How to Make an American Quilt



by Otto Whitney


Here is a South African myth regarding a being called Sikhamba.nge.nyanga, which translated means "She.who.walks.by.moonlight." This is what is said of her: It is man's privilege to gaze upon her. But when he violates the customs which protect and nourish her, she returns to nature. In order to ensure her survival, she must be allowed to walk freely, un.touched and unmolested.


A Guyanese story says of black slaves that the only way they can be delivered from "masse's clutch" is to see the extra brightness of the moon in their lives. The darkness will always be there, but they can use the light of the moon as hope. The light of the moon. The dancing buffalo gal with the hole in her stocking.


One can survive without liberation but one cannot live without free.dom. You know it is essential to find one's freedom.


Here are some things you know:


That the English adopted slavery from the Spanish. Found it useful when the white English were no longer motivated to come to the New World. Some masters were unnecessarily cruel, running their "invest.ments" into the ground (you are appalled to learn that in Brazil and the Caribbean this was considered sound business sense). Squeezing every drop. Other masters were benevolent, treating their slaves with a mod.icum of kindness. Of course, words like kindness and fairness lose all meaning in a labor system founded on the purchase of human flesh, based on involuntary bondage. To paraphrase a Famous Writer: A master is a master is a master.


Female slaveholders are called mistresses.


A sewing slave in the antebellum South could be had for $1,800. Anything less would be a stealworth gloating over with the neigh.boring slaveholders. You get the idea.


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Most slave owners did not have fancy Taras and owned just one or two slaves. This meant a female slave could work in the fields all day, only to fill her nights with mountains of sewing and quilting for the family. A slave was fortunate to be in a household that allowed her specialized work like sewing, exclusively. But a word like fortunate tends to lose its meaning in a context such as this.


You personally find the piecing together of the work tediousarduous and dull. Likewise for cutting the pieces, securing the batting between the back and top work. But you find the designing and creation of the quilt theme exhilarating. As if you are talking beauty with your hands. Make yourself heard in a wild profusion of colors, shapes, themes, and dreams with your fingertips. The tedium of quilt construction some days can make you cry; you long to express yourself. To shout out loud in silk and bits of old scarves.


You know that it was not uncommon during the Depression for a wealthy woman to hire out to a poor woman the drudgery of quilting. And that that same wealthy woman could still enter that quilt in a com' petition solely under her nameno thank.you or acknowledgment to anyone else.


You hold no stock in the prefab, purchased.pattern quilt. You do not understand the point of stitching without your own heart~involvement. Without your ideas incorporated into the work, it is just an exercise, something to fill the long evening spent without companionship.


More things you know:


That only you can tell your story.


That most abolitionists were women striving for suffrage as well. That a significant number of abolitionists were prejudiced against the Negro they fought to free; it was the institution they considered immoral. So the word free begins to lose its meaning in a context such as this.


So little in your life has changed. Despite the civil rights movement. Here is an incident emblematic of that time: Myrlie Evers, the widow of Medgar Evers, wanted to tell President Kennedy, at the funeral of her much~loved husband, that she was devastated; that her husband fought for his country in World War 11 and came home to be a second~class citizen; that she was furious he had been murdered trying to secure his constitutional rights for himself and his people. But all she said, finally, when Kennedy asked her how she was doing, was Fine, thank you, Mr. President. This impresses you; this is something you understand without effort. That the story of your life and history should be so plain, so obvious, yet you will be asked to explain it. You, too, can imagine shrug.ging your shoulders or registering the same reaction to such an inquiry. This is what it is like with your quilts; you simply design and stitch them. You say nothing more than what you have said with fabric and thread.


Here is a glossary of some of the quilts you have designed:


Stars Like Diamonds: Beauty's hands fill with them, as she cries her disloyal tears. You think that tears of diamonds have no value when shed falsely. Embroider the tears with silver thread that was left over from an evening gown made for the lady of the house.


Winter Wheat: Do not use a repeating pattern but instead fill the pale blue field with thin, pliant stocks that undulate in the cool wind. Use blue denim, cotton, down, and flannel from farmer's clothing to comprise the wheat, earth, and sky. You are both drawn to and repelled by agriculture.


