By Laura Sapelly
Laura Elizabeth Sapelly’s research merges her background in fiberarts, women’s history, feminist theory, and art education. While earning her Ph.D. at Penn State, she related the pedagogical significance of historical sewing circles meeting in the U.S., with one that she formed on the campus. Penn State’s Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department awarded Laura the Sara Woods Outstanding Graduate Teaching Award for her socially engaged teaching practice: students established relationships among each other by hand quilting during class. Currently, a “scholar at large,” Laura is exploring opportunities both inside and outside of academia to practice her feminist pedagogy though the stitch.
Jane Arthur Bond and Rebecca Bond Routt made quilts together. Their quilting bee met in the family’s mansion, located on the Routt’s plantation in Kentucky. But theirs was no ordinary sewing circle: Jane was Rebecca’s house slave.
Although the Bond family chronicles depict a congenial relationship between them, Jane Arthur Bond’s true feelings regarding her situation remain invisible (Williams, 1971). Unsurprisingly, quality of the house slaves’ life largely depended upon their relationship to their mistress; any perceived or suspected rebelliousness could result in being punished or sold (Fry, 1990). Clearly, Jane understood the perils of living life as a piece of property vulnerable to the sexual coercion of her Master and anger from her mistress.
Historian Gladys Marie Fry (1990) described Jane’s life. Born into the Arthur family’s Kentucky cotton plantation in 1848, she originally was given to a daughter, Belinda, as a wedding gift. Shortly thereafter, Arthur’s husband Preston Bond began raping Jane. Relations between house slave and mistress grew tense, as White Southern women refused to blame sexual transgressions on their husbands; they believed that black women seduced them (Yee, 1992).
After the birth of her and Bond’s second son, Jane was gifted in yet another wedding, this time as a house slave for Preston’s sister, Rebecca. Fortunately, Master Routt appeared to leave Jane alone. Within this more congenial household, Jane and Rebecca’s quilts materialized, combining asymmetrical designs redolent of West African textiles with symmetrical Anglo-American blocks. Within the dizzying sociopolitical paradoxes surrounding their slave-mistress sewing circle, a rare form of aesthetic equity emerged between black and white, slave and mistress-owner. Collectivity manifested in their quilts.
TSA symposium speakers Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (2001) and Madeline Shaw (2012) reveal similar attributes in textiles produced in Colonial New England and in a 19th textile factory in Rhode Island. Both join Fry in exploring narratives surrounding specific objects produced by marginalized people.
Ulrich unpacked a pocketbook made by Native American Molly Ockett. Twined within the abstract design native to her Abenaki tradition is her story of living with an unknown colonial family in Massachusetts for a few years during her childhood. Due to this experience, Ockett was able to establish friendly relations and trade with other Anglo American colonists when she was returned to her family living in the area around what is now Bethel, Maine. While various Puritan-related groups reproduced among themselves similar persecutions they had suffered under the Crown, most were united against native peoples. Yet Ockett’s unique position situated her at the intersections of gender, race, and class within both Anglo American society and the gendered system practiced within the Abenaki nation.
Hence, Molly Ockett navigated multiple sociocultural and economic systems that both privileged and marginalized her status, astutely adjusting her behaviors according to her setting. Although successfully transcending some local colonists’ concept of indigenous Americans being “savage,” Molly was unable to transform the majority of colonizers ideas regarding her people. Her behavior alone could neither change the settlers’ greed for land nor their irrational fears and violence toward the Abenakis.
Although both the co-created quilts made by Jane Arthur Bond and Rebecca Bond Routt and Molly Ockett’s pocketbook are loaded with paradox, perhaps the linsey-woolsey slave cloth raveled by Shaw (2012) tells an even more disturbing story woven in early an American cloth: the Quaker educated brother, Roland, co-owner with his brother Isaac, of the Peace Dale Manufacturing Company in Rhode Island, employed freed black men to card and spin (Shaw, 2012, p. 5). Guided by both principles of equity and exploitation in their hiring and business practices, the Hazard brother’s supported freed men while simultaneously reaping huge profits from the slave labor system.
Despite the rare instances of collective social, economic or cultural behaviors toward people of color, the Anglo American protagonists in these textile narratives were blind to the most obvious oppressions they perpetuated. Although Rebecca Bond Routt allowed Jane Arthur Bond to co-design the Routt’s family quilts, their slave-mistress relationship prevailed. The “intercultural exchange” (Ulrich, 2001, p. 259) represented by Molly Ockett’s pocketbook did not stem the tide of the ruthless extinction of ethnic groups living in the American Northeast. Roland G. Hazard publicly supported abolition after four decades of wealth derived from the manufacturing of slave cloth. Unable to critically reflect upon and ultimately change their contradictory behaviors, neither Rebecca Routt, New England Colonists sympathetic to Molly Ockett, nor Roland G. Hazard, could make the epistemic leap that ultimately would have freed Jane, cultivated social and political relations between Molly’s indigenous brethren, and work toward emancipation and equity of freedmen in the early decades of the 19th-century.
As I researched historical politically driven American sewing circles (Sapelly, 2016), I discovered behaviors similar to those discussed. Abolition was no exception. When Yankee women began to participate in abolition efforts, they turned to their needles, and raised thousands of dollars by selling their hand made items in anti-slavery fairs (Ferraro, Hedges, and Silber, 1987). But while they declared their unwavering support, they continued to perpetuate racist behaviors. Theory contradicted practice. Alas, most Yankee women banned black freed women from membership; in the few biracial groups that formed, most retained segregated seating arrangements between black and white members (Yee, 1992).
