Tuesday, December 30, 2014

An African-American Quilt

Pieced quilt, c. 1935, Sarah Nixon (b. 1902, NC) made for Elizabeth Draycott Ost, NJ
If you know anything about quilts, the term "African-American" may conjure a very specific type of image, perhaps a quilt made with improvisational piecing. The quilts of Gee's Bend, Alabama made the improvisational style well-known, but often lost in the shuffle is the fact that African-American quiltmakers made (and continue to make) all kinds of quilts, from traditional block quilts to pictorial storytelling quilts.

The style of the quilt is not what determines 
the ethnicity of the maker.

Quilt Historian Cuesta Benberry (1923-2007) devoted much of her research to the subject of African-American quiltmakers. In her book "Always There: An African-American Presence in American Quilts" she shared diverse examples of African-American quiltmaking heritage. Improvisational style was one aspect, but certainly not the whole story.

Pieced quilt, "Bible Story" by Lucy Mingo, Gee's Bend, Ala. 1979
Even though Benberry's work was published a decade before The Quilts of Gee's Bend exhibition, the improvisational style became strongly associated with African-American quiltmaking because of the success of Gee's Bend. The unfortunate, underlying suggestion was that sewing skill was somehow lacking in African-American quiltmaking heritage, which could not be further from the truth.

an example of highly refined African-American needlework, c. 1820
Consider the stunning appliqué counterpane, c. 1820, attributed to Achsah Goodwin Wilkins, now on display at the DAR Museum. Wilkins arranged the chintz in fanciful, kaleidoscopic designs, but she did not do the sewing. African-American women did, and their sewing skills were exceptional. The counterpane has some of the finest appliqué stitches you will ever see, if your eyes are good enough to see them!

Sarah Nixon made this pretty blue and white pieced quilt for my mother, Elizabeth Draycott Ost, in Verona, New Jersey around 1935. Sarah was African-American, born around 1902 in North Carolina, and is listed as a servant in the Ryan household in the 1940 census. Mom remembers Sarah, a lovely woman who could not read but thoroughly enjoyed making quilts. She was in her early to mid 30s when she made Mom's quilt. Clearly, Sarah had a great sense of color and design.

The style of this quilt may not say "African-American" to those who are more familiar with the improvisational style of Gee's Bend. We know the maker, though, and that's an important distinction when discussing African-American quilts. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to prove it was African-American if we did not know who made it. The same is true with Amish, Pennsylvania German, and Southern quilts. The style of the quilt is not what determines the ethnicity of the maker.

Thanks again to my mother for the gift of this beautiful quilt, the stories about Sarah; and special thanks to Suzanne Antippas for digging up the census records through Ancestry.com. The quilt is very special, and it's wonderful to have more information about its maker, Sarah Nixon. 


  1. (Hmm...not sure if my comment went through.)

    Sarah's quilt is quite lovely! Thanks for sharing it here and thanks for this post overall. I'm often told that I don't make African-American quilts and often don't know what is meant by such comments. Indeed, in the art world some accept only a certain few themes in painting and sculpture by black artists. That's a different sort of issue, but points to the myriad messiness in these comments.

    Thanks again!

    And happy 2015!

    1. Sarah's quilt leaves us with a great reminder, relevant to quilts and quilt history but also to life. Generalizations are always going to be flawed or disproven in some way. Roderick Kiracofe's new book shows the universality of improvisational style, and Benberry's book shows the universality of traditional style. With Gee's Bend coming to QuiltCon, there should be more talk. A good resource is the Gee's Bend episode of the "Why Quilts Matter" series, and I think there will be screenings at QuiltCon.

  2. So interesting, as the daughter of antique dealers I was not even aware of this genre of quilts. Learn something new every day!

  3. arrghhh, why do I get the impression that my comment got lost somewhere...
    Anyway, if it's the case, here is a shorter version of it. I was saying that I'm amazed by how passionate you are on this topic. I never felt like I had such a strong passion. I have interest and like to do different things, but none that I am so knowledgeable about!