In the Shadow of the Quilt: Political Messaging in Quilts

Quilts are complicated objects. That is what I tell my students, colleagues and quilters (and interested others).  Quilts exemplify positive images of comfort, evidence of friendship, love, admiration, gratitude, history, and family.  Quilts, however, also posit evidence of negative symbolism encompassing inequality, hurt feelings, deep emotional and physical scarring, loss, death, and revenge.  Additionally, quilts provide their makers creative opportunities to express multiple levels of emotions and communicate sometimes contradictory feelings within the same quilt. 
After viewing the Michigan State University Quilt Collection, I discuss a few such complicated quilts.  I focus my attention in this online exhibit on the less positive side of quilting—those quilts that do not incite “fuzzy” and “comforting” feelings, but instead those that highlight and address publicly the social reality of inequality, racism, sexism, oppression, and the like.  I also examine quilts that communicate subversive, ironic, and sardonic messages. 

In examining these quilts, I employ the interpretative framework of the cultural diamond, created by sociologist Wendy Griswold (2008).  In this cultural diamond, it is important conceptually to understand a cultural object in terms of its creator, receiver, and social world/s in which it was created. In doing so, one can begin to unpack the complexity surrounding cultural objects like quilts.  Especially when considering historical quilts, it is key to locate (if possible) the intent and socioeconomic circumstances of the quiltmaker. Sadly, we do not always have a date or a name attached to quilts—that is why the work of museums and researchers is imperative, as is the work of contemporary quilters—the former works to track down information of historical quilts, and the latter provides information about quilts currently made.
I find the following quilts in this online exhibition to be visually compelling and hard to misinterpret—yet, despite the existence of such quilts, viewers continue to think about quilts (if at all) as innocuous cultural objects.  The quilts I have selected to discuss here have extant messages.  The quilt pattern is visually compelling and I have chosen to show you (when possible) the pattern in its “original” state as well as a politically charged state.  Both the positive and the not-so-positive meanings are quite clear.  In studying historical and contemporary quilts and quilters, we need to continue to include aspects of quilts and quilting that might make us uncomfortable, for sometimes it is in the social tension of inequality that we can learn about the object in new ways. Additionally, studying controversial quilts help us to comprehend the complicated genre/medium of “quilt” and to see that it is an empowering form of art.


Sunbonnet Baby
Ellen Victoria Tennerstedt Scholtz
Collection of the Michigan State University Museum acc.#2001:54.1

Sunbonnet Sue is portrayed traditionally in characteristically feminine ways, and she is pictured in profile—her anonymity appeals to many quilters and quilt aficionados alike, with quilts using the Sunbonnet Sue pattern for crib quilts and kids’ quilts, as well as bed sized quilts and wall hangings.  Sunbonnet Sue visually communicates through a variety of presentations as a white woman, with her pinky flesh hand—historically this mostly white character can also be linked in the viewers’ eye to a pioneer woman—the majority of whom were white European immigrants.  In traditional presentations such as this, Sunbonnet Sue is often pictured alone in profile, doing something feminine like gardening, or with her male counterpart, Overall Bill.


Maker unknown
Possible made in Pennsylvania
Collection of Deborah Harding Redwork at the Michigan State University Museum acc.#2001:160.9

Since the early 1900s, the presentation of Sunbonnet Sue is often sweetly demure (e.g., Sunbonnet Sue watering flowers) or useful (sometimes depicted in a day of the week format, tending to women’s work with Monday as Washing Day, Tuesday as ironing day, and the like, as is also portrayed in embroidered tea towels) (Pershing 1993). However, Sunbonnet Sue has not always experienced this depiction, and in 1978 in particular a Kansas quilt guild decided to execute an alternative way in which to portray Sunbonnet Sue.


The Sun Sets on Sunbonnet Sue
Seamsters Union Local #500
Lawrence, Kansas
Collection of Kitty Clark Cole at the Michigan State University Museum acc.#2001:158.1

Familiar to many is the “Sun Sets on Sunbonnet Sue” quilt made in 1978 by a Kansas quilt guild. Here we see a creative but somewhat darkly humorous reinterpretation of the sweetly iconic Sunbonnet Sue character.  In each of the 20 blocks Sunbonnet Sue dies in tragic, unexpected and humorous ways.