Despite racial hatred and distrust practiced within antislavery organizations, one all-female abolition group came close to achieving equitable relations across race. In 1833, the Philadelphia Female Antislavery Society began; membership included wealthy black and middle class white women. Many of its most prominent Yankee members belonged to the Society of Friends. Freedwomen, Charlotte Forten, her daughters Sarah, Margarita, and Harriet, joined Quakers Lucretia Mott, Sarah Pugh, and recent converts Sarah and Angelina Grimké, among others, to work toward racial equality (Yee, 1992).
Shirley Yee (1992) writes that more than any other by racial group, they “weathered the storms” of racism. Anglo and African American women sat together and mixed among white and black men, incurring the wrath and violence of many Philadelphians who were appalled at their conduct. Hence, the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society established new patterns of behavior during a socio-politically turbulent period of United States history.
Pedagogically, Quaker and black women merged the stitch with the theory, method, and practice of Christian democratic principles. Through their needles, speeches, articles, petitions, meetings, and conventions, they expressed their deep moral and sociopolitical commitment to living a truly democratic life. Unlike Quaker educated businessman Roland G. Hazard, these Quaker women practiced what they preached.
My overall research aim is to relate the theory, method, and practice of feminism as expressed through historical textiles with the narratives surrounding their making. For me, it was not enough to research and write about the pedagogical paradoxes threaded through the quilts made by Jean Arthur Bond and Rebecca Bond Routt. I wanted to not only share their unequal narratives, but also to apply the practices of those sewing circles that did manage to transcend much of the hypocrisy writ large within Antebellum American society – in my pedagogy. I found my teaching and activist model in the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, whose members stitched a collective, socially engaged activist practice through dialogue, the lectern, the pen, and the needle. With them in mind, I applied the activist sewing circle to my undergraduate teaching.
The Activist Sewing Circle in the Liberal Arts Classroom
As I composed a syllabus for my course taught during the 2015-16 academic year, WMNST 106-004: Representing Women and Gender in Literature, Art and Popular Cultures, I asked: How could I apply what I had learned about the pedagogical functions of historical and contemporary American sewing circles to shape a critical, feminist pedagogy rooted in the stitch?
While struggling to envision a more collective approach, I forgot the crucial practice guiding the Quaker and Black freedwomen abolitionist members: that of building relationships among strangers-and their practice of needlework to support the cause. Hence, in order to build a trust in the classroom, students needed time to get to know one another! Since the class met twice a week in the morning from 9:45 to 11, I devoted the first fifteen minutes to sewing a small quilt square and socializing. In so doing, I hoped to establish a socially engaged learning space that nurtured community among students, most of whom were first semester freshman. My experimental sewing circle classroom began.
Most of the students already knew how to sew or learned quickly. As the course progressed, an atmosphere of goodwill pervaded, even as we pondered contentious topics. At times, I had to resist my natural urge to counter a point; increasingly, I found that if I stayed silent, students naturally debated and challenged one another regarding pervading norms and stereotypes. For many, the collective social and sewing time seemed to make a difference in how comfortable they felt about relating personal stories to the themes chosen by the group discussion leaders. Although not all of my students embraced sewing or the collective classroom, the majority seemed genuinely engaged.
I observed how their sense of aesthetics emerged in their quilt squares. A couple of students felt that they had no “artistic” talent, even after we had finished a heated discussion concerning definitions of “art.” But, as I examined each square before class began, I saw that many created images that related to the university or their friends or family. Others sewed geometric designs that resembled American quilt block patterns, embroidered a phrase, or improvised, scribbling with their needle and thread. An example of a student’s quilt square is shown below.
Although the course was not totally successful in disrupting students’ preconceived notions of societal norms, I recognized how many became more sensitive to inequalities surrounding intersections of gender, race, and class. Through the compositional choices they made in their visual projects, I also saw how they explored their sense of beauty and design. Students’ attitude toward sewing and art changed; they appreciated learning about discourses surrounding our hierarchical society through aesthetics. Some called quilting “therapeutic,” saying it provided a temporary relief from the pressures they faced as young adults living in the 21st century. Through weeks of sewing, discussion, reading, and reflective writing, students created a sympathetic learning community, even if they simply agreed to disagree. The sewing circle encouraged invention in the serious, feminist university classroom.
Although the quilt provides a sublime metaphor for activist curricula theory, I found that group sewing tended to encourage informal relationships and trust. Hence, this historically domestic site offers opportunities to examine and modify unconscious patterns of habituated thinking and behaving. Such feminist pedagogy thoughtfully navigates the perils and promises within the activist-educational space.
Overall, the outcomes of the introduction to gender studies class inspired me to continue exploring how the sewing circle could be applied to other public and traditional classroom contexts. Holding the vision of the interracial Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society, I will continue to integrate aspects of the informal campus sewing circle within the critical feminist classroom. Friendship as manifested amongst the Quaker and freed black women of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society is pivotal to the authentic, emancipatory classroom – and in the building of a collective society.
The Spring 2016 Sewing Circle
Ferrero, P., Hedges, E., & Silber, J. (1987). Hearts and hands: The influence of women & quilts on American society. San Francisco, CA: Quilt Digest Press.
Fry, G. (1990). Stitched from the soul: Slave quilts from the Ante-Bellum south. New York, NY: Dutton Studio Books.
Sapelly, L. (2016). Pedagogies of historical and contemporary American sewing circles. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.
Shaw, M. (2012). Slave cloth and clothing slaves: Craftsmanship, commerce, and industry. Journal of early southern decorative arts, 33.
Ulrich, L. T. (1991). Good wives: Image and reality in the lives of women in northern New England, 1650-1750. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
Williams, R. M. (1971). The Bonds: An American family. New York, NY: Atheneum.
Yee, S. J. (1992). Black women abolitionists: A study in activism, 1828-1860. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press.