.

The rise of the Ku Klux Klan during this time forced many people of color and their allies to live in constant fear of death and destruction for themselves and those they loved. Lynchings of people of color for perceived offenses and crimes (according to whites) took place frequently, and both white men and women participated in the carnage.

Many formerly enslaved people had to resort to sharecropping and tenant agreements that whites, often their former enslavers, created to keep freed people in bondage after emancipation. These landholders refused to pay sharecroppers a fair wage, forcing people to live as they had when they were enslaved. Whether or not a labor contract of any kind was signed, whites could also re-enslave people of color unofficially by keeping them from earning enough money to pay debts, buy land, or feed their families. These individuals would owe everything to their former enslaver, who hid behind the mask of an employer.

1880 Census record showing Leah Erwin, her husband Sandy, and their granddaughters, all living in Asheville.

While enslaved, Leah used her valued status as a skilled cook and housekeeper to build a relationship with Mira Vance. Leah likely cultivated this relationship to make herself invaluable to her enslavers and therefore resist being sold away from her loved ones. Because few records exist from enslaved women, we do not know Leah’s perspective about this relationship. However, we do know that she chose to maintain this relationship after emancipation. Was this choice based on her need to stay in a familiar place with familiar people? Did she wish to develop a positive relationship with Mira to gain her help for future endeavors? Was there a true bond between the two women? While we will never truly know, it is safe to say that Leah experienced similar circumstances and a similar decision-making process to countless other formerly enslaved people, especially women, in the decades following emancipation.

Dolls of the Poor and the Wealthy

Dolls have been a common toy for children since the Ancient era of the Egyptians and Greeks, and have been made of as many different materials as cultures that have used them. The types of dolls made also differ based on the social status of the family that owned them. In the Appalachian Mountains many families lived isolated lives, and had little money or time for toys, so many children had corn husk dolls. Corn husk dolls would be made from the corn husks left over from those being used for bedding and those burned to create smoke to keep out mosquitoes, all they would need is a bit of water and a few pieces of string to make something similar to what is seen below. Wealthier families, such as the Vances and Hemphills would have more resources to make their own dolls, being able to buy fine paints for the head and use patterned fabrics for the doll’s clothing. They would also be able to purchase dolls, rather than make them.

Boom, Bang, Pop! Bullet Making in the Appalachian Mountains

In Appalachian folklore the gun is an item that many characters such as David Grier use to great efficiency to hunt game and later hunt intruders on his mountain. While many households in the area did own a gun, it was an expensive item, so most people in the Appalachian area would have only a single gun for the whole family. Below is a picture of the two items most people used to create the bullets for their guns, a single bullet bullet mold and a lead ladle. Small rectangles of lead could be bought at most general stores, and then cut and melted into the lead ladle. The molten lead would then be poured into the bullet mold and be allowed to cool and harden. Households would generally only use their guns for hunting, so few bullets were necessary. To this point households would have need for only single bullet bullet molds, but militarizes and and mercenary companies would have bullet molds capable of molding up to 25 bullets at a time.

Putting the Little Ones to Work

The children of today really do miss out where the children of the past got to enjoy a hard day’s work. Above we have two of the most necessary tools for any child in rural Western North Carolina in the 1800s, the water yoke and chamber pot. Throughout the day, water would be used in the Vance House for cooking and cleaning, thus there would need to be steady supply of it brought up from the spring house. This is where the water yoke comes in. The apparatus would by placed upon a child’s shoulders and fit around their neck. Two full buckets of water would be placed on the hooks so that the child could easily carry both to the Vance house at the same time. The chamber pot would be less of a tool for the children, as it would be a bane upon their existence. Used to hold the excrement of the Vance Family, the enslaved children would take the chamber pot out every morning to be dumped far from the spring house.  

In the Name of Fashion!

In many human cultures throughout history, the style of dress and hair has been important. People have been willing to go to great lengths to attain the ideal look of their time such as the men and women of the Victorian Britain that painted their faces with arsenic to achieve a paler complexion, or the parents of Imperial China who bound their daughter’s feet in hopes of them marrying at or above their station, and let us not forget the charming men of the 18th and 19th centuries who donned hats cured with mercurous nitrate that drove them mad. Above we have a picture of a 1700s to 1800s hair curler used to create the curls around women’s faces which were so popular in that period. To use this hair curler one must heat the end of it in the fire to get it to the appropriate temperature to curl hair. This was dangerous for a variety of reasons. First there is the danger of heating the iron too much and burning your hair off or setting it on fire. Second there is the chance that even at the right temperature one would accidentally touch the curler to their skin causing a painful burn that could easily become infected.