What Makes an African Quilt "African?"

The Kenya Quilt Guild is presently involved in preparations for an upcoming quilt exhibition to be held in Ailsa Craig, Canada, by a quilt shop Cotton by Post and its owners Suzanne Agnew and Garnet Smalley.

Guild members have been asked to contribute a substantial number quilts, most with an African theme, so that visitors to the exhibition can appreciate the riotous color and rich patterning of African designs.

The first question that arose was “What, exactly, IS an “African” quilt? Consider the possible definitions:

  • A quilt made by someone who lives at the time of its making in Africa
  • A quilt made by someone born in Africa, no matter where they live or what is their present national status
  • A quilt made in Africa, regardless of its style
  • A quilt that draws on one or more of the thousands of different ethnic traditions encompassed by the continent of Africa, including many with origins on other continents
  • A quilt made with African fabrics and embellishments

This last opens a real can of worms. Many fabrics that look like African prints and weaving traditions are actually manufactured in other countries like Holland and Indonesia, not to mention India which supplies vast quantities of materials to Africa.

As you can quickly appreciate, the notion of “African quilt” is not an easy one to define. It is made even more complicated by the historical reality that African cultures seldom quilted, and certainly not in any form that resembles the kind of art quilting we see today. I’m not talking about appliqué here, which is a different matter. Appliqué and reverse appliqué have their African basis in Bakuba cloths and Fante Asafo flags, among many other wonderful indigenous African textiles.

Many years ago and early in my career as an art quilter, I had posed this same question, “what is an African quilt?” Seeking a clearer understanding of “African” in its stylistic sense, I took a simple design and modified its colors to mimic those I saw in the fabrics around me in Kenya. What do you suppose happened?

African Colors

 

The same design expressed in African colors assumed a distinctly African character. That simple experience led me to deduce that the first and most important ingredient in the making of an African quilt is color.

The African color palette derives from two sources. The first is traditional and utilizes earth pigments and natural dyes. This palette is full of ochres, browns, rusts, burgundies, blacks and the whites of raw, untreated cotton cloth and other natural fibers. This is what I call the “natural” African color set.

Neutral Color Scheme

 

When synthetic dyes were introduced to Africa a new range of colors appeared. The cloth dyers had not much experience with dyes, so they used each one on its own and at full strength. The result was a set of brilliant, strong reds, rich full blues, emerald greens, and golden yellows, colors never before seen. These form the “dyed” African color set.

primary-colors.jpg

 

When you want to make an African quilt, use fabrics from one or both of these color schemes, and be sure to add black and white. Forget about pastels and to a large degree anything shaded, unless it is one of the dyed African colors. You won’t find a lot of sky blue and baby pink in African quilts, will you? With an understanding of African colors under your belt, you might well ask about subject matter. Certain images are recognized as African – the traditional Maasai with spear and shield, often rendered in silhouette, is one such icon. A round hut with thatched roof is another. A calabash like the one shown below can become a printing motif or the subject of an art quilt. Such images abound and can be sourced from books, photos and sketches.

Gourd Calabash

A gourd calabash for storage and transport of liquids

 

A quick search of the Internet for “African clipart” produces more sources of inspiration for icons and imagery than I can possibly discuss here. Use caution, however, when downloading or copying what you discover; copyright rules may apply.

Traditional African art supplies inspiration in the form of masks used for ritual and celebratory purposes, as well as household wares like calabashes and pottery. These contain rich examples of African decorative embellishments in the form of engravings, beading and other media applied as trims and ornaments. African jewelry falls into this category of source material, offering surface patterns as well as cast forms to inform you.

Masai Beaded Collar

A Masai beaded collar provides inspiration for the quilt below

 

Doorway to Africa

“Doorway to Africa”

 

Visit your local art museum and inquire whether or not they house an African art collection; you may be pleasantly surprised!

Otherwise, good online places to experience the wonderment of African art include The National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution and the British Museum. And don’t forget to investigate online African art galleries, whose sites can provide you with contemporary as well as traditional expressions of African culture.

Like dyes, embellishments follow two trends in African art. There are those natural materials – wood, leather, feathers, fur, porcupine quills, bone, seeds, and shells – that were commonly used in traditional African decorative arts, for the simple reason that they were just about all that was available in a traditional setting. They make wonderful additions to contemporary African quilts, however.

