Exploitation and Empowerment

Upper class quilt enthusiasts familiar with art movements and interior design trends have frequently served as the patrons of another class of quiltmakersstruggling stitchers eager to earn both money and respect from their craft. This dynamic has played out since the 19th century, and continues to this day, now tinged with lawsuits. On one hand, some observers perceive well-heeled patrons as taking advantage of less worldly quiltmakers. On the other, quiltmaking has empowered women by providing them with a viable outlet to earn money and recognition for their artistry.

The relationship between quiltmaker Harriet Powers, born in slavery in 1837, and patron Jennie Smith, a white internationally trained artist from Georgia, illustrates this dynamic. Powers exhibited her now renowned Bible Quilt at the 1886 Athens Cotton Fair. Smith had never seen such an original design and offered to purchase the quilt, but Powers would not sell at any price. Powers changed her mind four years later when she and her husband fell on hard times, eventually selling the quilt for $5 to Smith, who negotiated the price down from $10.

Similar relationships existed in Appalachia in the 1910s-1930s, with wealthy northerners buying quilts from impoverished mountain artisans. In the 1960s, New York fashionistas took notice of quilts made in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, and by West Virginia cooperative, Mountain Artisans. In these cases, quiltmakers benefitted from the exposure well-connected urbanites gave their quilts through exhibitions and the media.

Most recently scholars have debated the relationship between Gee’s Bend quiltmakers and their primary patrons, the Arnett family. A pair of articles in The Journal of Modern Craft by Anna Chave and Bernard Herman laid out two perspectives on whether the Arnettsand the art museum industry which has celebrated the Gee’s Bend quiltshave fairly treated these women, and the consequences of legal actions.

Businesses making and selling quilts can no doubt be simultaneously exploitative and empowering. Earning money through a creative act you love is a source of esteem. Yet young Amish women in Lancaster County estimated they earned $2.00 an hour quilting as part of the cottage industries in their settlements in the mid-2000s, helping make quilts retailing from $600-$1500 a piece. They are happy for the work, but would love to earn more.1

1. Beth E. Graybill, “Amish Women, Business Sense: Old Order Women Entrepreneurs in the Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Tourist Marketplace,” (PhD diss., University of Maryland, 2009), 118.