Quilting Links U.S. and Africa
A Tradition Come Full Circle
The growing phenomenon of globalization includes a unique intra-diasporic exchange of ideas in textile making between Africans and African Americans. Traditional West African textile techniques, particularly narrow-strip weaving has influenced 19th and 20th century African American strip quilting in North America. As a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Africans brought unique skills in textile making with them to North America. Over time, one area of their textile making traditions developed into what has become distinctly known as African American strip quilts. Hundreds of years later, the return travels of African Americans to reconnect with their homeland are now impacting textiles in West Africa. As 21st century, African American patchwork quilting techniques influence quilt making in West Africa, a tradition has come full circle.
Some scholars have written that due to the hot climate in sub-Sahara region, quilting for bedding is not practiced. This may have been true when John Picton gave us one of the greatest volumes written on textiles, African Textiles: Looms, Weaving and Design, 1979, however, since that time, cultures have changed. While conducting research in Ghana in summer 2011, I discovered first-hand, Ghanaian peoples making quilts for bedding and wall hangings using the patchwork and strip quilting techniques seen in African American quilts. The patchwork technique is not new to West African cultures, as patchwork was used in traditional West African societies to stitch together quilted armour. What is new, however, is how contemporary West African textile artists, Ghanaians in particular, having been influenced by African Americans have readapted this technique and use it in making quilts for bedding. Today, because cosmopolitan Ghana uses air-conditioning in their homes and hotels, there is a definite need for quilts as bedcovers.
West African Textile Traditions
Since the 17th century, the Asante and Ewe cultures of Ghana have been practicing strip textile weaving. West African weavers called this cloth by its original name, Nsaduaso. Roy Sieber explains the process of textile weaving in his book, African Textiles and Decorative Arts, 1972. Sieber writes that in West Africa long-narrow strips are customarily woven by men on the narrow horizontal looms. The strips were woven only in long strips because it was their custom to produce strips long enough to be cut into shorter pieces and then sewn together to make a single larger cloth. Sieber notes that women were textile weavers by vocation. They used the single-heddle vertical loom, which produced wide strips of cloth so that it took only two or three pieces of cloth sewn together to make a larger cloth. Women produced cloth to make clothes for their families, whereas men were considered master weavers who received specialized training in their field through apprenticeship. They produced textiles exclusively for sale.
In Ghana, Nsaduaso is also known as Kente. Kente cloth requires many hours of careful weaving and is very expensive to make. Originally, Kente was made exclusively for and worn only by members of the royal clan. Today, Kente is marketed for anyone who can afford to buy it. Garments made from the fabric are worn toga style (draped over one shoulder) by men. Women wear them wrapper style. Kente patterns represent qualities such as strength, bravery, beauty, valor and leadership. Brilliant colors are mixed to produce intricate patterns. After textile strips are sewn together, they merge into a flowing pattern of bright contrasting colors with a sense of movement. A weaver who could create such patterns was recognized as a person with special talents.
Gender Transition in Textile Making
In traditional West Africa, men customarily were the weavers and producers of commercial textiles. Women, however, became the primary preservers of African textile traditions in the United States. This gender transition happened largely because in the United States' patriarchal society, working with cloth was considered "woman's work." Thus, gendered labor division was imposed on African peoples living on slave plantations. Women, however, easily adapted to this practice and took over preserving their traditional West African aesthetics in quilts. This was easy to do because as observers of textile traditions, women brought with them a knowledge of strip weaving, appliqué techniques, and storytelling. In West Africa, these techniques had been used in making banners and Asofa flags. Some quilting had also been done to make armor for men and their horses during times of war. Thus, these traditions could easily be continued in the quilts women made on slave plantations. Instead of using long narrow woven strips, women used scrapes of cloth cut into squares and strips of random width and length to make quilt tops. Gladys-Marie Fry in Stitched from the Soul: Slave Quilts from the Antebellum South, 1990, states, "this style was influenced by strip weaving done by West African males." Quilt making had an important role in the lives of enslaved African American women. It is possible that quilt making was one laborious activity that brought them a sense of personal accomplishment. Since then, African women passed 4 down these aesthetic traditions from one generation to the next generation of African American women.
African American Quilt Making
Two techniques used primarily in African American quilts are patchwork and appliqué. Patchwork consists of sewing together cloth that has been cut into strips, strings, rectangles, triangles, and blocks. Using bright and bold colors, some quilters produce multi-strip assemblages that resemble multi-strip designs in traditional West African textiles.