Natural materials are sometimes eclipsed by man- and machine-made trims and details, like the aluminum beads in the photo above. Metals – brass, copper, tin, pottery and glass are found in a variety of ornaments and beads.

One talented South African quilter, Sally Scott, heavily embellishes some of her work with flattened soft drink bottle caps. These are popular additions to children’s toys in Africa and to the work of native African artists, so Sally simply picked up on a local theme and maximized it in her work. Sally shows her African quilts in the South African National Quilt Festivals.

Styles of quilting construction hardly play a specialized role in an African quilt, with many piecing and appliqué methods incorporated into any given piece. However, traditional African art is seldom geometrically perfect, so we expect African designs to be somewhat irregular in form. Improvisational piecing is a natural for African quilts, deriving circuitously from the quilting of Africans in the New World.

Africa Flows

“Africa Flows Like a River”

 

Historic textiles from across the continent are many and varied in technique, color, design and pattern, a rich source of inspiration for contemporary African quilts. Studies of motifs, like those of adire and adinkra designs, can yield a plethora of images for replication in surface design.

Before adding any of these motifs to your own work, however, it might be worthwhile to investigate the significance of any symbols you plan to use. Many represent religious and other cultural ideas and objects; you would not want to get them mixed up and risk offending anyone!

The answer to the question “What makes an African quilt African?” has to do with its connections to the history and traditions of Africa. These include color, form, fabric, print, texture, technique, and embellishments as well as imagery and subject matter. Those quilts which reflect a love of Africa and people and things African can thus be said to be African quilts. If the color and spirit of Africa touch your soul, let that communion be made visible through the medium of textiles, and then let anyone try to tell us it is not an African quilt!

 

Back to Tutorials

18 Responses to What Makes an African Quilt "African?"

  1. mermet michele

    hello dena,je suis une de vos eleves a sainte marie aux mines en france , j avais fait un travail un peu oriental ; l idee des courte pointes africaines est geniale ;la traduction de l article en francais est un peu difficile a comprendre ; si vous voulez , je me poropose de faire quelques correctons pour rendre l article plus lisible ; biensur en toute amitie et gratuitement ; cela m a fait plaisir d avoir de vos nouvelles amicalement michele

    • Michele, je ne sais pas que je comprends bien sur votre question. J’ecrivez une email directement a vous and nous trouvons une solution. Pardon ma français; c’est tres longtemps depuis je le parle. A bientot!

  2. John

    Dear Dena,
    Thanks for the information, you are so efficient even answering questions. May God bless you

  3. John

    Hello Dena, Thanks alot for your tireless work, teaching and giving information free. God bless you.
    I want to help some kids at Mukuru slums teaching them how to make khaki paper shopping bags, branding them and marketing to different companies for promotions, where can i get inks and khaki papers?

    • Hi, John! Thanks for posting your comment. Try Sciencescope. I’m sure they will have inks, as will some of the art galleries and art supply shops around town. I cannot help you source the paper you’re seeking other than to refer you to Nakuru Press. They used to have rolls of brown bag wrapping paper, sourced, I’m sure, from somewhere in Nairobi. Check the Yellow Pages directory. Good luck!

  4. Jolene Julian

    I recently purchased half-yard cuts of 20 different authentic African fabrics in a market in Johannesburg, South Africa. I want to make a bed-size quilt but need an idea for a pattern to use. Do you have any ideas?

  5. Thanks for all the good info. ! I was especially interested in the source of the 2 color pallets .

  6. HI Dena! I just stumbled across your blog (how does that really happen?) and appreciate your information on African quilts. I don’t make quilts, but do make “stitched paintings”, that resemble quilts as they are 3 layers stitched together. I just this week finished one I titled “Tribal”. Not knowing what I was doing, I was pleased to see that I had used appropriate colors in the design. Thanks for the validation! I would love to share the image with you. You can see it as the most recent post on my blog at http://www.strawmountainblog.blogspot.com. Thanks again Dena!
    (hey)Jude

    • Very nice work, Jude; thanks for sharing the link to your piece Tribal! You have indeed sensed the colors of Africa–good job! I’m doing some African pieces myself, and I hope to post them here soon, so you might want to subscribe to my blog (check sidebar at left). And if your work is three layers, that’s all it needs, I believe, to qualify as a quilt. You might do well, however, to continue describing your work as stitched paintings. Those of us who struggle for recognition as quilt artists might do well to follow your example!

