How Quilters Became Some of the Most Important Storytellers of Black History

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Credit: Sherry Shine

The African American legacy of quilting began out of necessity and humble beginnings. Black enslaved people made quilts during the 17th century from sewn-together mismatched scraps of fabric to help keep them warm during cold nights. Draped out of windows or hung on clothing lines, quilts eventually evolved into a form of communication between the maker and sojourners traveling along the Underground Railroad — instructions on how to escape to freedom were embedded in the handiwork, stitched with symbolic messages in plain sight.

Today, African-American creatives, like Faith Ringgold, Michael Cummings, Bisa Butler, and Sherry Shine continue the centuries-long tradition, celebrating Black history through their beautiful artwork, telling cultural stories of transplanted African people on American shores with fabric, appliqué, paint, and even embroidery. Some of these quilts currently hang in the permanent collections of museums across the country or sell at galleries for tens of thousands of dollars. 

Contemporary quilters follow in the storied footsteps of those that came before them. “I think of myself as a storyteller,” says fiber artist Sherry Shine, who quit her day job to become a full-time art quilter. “My quilts are a subtle reminder to never forget the ancestors. I want us to be seen in a positive light, so in my ‘People in the Field’ series, they are not picking cotton. In my mind they own that field, they own that patch of land. They are working their own 40 acres and a mule.”

Shine’s works include elegant ladies and gentlemen of 1920s Harlem. Their brown skin is set against colorful cotton dresses with elegant wide-brimmed hats and fine suits made with vintage fabrics. Shine often depicts a suitcase made from leather, some patched with ads from the historical Negro Travelers’ Green Book, a guide for Black people during segregation to find hotels, diners, and other safe places around the country where they’d be welcomed.

No longer only for keeping warm, Shine suggests that when choosing a quilt, you pick one that makes you happy and put it on a wall where you’re sure to see it. “Sometimes I may not be having the greatest day and I’ll look at something [hanging] on my wall and it just makes me feel better,” she says.

Once you’ve picked a piece that speaks to you, here’s how to go about displaying and preserving it so its story can endure. 

Credit: Sherry Shine

How to Hang Your Quilt

There are so many ways to hang a quilt, including:

  • With a four-inch wide sleeve on the backside that you suspend on a rod
  • With a compression quilt hanger
  • Wrapped around canvas
  • Framed (Shine suggests framing the art with museum glass to help it last longer.)
Credit: Sherry Shine

How to Preserve Your Quilt

  • To keep your quilt clean, lightly dust it with a cotton cloth or t-shirt. Throwing it in the wash will only ruin it.
  • Keep it out of the sun. While luminous rays are good for your houseplant, they’re not so great for your fabric quilt. It will eventually fade when exposed to a daily dose of sunshine.
  • Give it a rest. Keep your quilt in an acid-free box when it’s not on display.

How to Make Your Own Quilt

Between sketching out the idea, making a pattern, gathering the materials, and sitting down to sew the pieces together, making quilts is not for the faint of heart. Shine warns that it can take a long time. If you’re up for the challenge, YouTube or a quilting class may be your next best step. “A class can open up your creative spirit and guide you to where you think your niche might be,” says Shine.