Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Common Thread--African American Quilters Celebrate Tradition, Freedoms

Legend has it that enslaved Africans running to freedom through the Underground Railroad used to look for North Star quilts on the clothes lines of sympathetic Northerners.

When the center of the quilt was black, the enslaved Africans knew they had found someone who would defy the fugitive slave law and hide them as they headed toward Canada--and freedom.

Today quilting brings African Americans different freedoms--freedom of creation, freedom of expression, and freedom of relaxation.

The African American Quilters Gathering Harrisburg knows these freedoms well.

The 26 member group, which formed in October 2009, meets 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on the forth Saturday of every month except December in the basement of the East Shore Area Library in Colonial Park.

On September 16, 2012, members will display their quilts from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the Fort Hunter Centennial Barn during Fort Hunter Day.

Quilting is a tradition of African American women, " the group's convener, Carol Spigner, said. "Enslaved Africans made scrap quilts to keep themselves warm."

Among the enslaved Africans, the log cabin pattern was popular because many lived in log cabins when they were brought from Africa. Frequently, enslaved Africans  made fancy quilts for their owners and more Utilitarian quilts for themselves. They used leftover clothing scraps when material was a precious commodity.

The creations of the African American Quilters Gathering Harrisburg bear no resemblance to traditional Amish and Mennonite quilts with pronounced color schemes, precise repeated patterns, and orderly quilting stitches.

Instead, many of this group's quilts use bright colors, symbolic forms, multiple patterns, large design elements, and stitches of all sizes to tell their stories. Yet, despite, or maybe because of their vividness, these quilts speak to their viewers.

On a recent Saturday, the quilters filled the East Shore Library basement room, the buzz of their sewing machines mingling with friendly chatter and laughter.

Some cut fabric with rotary cutters resembling pizza cutters. Some pinned and sewed the fabric into strips and other forms before attaching it to their quilts in the works. Others hand sewed binding on their nearly completed quilts.

As they turned the colorful fabric into works of art, many reflected on the quilt recipients.

Barbara Barnes of Harrisburg, who has made more than 20 quilts, thought about a friend who recently had surgery.

"I have pink ribbons of hope throughout this quilt," she said of her rail fence quilt. "I want this quilt to encourage my friend to keep up the fight against cancer."

Narda LeCadre of Pennbrook used fabric depicting french fries, pizza, watermelon, hot chocolate, hamburgers, and hot peppers for a "chef" quilt for her son, who is a chef. Some quilters joked that just looking at Narda's quilt made them hungry.

Elizabeth Carter of Susquehanna Township made a "symphony" quilt for her sister.

"Quilting relaxes me," Elizabeth said. "I wish I could spend more time quilting."

Some women made "Take 5" quilts, named because the quilter selects 5 fabrics, stacks and cuts the fabrics simultaneously, and afterwards sews the quilt top in five hours.

Bobbie Howard of Harrisburg used vivid shades of purple, green, daffodill yellow, and rose in her "Take 5" quilt.

Cindy Shields of Bressler said, "Take 5" quilts are easy and relaxing to make.

One of the most experienced quilters, Gloria Johnson of Susquehanna Township, made a lap quilt in shades of dark purple, violet, and lilac.

"I've been quilting since 1977," Gloria said. "I used to quilt by hand and now I quilt on machine."

Gloria once won first prize for a quilt she entered in the Pennsylvania Farm Show.

Ann Smyser of Mechanicsburg sat quietly quilting. Ann, a quilter for more than 15 years, said she joined the African American Quilters Group Harrisburg "because it's such a joyous group."

That joy, like the quilts themselves, warms the hearts of quilters and people admiring their work.

By Mary Klaus, The Patriot News, Sunday, September 9, 2012


  1. Loved reading about the quilters and the history of African American quilting.

    1. Glad to hear that you enjoyed reading about the quilters and history of African American quilting!