Research on the making of this quilt tells us that the Kansas quilt guild members were wary of the sickly sweet portrayal of Sunbonnet Sue and its spillover to actual quilters—this quilt was created in the midst of the quilt revival stemming from the US Bicentennial, the civil rights movement, and the women’s movement.  The second wave of the women’s movement helps us to understand even more about this quilt.  The second wave’s upper/middle class white women’s focus on entering paid work helped increase the value of the public sphere and paid work, while simultaneously relegating domestic activities (like cooking, sewing and quilting) to a lesser valued place.  In addition, there are negative “grandma’s doily” or other similar “old lady” and “old maid” stereotypes that often go along with handcrafts (even in contemporary times).  Considered together, these elements influence quilters like those in the Kansas guild to see Sunbonnet Sue as a problematic symbol of quilting, domesticity, and the modern woman (whether or not she engaged in paid work inside or outside the home). In this case Sunbonnet Sue presented such a problematic one-dimensional version of femininity, that quilters took it upon themselves to “kill off” this demure stereotype.

In my own research with midlife leisure quilters, they indicate that outsiders to quilting do not always understand the positive creative undertaking within the act of quilting, and instead link quilting to “sweet fuddy duddy women” (Stalp 2007).  Sunbonnet Sue historically is only doing “nice” things (or nothing except standing there) which cannot help but aid to the attitudes regarding the innocuousness of quilts and the second class citizen status for women.  The “Sun Sets on Sunbonnet Sue” quilt is sweetly subversive as it takes the Sunbonnet Sue character and depicts her in traditional appliqué techniques, but, the quilters demonstrate their perspectives (both artistic, technical, historical and political) as they kill Sunbonnet Sue off in diverse and creative ways.  This quilt demonstrates both the guild members’ lack of affection for Sunbonnet Sue, as well as their knowledge of popular culture and current events, used in a darkly humorous way.

Understanding quilts takes a patient eye and access to information about the quilter, the time the quilt was made, where it was made, and the like. However, we do not often have full information about a finished quilt and sometimes must make analytical or interpretive leaps.  In this section on race/racism and quilts, I present quilts that have multiple meanings, in part because of the limited information we have about their makers, and their intents in making quilts.  Thus, I discuss quilts in terms of what we do know about them, but that because we know very little about some quilts, we must be careful in how we interpret and analyze.  It is far too easy to make assumptions (and sometimes incorrect ones) about both historical and contemporary quilts.
Within sociology, we recognize the importance of power—this can be wielded in numerous ways, and having the power to voice one’s perspective is important. Denying another the ability to voice one’s opinion is also using power to keep others silent.  Quilts are certainly embedded both historically and in contemporary times within the black/white racial tension present in the US.  For example, Gladys-Marie Fry (1990) notes how black women during and after slavery often made quilts used by whites—sometimes these quilts were even passed off as white-made. Clearly, there are multiple quilting traditions in the US—some of them we know more about, some we know less about—and some of this has to do with power and racial inequality.


Portraits of South African Black Women of the Anti-Apartheid Struggle
Fina Nkosi
Soweto, South Africa
Collection of the Michigan State University Museum acc.#2004:134.1

In "Portraits of South African Black Women of the Anti-Apartheid Struggle" quilt we see black women as role models.  The quiltmaker gave each woman in each quilt square a realistic and unique appearance. The quilt honors their work and celebrates their efforts in helping end apartheid in South Africa.


Family History
Ann Smith-Dieye and Sandy Kittle
San Mateo, California
Private Collection

Similarly, "Family History" celebrates the 50th wedding anniversary of an African American couple from Michigan—included are family portraits.

The provenance of this quilt includes the following information:  
A newspaper clipping: Response Publications, Inc. (an African American newspaper in Lansing, MI) 1930 July 20 1980 Mr. and Mrs. Raymond A. Smith of Manistee, Michigan celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on July 20 at a reception at the First Methodist Church in Manistee. Three of their nine living children are residents of Lansing - Homer Smith of 448 McPherson, Pat Smith of 1515 W. Kalamazoo and Marilouise Smith Mays of 1532 N. Cambridge. Relatives and friends came from distances as far away as San Mateo, California; Boston, Massachusetts; Tallahassee, Florida; St. John Virgin Islands and Agana, Guam. A special gift from the children was presented on Saturday when the children hosted their parents, relatives and special friends at a banquet. Sandy Kittle, a freelance photographer from San Mateo, California, was commissioned by the Smith children to create a memorial quilt of 35 squares incorporating photographs which represent the history of the family. The process used in creating the quilt is called "cynotype." According to Ms. Kittle, "The process includes taking copy negatives on the original photograph, transferring the image on untreated fabric. The process eliminated gray tones, leaving a silhouette effect in blue and white., Ann Smith-Dieye was helped in this project by Sandy Kittle who had taken photography courses in Junior College and is a long time friend and neighbor of Ann Smith-Dieye.