Art Historian Maude Wahlman, in Signs and Symbols: African Images in African American Quilts, 2001, writes that strip quilting is a form of patchwork that dominates African American quilt patterns. Patchwork is the sewing together of small pieces of fabric into strips, which are then sewn to each other or to other plain strips. Strips of fabric are sewn together horizontally and vertically. When made with bright bold colors, and asymmetrical arrangements, this style is thought to be unique to African Americans. Another patchwork style consists of blocks or squares of fabric sewn together. Two popular patterns are the Four Patch and the Nine Patch patterns. This type of quilt calls for a deliberate placement of colors that contrast each other. Wahlman, explains that what makes African American quilts unique is improvisation, where bright, contrasting colors are juxtaposed, large designs are favored, vertical strips are featured, and patterns are deliberately mixed to create an aesthetic that appears similar to the rhythm of drumbeats. Wahlman writes that African American quilters achieve improvisation "by establishing a pattern in one square and varying it in size, arrangement, and color in 5 successive squares." An example of a nine-patch quilt pattern with squares arranged in this way is seen in Georgia Patton's "Memory Quilt" of Kansas City.
African American Quilting in West Africa
A very important aspect to note in the process of globalization is that African American women have been the ones who brought the quilting technique to Ghana. Ghanaian quilters interviewed for this article were either taught by African American women or learned the technique from men who had been taught by African American women. While quilting is seen as an art form made primarily by women in America, in Ghana however, men once again dominate textile making, including quilts. Even where women are employed in the process of quilting, men have been in charge of the operations.
Kwabena Osei Bonsu was taught to quilt by an African American woman from Savannah, Georgia. He later taught the technique to women and now employs eight to ten women who make quilts under his leadership. Mohammed Mukaila Omar was inspired to quilt after examining Kwabena's work and studying African American quilts on the Internet. Ellen Tupra, a businesswoman and owner of a batik and tie-dye shop in Kumasi, learned to quilt from an American woman who had attended one of her workshops on hand-wax designs. Kwaku Boamah David, from the rural village of Ntonso, heard about quilting taking place in Accra from foreigners, and went to Accra to learn the skill. As a result, African American quilts, or West African quilts, or African made quilts are a new phenomenon that is spreading throughout Ghana. Featured in this article is the works of Kwabena Osei Bonsu of Accra.
Kwabena Osei Bonsu was born on April 13, 1965 at Anum Bosso in the eastern region of Ghana. His mother, Mrs. Yaa Afowaa Osei was a local trader and his father, Mr. Samuel Banson Affum, was a police officer. Kwabena has four children, two boys and two girls. In addition to English, he speaks Guan, Ekwapim-twi, and Ga. During our interview last summer, Kwabena explained how he learned to quilt:
"That year, there was a heavy rainfall. . . . I was introduced to quilting in 1999 by one Mariah Childs of Savannah, Georgia. She introduced quilting to me as a way of raising money for the needy. Before then, I knew nothing about quilting. Based on what I learned I taught others who already knew how to sew and in about two months time, we were able to make about 150 yards of quilt tops which we shipped to Savannah, Georgia to be finished."
In 2000, Kwabena stopped shipping the quilt tops and he and his group began finishing the quilts themselves. Traditional batting used in the United States is not sold on the market in Ghana. Instead they use a foam-type substance as batting. Using a commercial sewing machine, they are now also quilting their own work.
The quilts are made by a group of people who measure, cut, and sew together underneath an outdoor veranda. Kwabena is responsible for going to market to purchase the fabric. Then he leaves it up to the women to arrange the colors of the fabrics in each quilt. When asked how do you feel about quilting? Kwabena responded:
"I think it is one of the best things that I have run across. It is something from Africa - it has African roots. Because we know we have our brothers and sisters
who were taken from here to America, so we do it this way."
Kwabena's "Ghanaian Patchwork" contains over 3,000 fabric squares. The squares are sewn together by machine in groups and then the groups of squares are sewn together. The top is made of batik and tie-dyed fabrics that are locally hand-produced by private 7 textile designers. The backside is as beautiful as the patchwork side. The backside is made of two whole pieces of batik fabric sewn together and turned to form a border around the entire quilt front. In between the two layers of fabric, a foam-like material is used for batting. The quilt is finished with a simple quilting style where the quilt is sewn together creating diamond shapes near the center of the quilt. Kwabena informs us that approximately six people work on the same quilt so that quilts such as this one can be produce in one day.
