Enslaved Artisans

An enslaved woman’s needlework skills often included sewing, knitting, crocheting, embroidery, tatting, spinning, weaving, and quilting. Enslaved seamstresses typically produced all the clothing for male and female slaves, plus quilts, coverlets, and table linens for the master’s house. Many enslaved people made utilitarian and decorative quilts for their own use, stitched at night after the day’s tasks were complete, and quilts for the big house, created under the supervision of the mistress of the household. Very few slave-made quilts exist today; fire, theft, and sale for extra income contributed to their disappearance, but frequent use was probably the most important factor. Without documentation of a quilt’s origin, it is impossible to know if it was made by an enslaved artisan. Occasionally, quilts made by enslaved people for the master’s household were considered among a family’s best quilts, and they were tucked away for use on special occasions. These are the most common surviving quilts made by enslaved artisans.

Chintz Appliqué
Pieced and appliquéd quilt
Made by enslaved individuals owned by Caleb Lindsey
c. 1838
Pulaski and/or Jefferson counties
104 x 103 in.
Collection of Historic Arkansas Museum
Gala Fund Purchase honoring Peg Newton Smith
Accession No: 95.53

According to family lore, enslaved individuals owned by the Caleb Lindsey family made this quilt for the 1838 marriage of Rebecca Brilhart to Caleb Lindsey Jr. In 1840, Pulaski County Census records indicate that Caleb Lindsey Sr. owned eight women and employed two free black individuals. This rare chintz appliqué medallion quilt generally predates pieced block style quilts that became popular in the third quarter of the 19th century. Chintz appliqué quilt tops were made by cutting figures like flowers or animals from glazed, (in this case roller-printed) cotton chintz fabric and stitching them to a piece of foundation fabric. American and European quilts made before 1840 were often organized around a central medallion design that featured piecework or appliqué, or both. The central focus of this quilt is a geometric piecework and appliqué design framed by multiple pieced borders. By 1850, whole-cloth and appliqué techniques were almost completely eclipsed by the emerging popularity of repeating block style quilts in America.