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”

Books: 

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