Pomegranate Fish: Dyed natural linen for texture, deep red.purple. Fish that swim in blue water; faceted beads of antique garnets circle your neck. Refracts sunlight, calls to mind your own mother, now gone.


Moving by the Light of the Moon: The moment he wanted you. You did not know him, nor did he know you. Even after, he did not know you. Batik cotton allows for the color of the moonlight through the trees. Indigo silk spans the night sky. We all crave the human embrace. We cannot guard our hearts with vigilance.


The Life Before: Reminder of ancestors. What cannot be told to someone who does not want to listen or does not express curiosity. You feel better when you hold the story patches between your fingers. Use yarn, shredded curtain fabric, yards of amethyst satin.


Forest Leaves: A childhood quilt for your daughter. A great and powerful trunk surrounded by swirling leaves in hues of green: hunter, kelly, verdant, grass, dark~green.almost~black. Bull Connor turned hoses on protesters in Birmingham, with water pressure great enough to tear the bark from a tree, roll a small girl down the main street. Not for your child; not for Marianna. Leaves are applique.


Broken Star: Traditional pattern made from print fabric on a field of peach. You wanted to study the stars. They made you feel whole. The quilting pattern is of tiny hawk moons.


Blue Moon: That which is rare and hopeful. Comes along when it is the second full moon within the same month. More indigo. Applique a Spanish fan hovering in the sky. With trails of gold and scarlet, as if flung by a dancer.


Friendship Across Time and Distance: Many colors, dyed cotton, scraps of royal.blue velvet, heart of pink muslin. Understand that friend.ship arrives from the least likely sources and flourishes in the least likely locations. Understand that someone can know you very well though you have not told her about yourself. The base is from bleached white and amber cloth.


Many Shoes: Also for your daughter. Sarah Grimke said, May the points of our needles prick the slave owners' conscience. And a quilted needle book made to look like shoes said, Trample not on the oppressed. Your daughter will not be trampled upon. Your daughter will travel distances.


A Profusion of Hearts: Pale red satin; appliques of wings and wheat fields shine golden across the work. This is a moment of love made for Pauline, Marianna, Glady Joe. Imported Chinese embroidery thread; you did all the work on this quilt alone, beginning to end. The tedious next to the inspired. It never felt like work.


When you embark upon a quilting project, you must decide be.tween traditionally American designs using print fabric and the Amish or Hawaiian style of solid blocks, appliqued in contrasting colors. You are philosophically drawn to the Hawaiian way, because they believe it is bad luck to appropriate another's design, to tell another's story. Hawai.ian women reamed quilting from white Christian missionaries. Before the missionaries arrived, the Hawaiians had their own way of making garments, which left no excess material. Nothing with which to make a quilt.


The Hawaiian women shunned the quilting bee as soon as they were proficient in the skill, preferring solitude and secrecy. You know in your own life that the quilt made solely by your hand, beginning to end, is very different than those made at Glady Joe's house. Even down to the length of the stitches.


You should share the work but not the idea behind it. You under.stand this. But in a small, close circle it is difficult to do this. You trust the Hawaiian notion that to share your personal pattem is to share your soul. To compromise your power.


You also understand the Hawaiian woman's perplexity with the con.cept of sewing and leaving remnants of excess material as well as her rejection of group quilting. (Another concept introduced by the Chris.tian missionaries.) You comprehend that need for solitude. Or for a handmade garment to use all the cloth with nothing left over.


And it seems to you a good idea to limit your "sharing" with the other women, and expect they should see that, too, with you. Do not share.


Many years ago a visitor to Hawaii bought two quilts, took them home to the mainland, copied their designs, and entered them under her own name in a contest. Which she won.


You are sad for the winner of the contest, because she "borrowed" someone else's story and fashioned it as her own. Sorry because she was rewarded by judges who did not understand that these quilts were not truly her own. The loss of power this entailed on the part of the Hawaiian woman; this loss of her history by having another woman appropriate it, in tum, increasing the second woman's already estimable social strength through stealing these designs. Increasing her own power. On your back. At your expense. You feel it most profoundly.


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