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Black History Month and Fiber

The history of fiber and fabric arts in the United States is inextricably linked to Black history and particularly the history of slavery in America. While fiber and fabric arts were, for many, a matter of survival and necessity as people spun, wove, and knit garments and household items such as blankets and bedding, sometime around the 18th century, the divide between the must-weave/knit-to-survive and the fiber-arts-as-leisure divide grew.

Yes, there were knitting guilds and those who worked and apprenticed in fiber crafts for centuries prior to the 18th century, and yes, the wealthy--particularly women--did engage in embroidery and needle craft as a leisure activity long before this period, but picking up the knitting needles or taking to the loom for pleasure versus doing so as a duty or a necessity seemed to solidify as an indication of class around this time. We already know that in the late 19th century crochet developed as a way for the leisure class to mimic lace, and as crochet consumes more yarn than knitting does, it was a luxury craft that those who could afford more yarn engaged in. Similarly, the advent of the "crazy quilt" came about as a way for wealthy women who could afford fabrics and the time to play with embroidery to experiment (similar to applique quilting), while quilts made out of necessity were often pieced, which took less fabric--an often scraps--to make.

That this development in fiber history coincided with when slavery in the US had also firmly taken root in the 18th century is not a coincidence. Household slaves were responsible for knitting, weaving, sewing, and quilting clothing, accessories, and household items, while wealthy white women could pick up their knitting needles, crochet hooks, and sewing needles at leisure because they had someone else to see to the making of such necessities. Yet, there remains a rather significant gap in the historical record about Black craft during this time beyond a few references.

We know, for instance that Sojourner Truth, for example, in her work as an Abolitionist, went to the refugee camps of emancipated slaves and taught them how to knit, cook, and sew so that they might find work for themselves and earn a bit of living. There is also the famous portrait of her in the Gladstone Collection at the Library of Congress where she posed with a ball of yarn and her knitting needles at a small table in 1864 for a carte de visite (a type of calling card; Truth used hers to raise money for her speaking tours surrounding abolition and suffrage).

But there has been very little work done to rectify the historical record beyond a few blogs, PBS news articles, and Pinterest and Tumblr pages. It is my sincere hope that textile historians who have better access to historical texts and artifacts will be able to reclaim this space and provide all of us with a clearer understanding of this history of Black makers in America.

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