African-American Quilts

African-American quilt, with Bethlehem motif, made by Ellen Morton Littlejohn (1826–1899). African-American quilt, with Bethlehem motif, made by Ellen Morton Littlejohn (1826–1899). Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 62.144.

African-American quilts are a form of decorated soft furnishing made in the nineteenth century and later. The quilters often employ techniques such as appliqué and patchwork, with narrow bands of cloth sewn together in strips (string quilting), in strong, contrasting colours. 

Although few early African-American quilts have survived, it would appear that materials used for the top layer (tops) included scraps of cloth left over from dressmaking, as well as pieces of feed and flour sacks. The wadding (batting) might consist of raw wool or cotton, or the remains of worn clothing or blankets. The lining (backing) was often made of cotton, preferably seamless. When heavier materials were used for the wadding, then the three layers would be stitched together with cord, twine or heavy thread and knotted at the top.

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, research into the history of African-American quilts focused on techniques and designs that enslaved Africans brought with them to the Caribbean and North America. The use of appliqué, for example, is believed by some to be influenced by the appliqué textiles of the Fon people of Benin (formerly Dahomey, West Africa), while the diamond and cross patterns found in many quilts would reflect West African symbols. The distinctive Gee’s Bend quilts, from an isolated African-American community in Alabama (US), are often cited as an example of this type of quilting. The contemporary artist Faith Ringgold uses quilting in her work to explore issues of black identity and race in America.


  • FRY, Gladys-Marie (2001). Stitched from the Soul: Slave Quilts from the Antebellum South, University of North Carolina Press, North Carolina: Chapel Hill.
  • HICKS, Kyra E. (2002). Black Threads: An African American Quilting Sourcebook, McFarland & Company, USA.
  • WAHLMAN, Maude Southwell (2001). Signs & Symbols: African Images in African-American Quilts, Georgia: Tinwood Books, Atlanta.
  • (retrieved 8th May 2016).
  • (retrieved 8th May 2016).

Metropolitan Museum of Art online catalogue (retrieved 30th June 2016).


Last modified on Friday, 05 May 2017 16:15
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