In both of these quilts we see both South Africans and African Americans portrayed in respectful and multi-dimensional ways—in other words, they are portrayed as they are, rather than as characters or caricatures.


Irene Edmondson, Jeannie Dunphy, Tennesse, top
Betty Johnson, California, quilter
Lawrence, Kansas
1930s, top; 1981, quilting
Collection of Cuesta Benberry at the Michigan State University Museum acc.#2008:119.41

In "Mammy/Aunt Jemima," however, we see that the black woman is portrayed quite differently, in a rather negative and stereotypical manner, as well as identifying the black woman as one-dimensional.

This quilt’s provenance includes the following information: “Irene Edmondson and Jennie Dunphy pieced this top from 1930-1940; Betty Johnson quilted in 1981. Embroidered on back: "Pieced ca 1930-1940 Irene Edmondson & Jennie Dunphy Assembled & quilted 1981 Betty Johnson." "Mammy/Aunt Jemima Irene Edmondson Jeannie Dunphy Betty Johnson.”  Notes in the file accompanying the quilt indicate that the quiltmakers are likely white women.
The mammy portrayed here in this appliqué quilt is a large dark-skinned woman, with her hands on her hips and her (unruly) hair contained in a fabric hair wrap (Foster 1997).  This depiction is also similar to the friendly but fictional Aunt Jemima or Mrs. Buttersworth characters that are linked to American foodstuffs--pancake batter and syrup, respectively.  Folklorist Patricia Turner (1994) would consider this depiction of the black woman as stereotypical on numerous levels, as well as one-dimensional.   
Because we know that the quiltmakers are not likely African Americans, this provides additional information to think about in terms of authentic depiction of race and gender, historically.  The crossover of race between creator and subject, as well as the time period in which the quilt was made also suggests that this quilt could be considered a “racist collectible” or a “contemptible collectible.” A contemptible collectible, as Turner (1994) describes, depicts an African American person in stereotypical ways. In this case of “Mammy/Aunt Jemima”, the (likely white) quiltmakers portray a black woman in a very stereotypical, servitude manner similar to a house slave during slavery, and/or as a housekeeper to white children in the pre-civil rights era (during segregation). Additionally, this stereotypical portrayal posits historical and contemporary strong black women that are characterized as overpowering and emasculating black men (and others).  Such racist depictions of blacks exist in other cultural forms known as “Black Americana” such as lawn jockeys, mammy cookie jars and salt/pepper shakers and the like (Collins 1991; Turner 1994).
We have little information about this quilt which makes interpretation difficult. However, we do know from the materials accompanying the quilt that the quiltmakers were likely not African American, and probably white women.  We also know that there is no historical or contemporary published pattern of “Mammy/Aunt Jemima” as presented in this quilt, and it is a stereotypical portrayal of woman, in this case a black woman, reminiscent of the antebellum southern U.S. This character draws upon the “non-threatening” fat, happy black woman that either served as a house slave during the U.S. slavery era, or after slavery, as a domestic in the southern U.S. household (Collins 1991). I would also contend that the colorful clothing this mammy is dressed in suggests slavery, rather than post-slavery, as many black domestics were required to wear uniforms, so as not to be suspected of being in a “white” neighborhood during segregation in the U.S. However, the provenance notes the embroidery of “Mammy/Aunt Jemima” on the back of the quilt, which can suggest a post-civil war depiction of a black woman. Finally, note that each figure is the same—there is little to no variation in the pattern, which makes it similar to a more traditional Sunbonnet Sue quilt, and also complicates the similarity to the Sunbonnet Sue quilt, as we do know that the quilt depicting black women stereotypically is likely made by white women.

The swastika image, like any image, has the capacity to carry/possess multiple meanings.

