Erin Hall

Visiting the Black Mecca Museum run by the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society (CKBHS), I noticed how much material related to women’s history. Even the items that had not been created specifically for women related heavily to their lives. For instance, the CKBHS kept a pair of baby shoes as an artifact that speaks to the mothering role of women, even if the child who wore the shoes was male. The quilting square made of stained glass hanging in the display case caught my attention because instead of being a binary male or female object, it has facets that relate to both. It also straddles the historical periods that we have studied in class. In 2003 it was created as a gift to cement the historical relationship between Harpers Ferry and Chatham as centres of abolitionism.  It also refers to earlier historical periods when quilting was a large part of homemaking.

The CKBHS artifact is a square of stained glass that hangs in the display case named “The Struggle.”[1] The square is coloured, red, blue, yellow, and white. It was created when Chatham and Harpers Ferry became twin cities in 2003. [2] The two mayors signed the twin city agreement, and during that period, the mayor of Harpers Ferry was a man, and the mayor of Chatham was a woman. The design of the stained glass is the state quilt of West Virginia. It is not known why they chose a quilt square as a commemorative object.

It is it is an intelligent choice that the object is not a gender binary-coded artifact. The great historical event that links the two cities is the 1859 attack led by John Brown on Harper’s Ferry after recruiting in several towns, including Chatham.[3] The actions of John Brown and his followers are integral to the identity of both areas and abolitionist history. Quilting, while no longer as relevant today, would have been a common practice in the nineteenth century. The square is a fossilized reminder of the history of the towns, and that the voice of the oppressed has been heard loudly in both places. “The Struggle” is a fitting name for such an object; this is especially true with knowledge of the failure of John Brown’s raid. His death makes him a figure of martyrdom for those  oppressed by slavery. Still, many people died during that period; women included, that were not acknowledged to the same degree. The twinning of the cities was a celebration, but the connection is complex and is not all jubilant. The relationship between the towns is about memorializing as well as celebrating. It is more significant than John Brown; if it were not, then the object would be much more tailored to him. Instead, it is a memorial to all of the people who were silenced. Given the design, it would seem that they wanted also to give a specific memorial to women’s expression and men’s work in difficult areas like glass and steel.

Oberlin College, in Oberlin, Ohio, conversely, has a quilt that is meant to celebrate. They pride themselves in their history of inclusion. They are well-known as one of the first colleges to accept women, African Americans, and female African Americans. They decided to make a full quilt rather than a single square, and they made their quilt out of fabric as opposed to more durable material. In many ways, they were faithful to the history of quilting. The quilt was made by women; it was created in a communal environment, and when it was finished, it was given to others, in this case, the college library. Quilting reflects the complex history of women’s work. Quilting is “simultaneously empowering, because it relies on a woman-to-woman intergenerational apprenticeship and validates female culture, but also compromising because it perpetuates the gendered and implicitly hierarchical division between the public and the private/domestic spheres, handicrafts, and the fine arts.”[4] It, therefore, makes sense that there are different ways to express the history of quilting.

Quilts are large pieces of fabric that kept families warm in harsh winters, and reveal the importance of women’s labour. The process of making a quilt requires skill, patience, and imagination. Quilting became known as a feminine activity, and associated with “good housewifery, feminine creativity, and the celebration of matrilineal family traditions”[5] In both African Canadian and European-Canadian communities.  Because quilts required so much time, women gathered in quilting circles together to create their pieces. Quilting became a social event for women that mitigated the boredom that came from repetitive sewing. The sewing social groups, like the church, were one way that women were allowed to spend time with non-familial relations.

Quilts would sometimes recycle scrap material. For example, the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, were living in challenging conditions and needed to keep their families warm; they would use worn-out clothing and textile packaging to create quilts.[6] It led to irregular shapes and sizes. The more skilled the quilter, the more fabric was available. Women were encouraged to be thoughtful and imaginative to be economical. With groups of freed slaves and the institutionalized racism that kept African-Canadian and African-American families in low-income demographics in Chatham and elsewhere, reusing materials that the family owned was especially important.

The creation of patterns for the quilts was an artistic expression for women. They worked to make the practical object one of function and aesthetic. The making of quilts “‘gives life to’ something highly sensual and alive– they create ‘bodies’ that not only delight the eye but all of the senses. The quilts are, in turn, experienced through the body, which is touched by the fabric, often even wrapped or enveloped by it.”[7] Quilts were visual as well as physical, and excited the senses in a variety of ways. This variety gave women different ways to express their feelings, which was particularly important for African American women who were segregated from mainstream artistic expression:  “The voices of black women are stitched within their quilts…”[8] Aptheker believes that women’s culture, quilts, poems, stories, and paintings provide a clear interpretation of their actions and beliefs on their terms.

