Saturday, September 8, 2018

Cotton: The American Civil War & Politics Today

"Green Cross Series #4" 2014 by Gail Weiss, Portland, Oregon
In yesterday's blog post, I spoke about the everyday marginalization of American quiltmaking. A comment from my friend Gail Weiss reminded me, there is more to say about quiltmaking today. But first, let's spend a little more time on yesterday.

chintz counterpane, Achsah Goodwin Wilkins, Baltimore,  c. 1825
donated to the D.A.R. Museum, Washington, D.C.
Achsah Goodwin Wilkins (1775-1853) was an affluent, white woman who lived in Baltimore, Maryland. She was involved with making elegant bedcovers using expensive, imported fabrics from Europe, and African-American women as laborers. Her fanciful, floral counterpanes were made for well-appointed homes such as her own.

You may ask, why do I keep talking about Achsah Goodwin Wilkins? She died 165 years ago.

Map of the Continental United States, color coded to show 1861 status

Cotton was a precious commodity in the first half of the 19th century. According to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who wrote an article appearing on the PBS web site called "Why Was Cotton 'King'?", cotton was "one of the world’s first luxury commodities, after sugar and tobacco..." It was also "...the commodity whose production most dramatically turned millions of black human beings in the United States themselves into commodities," said Gates, Jr. 

The American Civil War was fought in the United States from 1861-1865. As a result of the longstanding controversy over slavery, the war broke out in April, 1861. Confederate states fought to maintain the institution of slavery. They wanted to continue using slaves as laborers to pick crops, primarily tobacco and cotton. A feature story, "Cotton and the Civil War" by economic historian Eugene R. Dattel on the "Mississippi History Now" website outlines the reasons for the Civil War as they related to the cotton trade.

"On the eve of the American Civil War in the mid-1800s cotton was America’s leading export, and raw cotton was essential for the economy of Europe," said Dattel in his introduction. "The cotton industry was one of the world’s largest industries, and most of the world supply of cotton came from the American South. This industry, fueled by the labor of slaves on plantations, generated huge sums of money for the United States and influenced the nation’s ability to borrow money in a global market. In many respects, cotton’s financial and political influence in the 19th century can be compared to that of the oil industry in the early 21st century."

"Mississippi, the nation’s largest cotton-producing state, was economically and politically dependent on cotton, as was the entire South. Indeed, it was the South’s economic backbone. When the southern states seceded from the United States to form the Confederate States of America in 1861, they used cotton to provide revenue for its government, arms for its military, and the economic power for a diplomatic strategy for the fledgling Confederate nation."

Cotton continues to be a huge industry today.
In 2018, cotton is "the fabric of our lives"-- but if it wasn't for quiltmakers in the 1970s, we could've been calling polyester the fabric of our lives. My recent blog post, "Polyester in American Quilts" discusses the invention of polyester, as well as the rise and fall of polyester in American quilts. 

1970s polyester quilt, exhibited last summer at the
International Quilt Study Center & Museum
In the 1970s, polyester was one of the most widely available fabrics. Quiltmakers used it, but they didn't necessarily like it. That's why vintage, 1970s polyester quilts continue to be such a polarizing topic among quiltmakers, particularly the makers who were actively making quilts in the 1970s. 

A few years ago, I interviewed several women for an article about quiltmaking in the 1970s. The article, "Quiltmaking in the 1970s: When Bed Quilts Became Works of Art" appeared in American Quilter Magazine (May 2013). Monique Lloyd, a librarian and archivist at Oregon State University said there was no such thing as a quilt shop at the time. She bought her fabric at department stores-- J.C. Penney, Sears and Woolworth.

Star quilt with cotton calicoes, 1972
made by Janis Pearson, Oregon
Janis Pearson remembered every shop in Portland, Oregon that sold cottons in the 1970s. Maybe half a dozen shops sold cotton calicoes for dress and garment making. Although labeling quilts was not yet common, Pearson inscribed her 1972 calico star quilt in the lower right, just as an artist would sign a painting. It was a simple detail, but indicated a significant shift in thinking about quilts. They were more than bedcovers. They were works of art. 

In the 1970s, as women were demanding more cotton fabrics for quiltmaking, Cotton, Inc., was founded to "support U.S. cotton farmers and importers in the research, development, and promotion of cotton." A big part of the effort was rebranding, when cotton ultimately became "the fabric of our lives." To a certain degree, feeling good about cotton meant being ignorant of the history. 
1970s cotton calico quilt, Oregon
Rebranding did not erase the sinister history of cotton in America, but it conveniently offered Americans a catch-phrase that allowed them to omit the history and land in a much happier place. When today's quiltmakers fondle the latest "to-die-for" fabrics by Kaffe Fassett and other designers of premium quilting fabrics, they do not always realize just how "to-die-for" cotton fabric in America was for much of the nation's history.
Weiss's "Green Cross Series" from 2014 commemorates
the beginning of recreational cannabis sales in Oregon.
Fast forward to present day, women (and men, and a diverse, global community) make quilts for a wide variety of reasons. I was delighted when my friend Gail Weiss commented on the "Beyond Bedding: A 'Nice, Little Hobby'" blog post. Gail is an artist, and I am fortunate to have one of her quilts in my collection. It commemorates and starts a conversation about an important current event, the beginning of recreational cannabis sales in Oregon.

"My quilting usually has nothing to do with bedding," said Weiss. "It's usually a practice in color theory with a textural aspect, specifically to work through past traumas and emotions, or simply to keep my addictive personality busy. For me, quilting is therapeutic art. Quilting is a testimonial to current events..." She recommends looking at today's political quilts. "The stories they tell are as diverse and unique as our populace... and can start many intelligent conversations about things happening right now." 
"Red" 2015 by Teresa Coates, quilted by Jolene Knight, Oregon
"Red" (2015) by Teresa Coates, quilted by Jolene Knight, is one of those conversation starters. Red represents love, war, passion, and blood; and the quilt explores the color red with elements of Pop Art, Matisse, Rorschach and traditional Hawaiian quiltmaking. It's a mash-up, and like much of the best postmodern art, it asks questions more than it provides answers.

Some people might be surprised to learn quiltmakers are actively engaged in today's hostile political climate. In my opinion, being politically savvy is to be expected of quiltmakers and others involved with textiles. History is behind us.