However, most of us are familiar only with associating the swastika image with the Nazi party in Germany, WWII, Hitler, and the Holocaust.  Originally, the swastika was known and used as an international peace symbol (Heller 2000), but this image was co-opted by Hitler and the Nazi party, and used heavily during WWII and after by Neo-Nazi groups, the Ku Klux Klan and other “white rights” social movement organizations.


Nazi Swastika Quilt
Maker unknown
Berlin, Germany
Collection of the Michigan State University Museum acc.#2001:109.1

This quilt’s provenance verifies the Nazi links: “Ted Gragg was the seller of the Swastika quilt. When Gragg was 8 years old he went to an optometrist, Frank Sanders. Sanders started the South Carolina Historical Preservation Trust and the quilt came from his estate. Gragg first saw the quilt when he was 10 years old. He doesn't know how Saunders got the quilt, but thinks it was brought from Berlin after WWII. Saunders served in the U.S. military right after WWII, so it is possible he collected it then.


Good Fortune
Unknown and Mary Schafer
Flushing, Michigan
Top, 1915-1920
Collection of Mary Schafer at Michigan State University Museum acc.#1998:53.42

The swastika image is a global historical design, used in multiple cultures in positive ways, before WWII, of course (Heller 2000).  We can see this evident in quilts pre-dating WWII also, as the quilt below demonstrates.  The quilt pattern of swastika appeared in quilts before and after WWII, yet not all quilts with this pattern have racist histories—again, a careful look is needed for more comprehensive understanding. See for example the quilt, “Good Fortune” made in the 1920s that illustrates the swastika design, but as it was created in 1920, this image certainly predates WWII and Hitler’s hegemonic interpretation of it.


Spirit of '76
Mary Schafer
Flushing, Michigan
Collection of Mary Schafer at the Michigan State University Museum acc.#1998:53.93

Additionally, see this next quilt—although not likely intended to be “swastika-like” this quilt does portray a swastika-esque image in its main block pattern.

Look closely at this quilt—the design appears swastika-like, although the pattern is called “Spirit of ‘76.” This particular quilt was made in 1974 and is likely considered a bicentennial quilt—one commemorating the 200 year anniversary of the United States winning independence from Britain in 1776.  The provenance tells us this: “This quilt is an original interpretation by Mary, dedicated to the patriots of 1776 and those who followed in service to our country. The center square is symbolic of the first Stars and Stripes, and the block design is called "The Flag". The pinwheel design suggests that the Spirit of '76 is dynamic and still in motion today.”  Even if the “pinwheel design….is dynamic and still in motion today” in examining the quilt top, it is quite reminiscent of the swastika design especially with the red fabric in each block driving the motion of the pinwheel block. Without the knowledge of the maker’s intention, one could come to the incorrect conclusion about its origin. Additionally, though, that does not mean that a viewer could not choose to interpret this as a swastika quilt, and purchase it/use it within a race-based social movement organization. Similar to the pre-WWII quilts used by “white rights” groups, this quilt could be used in the same manner.

When quiltmakers engaged in making fundraiser quilts, they often used the method of signature quilts.  That is, people often paid a nominal fee to sign fabric and have their signatures embroidered into the quilt.  Thus, people donated money to have their signatures appear on the quilt for whatever cause the fundraising is for—people often used and continue to use quilts as part of fundraising efforts (e.g., the contemporary raffle quilt).


Ishpeming Fundraising Quilt
Maker unknown
Ishpeming, Michigan
Collection of the Michigan State University Museum acc.#2006:128.1

This is an example of a signature quilt, made in 1903 in a small Michigan town to raise money for a church.


Ku Klux Klan Quilt
Made by various individuals
Chicora, Michigan
Collection of the Michigan State University Museum acc.#2000:71.1

This same strategy of making a signature fundraising quilt was used to raise money for the Ku Klux Klan in 1926, seen in the Chicora KKK Quilt.

Upon first glance, this quilt appears to be just another signature fundraising quilt, similar to the earlier signature quilt, in fact. However, from a closer inspection and in studying the provenance, we know that this quilt was made to raise funds for the Ku Klux Klan in Michigan in 1926.  The fundraising organization for this quilt is stitched in the sixth row and the fourth square from the right—embroidered carefully here is a Klan member clothed in a hood, holding a large cross atop a horse—there is a second block diagonally up to the left side of this block, which reads, “Chicora KKK 1926.”