Quilting has gained space in the artistic community more recently, as the appreciation of the quilts as art has grown. A group of African American women in Alabama were known to have sold their quilts for as little as $1.50 in the nineteenth century. In the early 2000s, the quilts came to the notice of the artistic community. The quilts were part of an exhibit in museums, and were reproduced on postcards.[9]  Interestingly, the journey of historians to recognize quilts as part of women’s history and history generally is paralleled by the evolution of the artistic community.

Given the difficult and time-consuming nature of creating quilts, they were kept and often passed down from woman to woman. They would be gifts to mark occasions, like marriage or the birth of a child. Horton likens the exchange of quilts to be like a “currency” in an “informal, female-centred economy.”[10] They were not given lightly. The term economy, elevates the importance of the quilt. It was a way for women to make money, but it was also a language that was spoken by half of the population. For lower-income families, it was a practical object of warmth and comfort. For the upper-class families, it was an honourable practice that would be important in homemaking. The oldest males in the families would tend to be the inheritors of wealth. However, as illustrated in the Black family, quilts were passed down through female lineage; often-times, there would be a story that followed each quilt.[11] Documentation of family history is available through the quilt.

The square from the CKBHS removes the practical aspect of quilts. The object’s purpose is as decoration and commemoration, but it does not offer the comfort or warmth that is part of the significance of the primary use. But it does have a permanence that the original quilts tried to attain.

In the late nineteenth century, women began to share their patterns more widely.[12]

Designs became known by their origins. This recognizable pattern is the beginning of

states’ quilts; they represented the best pattern of the area. Quilting  also allowed

women from different regions to give nods to their origins. Women often lacked the

control to decide where they would live, and this lack of control was particularly accurate

for black women. They were doubly disenfranchised. Their movements were either

dictated by their husbands, fathers, or white men (either slave owners or other authority

figures). However, they were permitted to quilt. They could put states’ squares into their

quilts to represent places that they wanted to go or places that they were born.


[1] “The Struggle .” The Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society, n.d.

[2] “Our Sister City.” The Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society, n.d.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Alexandra M. Kokoli, “Quilting,” (Encyclopedia of Gender and Society, 2009,, p.696)

[5] Alexandra M. Kokoli, “Quilting,” (Encyclopedia of Gender and Society, 2009,, p.696)

[6]Cassie Chew, “Out of Necessity: Stitching Freedom, Stitching Art.” The Crisis 111, no. 4 (July 1, 2004): 51–53.

[7] Maureen Daly Goggin, Women and the Material Culture of Needlework and Textiles: 1750-1950 (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010), p.50)

[8] Floris Barnett Cash, “Kinship and Quilting: An Examination of an African-American Tradition.” The Journal of Negro History 80, no. 1 (January 1, 1995): 30–41.

[9]  Cassie Chew, “Out of Necessity: Stitching Freedom, Stitching Art.” The Crisis 111, no. 4 (July 1, 2004): 51–53.

[10] Laurel Horton, Mary Blacks Family Quilts: Memory and Meaning in Everyday Life (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2005), p.2)

[11] Ibid.

[12] Remi Douah, “In Her Own Words: Uncovering a Life Experience Woven into the African American Quiltmaking Tradition” ProQuest Dissertations Publishing (2006), pp. 1-165, p.26-27)



Cash, Floris Barnett. “Kinship and Quilting: An Examination of an African-American Tradition.” The Journal of Negro History 80, no. 1 (January 1, 1995): 30–41.

Chew, Cassie. “Out of Necessity: Stitching Freedom, Stitching Art.” The Crisis 111, no. 4 (July 1, 2004): 51–53.

Douah, Remi Kouessi-Tanoh. “In Her Own Words: Uncovering a Life Experience Woven into the African American Quiltmaking Tradition.” Order No. 3227541, University of Minnesota, 2006.

Goggin, Maureen Daly. Women and the Material Culture of Needlework and Textiles: 1750-1950. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010.

Horton, Laurel. Mary Blacks Family Quilts: Memory and Meaning in Everyday Life. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2005.

“Our Sister City.” The Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society, n.d.

“The Struggle .” The Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society, n.d.

Kokoli, Alexandra M. “Quilting.” In Encyclopedia of Gender and Society, edited by Jodi O’Brien, 696-697. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2009. doi: 10.4135/9781412964517.n349.