There’s a certain charm found in so-called African quilts, those made by Americans who used the influence of their African heritage to craft, design, and decorate these works that are both useful and a delight to the eye.
This influence is limited, however, to the African quilts made for personal use. Many of the early American quilt makers were slaves who made quilts for the white people in their lives. Most of the quilts made as a part of the quilter’s daily routine were made with the white upper class in mind. The materials, patterns, and techniques used in most quilts made in early America were the type that appealed to this segment of the population.
But slaves got cold, too, and the African quilts made for personal use represented a much closer reflection of the heritage of the quilter, not that of the mistress of the house. There weren’t so many of these quilts made because there, quite simply, wasn’t time to produce many. They had to be made during the very limited amount of free time that could be found before or after a very long, hard day of work elsewhere.
Strip construction is a technique introduced to the United States by the makers of African quilts on that continent. Whole cloth, or large intact sheets of fabric, was used to make the quilts for the white population but the enslaved quilt makers didn’t have the luxury of whole cloth. Instead they used small pieces of fabric cut into strips and pieced together in decorative ways.
Bright, bold colors that provide dramatic contrast are another characteristic of African quilts that made their way to the US as a result of the slave trade. These vivid colors were often pieced together in such a way as to depict a story or they were arranged in geometric or symmetrical patterns.
Another design technique that separated the early African quilts made for personal use from those made for others is the large scale of the design itself.
Those earliest African quilts remain an inspiration for American quilters today. Many modern-day quilters borrow techniques, designs, patterns, and fabrics from Africa when making the quilts that continue to charm Americans of all lineage today.