Stitching Identity: a profile
Tracy Vaughn couldn’t draw a stick figure growing up, let alone sew or weave like the other women in her family. In the seventh grade, she was required to take home economics as a year-long class. The first half of the course taught the fundamentals of cooking. Because of her ardent fondness for the culinary arts, she signed up, not knowing what was in store for her. But when her teacher informed her that they would learn to sew in the second half of the class, Vaughn was disenchanted.
“I’m outta here,” she declared. She rushed to the counsellor’s office, determined to drop the class and save herself from the ordeal of learning to sew.
But years later, after she had become a professor at Smith College in Massachusetts, she stumbled upon quilts and was astonished at the extraordinary effect it had on her. Dropping off groceries at a new friend and colleague’s house, Vaughn stopped in her tracks when she walked in, awestruck by the beautiful art pieces hanging on the walls. As she moved closer, she realized that they were pieces made out of fabric. Without a second thought, she asked her friend to teach her how quilt. “I have to do it,” she professed, feeling an almost “spiritual” connection to the art form.
Vaughn, who is now a literature professor at Northwestern University in Qatar and an accomplished quilter and quilt scholar, immediately gathered a few colleagues and students from Smith and started training under Heather Williams, her friend and teacher. Williams insisted on teaching them the art of hand quilting, instead of machine quilting, because that was the African-American tradition. As Vaughn pieced together the top, center and bottom part of her first quilt, she felt connected to her ancestry. At the center of the quilt was an enlarged photograph of her maternal grandparents walking down the streets of Chicago, which she managed to work into fabric. As she put the finishing touches on her quilt, a powerful energy encompassed her, she recalled. She felt grateful that, 60 odd years after that picture was taken, she was able to honor her grandparents’ memory using an art form that was an intricate part of their heritage.
For many African-Americans like Vaughn, quilting is more than an outlet to express their creativity. By quilting, they are able to preserve the rich traditions of their ancestors and connect to their culture and legacy. They also honor the memory of the skilled black enslaved women who brought their unique quilting traditions from Africa to the Americas. Very few of these quilts have survived today. This fact only amplifies the value of quilting today—incorporating African themes, textiles and tribal details in quilts in order to preserve and maintain African traditions in a country that once wanted to strip them of their culture. Sometimes, in the direst of circumstances, these enslaved women quickly created quilts for their families to use. Other times they could spend months on a certain quilt, both allowing them creative satisfaction and illustrating relief from struggle and a sense of hopefulness for a better life ahead. Because not many people have passed down the oral history of these black women, their quilts help generate an understanding of their lives before the Civil War, and help many African Americans come to terms with this bleak past
People initially made quilts to keep themselves and their families warm, and the artistry began in much the same way as any other serviceable household good would get decorated, said Cheryl B. Torsney, co-author of Quilt Culture: Tracing the Pattern. Quilting as a means of thrift, she became enormously popular among African Americans during the Great Depression because people would use whatever little they had to produce things.
Privation, which means the scarcity of essential human needs, was even more severe in antebellum America. “During the enslavement period,” Vaughn said, “all that black women had were a needle and a thread, but with these, they created masterpieces.” In many cases, the enslaved would get one blanket to last themselves and their families and had to quilt out of necessity. They would produce rich fabrics for the slave owners, and keep the small bits and pieces for themselves, so they could piece them together to make blankets and keep their families warm. “It appeals to me that in an act born out of necessity and desperation, these women created beautiful lights and shadows, and incredibly appealing art pieces,” Vaughn said.
In Vaughn’s quilting classes, she and her classmates would go to fabric stores to choose their materials and threads. They would also offer suggestions about each other’s quilting patterns and colors. In this way, quilting grew into social and communal activity for Vaughn, just like it was for her ancestors and continues to be for the African-American community.
“Quilting would take these women away from the roles of being a mother, wife, provider, to the role of being artists,” she said. Women would form circles in the evenings and quilt together. They would come together and talk, complain, and offer support, while simultaneously creating something that would keep their family members warm and beautify their homes.
Torsney, who teaches literature at the University of Texas at El Paso, believes that many have embraced this quilting tradition, and it is held at greater esteem today. “Material culture is being revalued as an important means to learn about history, and the ecological foundation of quilting—the reuse of scraps—is being held up as a way to save the planet,” she said, in an email interview. There is also a plethora of books on quilting, not just about the craft itself, but also fictional novels, such as the Elizabeth Blair Mystery Series, which features quilters as detectives. In Alice Walker’s Everyday Use and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the African-American authors weaved quilts and symbolized these quilts as the proprietors of the African-American history of enslavement, and as a sanctuary and refuge from hardship.
Just like the women in these novels, Vaughn associates quilts as a link to her past. But along with valuing the cultural connection these quilts have paved, she uses them to demonstrate the progress that her community and her family have undergone in the past decades. While her grandmother would save the few pennies she had and make quilts out of the little scraps of cloth that she’d come across, Vaughn uses the best cottons, silks, velvets and other fabrics to make her own quilts. This is her way of making a mark on the often altered history of African-Americans and shining light on the significance of her people. “Had black people not contributed to the American culture,” she explained, “it would be unrecognizable today.”