What an old quilt can teach us about antebellum America
By Stephanie Bastek
May 11, 2018
Rachel May’s new book, An American Quilt, has an innocuous enough title, invoking an innocent American pastime. But sometimes ugly secrets can be hidden in the stitchwork—or even, as in the case of the quilt at the heart of May’s book, behind it. The paper-pieced quilt was stitched together from fabric basted onto hexagon-shaped paper templates. These scraps, which turned out to be letters and documents dating all the way back to 1798, tie together one family from the abolitionist North and one from the slave-owning South. This paper trail led May to stitch together the stories of the women behind the quilt, enslaved and free. In the process, she shows how dependent the “free” North was on the enslaved labor of its southern neighbor.
Go beyond the episode:
- Rachel May’s An American Quilt: Unfolding a Story of Family and Slavery
- For a peek at the global history of the stuff quilts are made of, read an excerpt from Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton
- Peruse the National Museum of American History’s extensive National Quilt Collection
- The National Park Service offers a brief visual history of quilting in America, with a special focus on quilting in the West
- The Library of Congress has oral recordings with Appalachian quiltmakers, who discuss the social history of quilting
- The Whitney Museum’s 1971 exhibition of “Abstract Design in American Quilts” ignited our contemporary quilting renaissance. To view these, and hundreds of others, you can peruse the online collection of the International Quilt Study Center and Museum
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Stephanie Bastek is the associate editor of the Scholar and the producer/host of the Smarty Pants podcast.