  7. Leonardo Benzant

    interesting article, many things were on point, i am an African in American, was born and raised in American but because my heritage and my roots are from African i consider myself African, African is largely a state of mind, an ideology whose forms of expression can shift in appearance while remaining essentially African in structure and in principle, African is the mother and the father of humanity, Africa’s sons and daughters due to the transatlantic slave trade, and colonialism, were spread all around the globe, her children have recreated her principles in various forms, by necessity things were transformed…to make a long story longer, the driving and organizing principle throughout the African concept is Rhythm/polyrhythm, multi-meters seen in music and dance and the parallel to this principle of polyrhythm is seen in mult-strip textiles of the Mande peoples, multiple-patterns, polychromatics and or as was mentioned the earthtones specific to the tropical landscape, the cut n paste juxtapositions of sounds and rhythms as heard in Hip-Hop grooves, these analogies are valid in light of the fact that African culture and cosmology is multiplex, hence we see the collage-principle, the assemblage-principle comes out of Africa, it didn’t begin with Picasso or Rauschenburg, Africans traditions have been evolving for more than thousands of years, and the assemblage-principle was and has always been present and is still present today in its own particular African paradigmatic way as ever…and color is not just decorative and the symbols are not just decorative, colors and symbols are part of a very sophisticated communication system, which involve multiple form/disciplines of communal expression simultaneously, complementing Africa’s strong oral tradition which uses color and signs as an aid in transmitting a kind memory-triggering device in the process of exchanging information, and in many instances the signs function as characters tend to function in chinese writing, its there to be read by those who know how to read it, often legible to the initiated members of various African peoples like the bidimbu or Nsibidi iconographic/writing or cosmograms of the Kongo, or the Bantu-speaking people of Central Africa, color is often identified in terms of chromatics rather than value as we learn to do in Eurocentric color theory, African color for example in Yoruba society is used to denote the termperature and therefore the temperaments of various forces and or deities in their cosmology, you can’t be African by just taking the forms of Africans as so many Europeans/Westerners have done from before Picasso, Picasso himself on down the line, just pillaging forms and undermining the tremendous influence lifted from African sources then denying many artists of African descent access into the “mainstream” more like the “Euro-stream” dominated by white males with land and property that doesn’t even belong to them, after pillaging African forms having the audicity of comparing later generations of artists of African descent with the “founding fathers of Modern Art” did it ever occur to anyone that European history is a particularly Eurocentric history and that it is NOT the general history of the people of the World especially not of the African diaspora…

    • Thanks for your comments, Leonardo; all very interesting! You share with us some thoughts and feelings that are truly relevant to the discussion of what is an African quilt. I hope all my readers will take your remarks on board and want to continue the discussion.

  8. Coreen Loades

    Dear Dena,
    Thank you for inviting me to the guild meetings! I am going to be in SA on the 15th September and our younger daughter will be here in October but I will certainly try to attend the November one if I can.
    Hope the exhibition is a huge success.
    Best wishes,
    Coreen

  9. Wonderful quilts! In Norway we have been making quilts for children in Kenya. If you go to my blog, you can find a picture of one of them; Barn gleder barn I-VIII. Greetings from tubakk

  10. Mary Prendergast

    Hi Dena My name is Mary and I live in Australia. I work with the Refugee's and Migrant's from Africa and in particular Sudanese. We have a Refugee week here, June the 20th and I am looking for ideas for the African ladies to make a quilt. As the theme for Refugee week for 2010 this year is Freedom From Fear. I really enjoyed reading your Blog on what makes an African quilt, especially the African color pallet. Your Blog I found to be very informative. Bravo Dena

    Kind Regards

    Mary

    • Once on an international flight, I sat next to an African lady who was emigrating to Australia. She was from Sudan. She had 8 children traveling with her, no husband (lost in the war). I felt so sorry for her, making such a long, long journey to a new land where she and her children might never fit in. It's good to know that helping hands are waiting to lift and support such people, victims of violence beyond their ability to control. You would be very interested to know about an initiative here in Kenya called "Amani ja Juu" (Peace from Above). You can learn more about it at ” target=”_blank”>http://www.amaniafrica.org/about.php. Thanks for commenting on my blog, Mary, and keep up the good work!

Please--speak up!! Your comments are most welcome!