Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Ethnicity and Quilt Style 1

Girls and a string quilt about 1910
Itinerant Southern photographers often used patchwork for
backdrops when they photographed their subjects outdoors.

Quilt by unknown maker, Corrine Riley Collection
Smithsonian's African American Museum
Pieced of satins, probably cutaways from an underwear factory

We've been discussing string quilts on the QuiltHistorySouth Facebook group page. The question is: Are string quilts, pieced of small, narrow strips of irregular size, a regional Southern pattern? I think we have to conclude string quilts were made around the U.S. after 1880 or so, probably a response to all the fabric waste from the garment factories making ready-to-wear clothing.

Pennsylvania clothing factory

There were perhaps more clothing factories per capita in the South but the North was also home to manufacturers with a lot of factory cutaways. We cannot assign a place of origin to string quilts, much less the ethnic and racial origin of the quiltmaker.

So, why is the above quilt with little known about its source in a museum of African American art? Artist Corrine Riley's collection of African-American quilts went to that museum. In an interview Riley said she bought her quilts at "antique shows, county fairs, flea markets, church gatherings, and quilt shows...in the Midwest and American South." As any of us who do the same thing realize you get precious few facts about the origins of the quiltmaker at most of those venues. 

Quilt by an unknown maker, Johnson County, Indiana
Eli Leon Collection

Have Riley and other collectors of "African-American Quilts" overgeneralized about the quiltmakers? Eli Leon bought many of his quilts directly from the African-American quiltmaker but he also "haunted flea markets and yard sales around the East Bay and beyond, looking for what he calls 'standard traditional' pieces."

For many years Cuesta Benberry argued with Leon that one could not tell an unknown quiltmaker's race by the quilt's style. As both are gone I can continue Cuesta's argument. How can we prove his statement is true or false? Perhaps a somewhat controlled study of just a few examples. I picked string quilts documented in the Michigan project, mainly because they kept good records about the maker's stated ethnic origins, published it in their Quilt Index files and documented quilts made in the recent past brought in by children and grandchildren of the makers who were quite familiar with the quilts' origins. 

Here are four string quilts from the Michigan project. Can you tell the maker's ancestry by her style? Are the collectors correct or is Cuesta' view more accurate?

(1) String quilt made in Holland, Michigan in 1982

(2) String quilt made in Marshall, Michigan, probably about 1950

(3) String quilt made in Idlewild, Michigan,  1986

(4) String Quilt made in Gaastra, Michigan, 1981
More information tomorrow.


  1. I would have to stay on the side of Cuesta. We've seen lots of string quilts in Maine (most from c1890 - c1950) and we did not have much of an African American population then (or now). We also see a lot of cotton crazy quilts from the first part of the 20th century. Some could be considered "string" type, but with larger uneven pieces added to the mix. Looking forward to the next post on this interesting topic!

  2. My mother in law made one, she is from New Mexico, around the 1940's. I have it and love it! My mom also made a bunch of them, from Colorado. It was just a make do pattern that she could use her tiniest pieces up. How I love strings quilts! Thank you for this topic!

  3. Thanks for the nice shout out Barbara about our collection at the MSU Museum. One quilt I always like to use to test notions of being "African-American" is the one made by Rosa Parks which was documented as part of our research project on African American Quilting in Michigan. You can search for it and see it in the Quilt Index

  4. I thought I'd make a guess before looking at the Feb. 13 post....I judged by looking at the towns. Idlewild is an African-American resort town, so I'd say that quilt is by a black woman.
    Gaanstra is a Dutch town so I'd say a white woman. My guess is Marshall, black; Holland, white.

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