The provenance for this quilt is below:
Made as a fundraiser for Ku Klux Klan. Donor's grandfather won and owned quilt. Passed on to donor by his aunt. One of the blocks has a redwork embroidered hooded KKK figure who is riding a horse and holding a cross. The KKK figure is stitched in black and red thread. It was made to raise money for the Chicora Ku Klux Klan. To get your name stitched onto a block you paid 10 cents. An individual would stitch the names on a given block for instance, my Aunt Grace Raveway did the block for our family. Grace was 16 years old at the time and was quite embarrassed to participate in the project, but she had the best script in the family and best sewing abilities, so she was chosen. The family story is that my Grandfather went to a meeting and left Grandma home sick. He won this quilt when it was raffled off. Aunt Marie Trip Rowe who stitched the block with her family's name on it, has given some information of various people whose names are stitched, where they lived and what they did. Grace Way says that each name holder paid $.10 to have their name stitched to a block. She was 16 years old at the time and quite embarrassed to do this project, she had the best script in the family and best sewing abilities so she was chosen. Aunt Marie Trip Rowe she stitched the block with her family's names on it has given some information of various people whose names are stitched, where they live and what they did.

To end this essay on a more positive note, I have selected a quilt from the collection that demonstrates unity. The 1979 quilt, “Quilts Have Brought Us Together” shows a white woman and a woman of color connecting through quilting—the quilt is the bridge, the conduit, between the two women.

I find fascinating the way quilters take the seemingly ambivalent quilt and complicate it with reality, which is often negative (but nonetheless important).  Overall, I love quilts and I especially appreciate that they are complicated—they keep me looking and searching for more meaning.


Quilts Have Brought Us Together
Jean Mitchell
Lawrence, Kansas
Collection of Cuesta Benberry at the Michigan State University Museum acc.#2008:119.40

Authored by Marybeth Stalp, 2011. All rights reserved.

Additional Resources
Brackman, Barbara. 1993. Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns. Paducah, KY: American Quilter’s Society. Collins, Patricia Hill. 1991. Black Feminist Thought. New York: Routledge.
Foster, Helen Bradley. 1997. New Ramients of Self: African American Clothing in the Antebellum South. Oxford, UK: Berg. Fry, Gladys-Marie. 1990. Stitched From the Soul: Slave Quilts from the Ante-Bellum South. New York: Dutton Studio Books.
Griswold, Wendy. 2008. Cultures and Societies in a Changing World, Third Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Heller, Steven. 2000. The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption? New York: Allworth Press.
Pershing, Linda. 1993. “She Really Wanted to be Her Own Woman: Scandalous Sunbonnet Sue.” Pages 98-125 in Feminist Messages: Coding in Women’s Folk Culture. Edited by Joan Newlon Radner. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Stalp, Marybeth C. 2007. Quilting: The Fabric of Everyday Life. Oxford, UK: Berg
Turner, Patricia. 1994. Ceramic Uncles & Celluloid Mammies: Black Images and Their Influence on Culture. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia.


  • Museum

    Michigan State University Museum

    Michigan Quilt Project

  • Documentation Project

    Michigan Quilt Project

    Michigan State University

  • Documentation Project

    South Africa Quilt History Project

    Michigan State University

  • Documentation Project

    Quilts and Human Rights

    Michigan State University

  • Collection

    Mary Schafer Quilt and Ephemera Collec...

    Worrall, Mary

  • Collection

    Deborah Harding Redwork Collection

    Worrall, Mary

  • Collection

    Kitty Clark Cole Quilt Collection

    Worrall, Mary

  • Collection

    Cuesta Benberry Quilt and Ephemera Col...

    Worrall, Mary

  • 1933

    Sunbonnet Sue Bab...

    Scholz, Ellen Victo...

  • 1922


  • c.1979

    The Sun Sets on S...

    Brackman, Barbara; ...

  • 2000-2025

    Anti-Apartheid Po...

    Nkosi, Fina

  • June 1980

    Family History

    Smith-Dieye, Ann; K...

  • 1981


    Edumndson, Irene; D...

  • c1935

    Nazi Swastika Qui...

  • ca 1970

    Good Fortune

  • 1974

    Spirit of '76

    Schafer, Mary

  • 1903

    Ishpeming Signatu...

  • 1926

    Chicora KKK Quilt...

    Ku Klux Klan, Chico...

  • 1979

    Quilts Have Broug...

    Mitchell, Jean

Load More