• Lee Sigler

Slave Quilts

A must read! This book was originally published in 1990 and updated and republished in 2007 and is available today.

“Stitched from the Soul, Slave Quilts from the Antebellum South” by Gladys-Marie Fry is both inspirational to quilters and people interested in the history of the lives of slave women and their contribution to women’s art.


While the book highlights the difficulties in the lives of slave women, it does not dwell on it. Fry focuses on the positive aspects of the wonderful art that these women created despite being slaves and having little free time.


Fry introduces these thoughts in the Preface: “Many of the various roles and contributions of slave women to plantation life have been swept under the rug of history. … The limited view of slave women has made them the victim of three isms: racism, sexism, and regionalism. …Quilting also provided an outlet for slaves – a means of developing hidden talents and establishing a kind of emotional stability and independence.”


Fry spent years researching the topic of slave produced fiber arts – particularly quilts. Attribution for antique fiber art is difficult because many pieces were considered utilitarian, not signed, and used. As Fry explains, this was even more true for African-American quilts: “Researching the quilting traditions of African-American women has been hampered by two major problems: the scarcity of data concerning slave women in written historical sources; and the task of documenting slave-made quilts.”


I found her photographs of the quilts very inspirational. The supporting research and photographs of the lives of these slave women was not only fascinating, but gave me an even greater appreciation of how accomplished these women were in utilizing their skills in difficult situations.


Having been privileged to see the Gees Bend Quilt show in San Francisco, it was interesting to reflect on the difference. In Fry’s book, the patterns and materials in many of the quilts were influenced by the white slave owners. Gees Bend quilts were made in the early part of the 20th century by free women of color. The quilts are much more colorful, freeform, and reflective of the materials that could be obtained easily.

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