When I first saw Kwabena's quilt, I was immediately reminded of Georgia Patton's "Memory Quilt." Prior to going to Ghana, because of my current research on the study of African American quilters in Kansas City, I had recently interviewed Georgia. To discuss similarities and differences, we will examine Georgia Patton's "Memory Quilt" which also consists of nearly 3,000 squares. The squares used for this quilt were cut from the fabric of her children's clothes and hand-sewn by Georgia and her children. While raising her children, Georgia made most of their clothes and recycled remnants of their clothes into this quilt. Georgia explained, "When my children come home for the holidays, they spread the quilt out and remember where each fabric came from. They say, 'this was my dress, this was my blouse, this was my shirt.'" Although Georgia has never been to Ghana, nor has Kwabena ever crossed the Atlantic Ocean, the patchwork quilt technique, whether it is from Savannah or from Kansas City, is definitely one aspect of traditional West African textile aesthetic that has gone around the globe and back.
In comparing African quilts with African American quilts, we find a number of differences that make them unique in their own way. Kwabena, for example, has taken quilting and developed it into an assembly line mode of production. He employs a 8 number of women to work on the same quilt. This type of group quilting makes it possible for him to create and produce a number of quilts each week for the market. We could, however, compare this line of production with the way some quilts were once made on slave plantations in the United States at Saturday night quilting parties. Enslaved African American women often worked together on the same quilt in a quilting contest to see who could finish first.
Contrastingly, today African American quilters usually work independently. They approach their quilts as artist, using fabrics as canvas. Sometimes a quilter might work on the same quilt for several weeks or even months. Some African American quilters, like Georgia Patton for instance, quilt as a hobby. Georgia might work on the same quilt for a number of days and then, begin a new quilt before the first one is finished simply because she was inspired to create another quilt expressing a totally new idea. The differences in why and how Africans and African Americans create quilts brings us to another notable difference that involves fabrics.
African and African American quilters differ in the way they select their fabrics to be used in creating their quilts. For instance, Kwabena goes to the market where he purchases ten different fabrics to be used that day to make quilts. African Americans might spend weeks shopping for the right fabric or save favorite cloth to use in their quilts. The fabrics used in quilts made by Kwabena are purchased as part of the supplies, whereas, fabrics used in Georgia's quilts are carefully selected to record family history or to express her own original creativity.
The patchwork quilting technique is the same but the styles or patterns differ between African and African American quilts. From what I have been able to determine, Ghanaian quilters do not quilt using the four-patch or nine-patch patterns. Their patchwork consists mostly of small, medium, or large blocks sewn together to make quilt tops. This simple quilting style, however, places a large emphasis on the arrangement of strong bold vibrant authentic African fabrics. Although the patchwork technique consists of string, strip, and block patterns, Ghanaian quilters seem to favor the block pattern over the others. My research does not include an observation of traditional appliqué being used by West African quilt makers.
It is important to note once again, that African American women have been instrumental in fostering the economic and artist development in quilt making in Ghana. Quilting provides Ghanaians with a new and exciting way to express their artistic vision, although that expression may vary from that of African Americans. Quilting is labor intensive. Even where Kwabena employs a number of people to work on the same quilt it usually takes a full days work, in which he is responsible for paying a salary to each of his workers. Quilts made with hand-made textiles plus the cost of labor could easily put buying a quilt out of reach for average working people in Ghana. That is why we find that economics is the primary motivator for Ghanaians quilters seeking foreign markets.
Textiles have always had and continue to have an important role in the lives of African peoples. As we can recall, in traditional African societies, quilting was done to make protective armour for the military. During American slavery, certain quilts were used to designate escape routes for African Americans escaping bondage to freedom, and on plantations, quilting was a necessary activity for enslaved women both psychological and utilitarian. Today, African American women and men quilt to express their artistic talents. In West Africa, Ghanaians quilt using traditional African fabrics combined with African American influenced ideas. Although quilting has a long history in the United States, some African Americans, find it aesthetically pleasing to purchase quilts made by Africans with traditional African fabrics. African made quilts might also provide people of the African Diaspora with a spiritual connection to their African roots. Not only are they sleeping under something warm for the body; they are also sleeping under something warm for the soul.
Pearlie M. Johnson, Ph.D., is assistant professor, Pan-African studies/art history, at the University of Louisville.
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Doran Ross, Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian Kente and African American Identity (Los Angeles: UCLS Fowler Museum, 1998), 78.
Roy Sieber, African Textiles and Decorative Arts (New York: the Museum of Modern Art, 1972), 102.
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Georgia Ernestine Patton, Personal Interview (Kansas City, Kansas, October, 2002). Georgia is an outstanding quilter. Her quilts are featured in Roland Freeman's Spirits of the Cloth. She also exhibits frequently in museums and galleries in the Kansas City area. She is the mother of five children, including NedRa Bonds, Kansas City fiber artist.
Kwabena Osei Bonsu, Personal Interview (Accra, Ghana, 07/05/03). Kwabena was taught the patchwork quilting technique by Mariah Childs of Savannah, Georgia.
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