Quilting is a tradition that crosses cultures, genders, and eras. Although American Indian quilts are among the National Museum of the American Indian’s most prized collections, Kendra Greendeer (National Museum of the American Indian) explains that for Lakota women, quilting first became part of community life on the reservations.

The long rich history of quilting is not limited to women’s participation, but as textile curator Madelyn Shaw (National Museum of American History) notes, quilting was one of the few outlets available and acceptable for women’s creativity. For African American quilters, as curators Elaine Nichols and Joanne Hyppolite (National Museum of African American History and Culture) reveal, quilting evolved to include a variety of styles and symbols enriched by the blending of cultural traditions.

See our discussion questions before reading.

Emblems of Identity

Kendra Greendeer, Curatorial Resident, NMAI

sundance star quilt - yellow, black, and whitecolored star with red background and patterned border

Sundance Star, 1968–1980, Grace Hawkins (Grace Zimiga, Lakota, 1913–1980), Standing Rock Reservation, North and South Dakota. See more
Photograph by Walter Larrimore

This quilt was created by Grace Zimiga, a member of the Lakota tribe from the Standing Rock Reservation in the Dakotas. The Lakota embraced the Star quilt—other communities call it the Morning Star, Star of Bethlehem, or Lone Star—because it brings together a new art form and a traditional design. An earlier pattern of diamonds arranged as a sunburst was used to decorate buffalo robes. 

photo of tipi under construction with completed tipi with sunburst pattern in background

Tipi design featuring a design called Sunburst, which is one element that motivated quilt makers to embrace the Star quilt design. Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, North and South Dakota
Photograph by Frank Fiske (1883–1952), Courtesy of State Historical Society of North Dakota

By the mid-1800s, trade in cloth, needles, thread, and other manufactured goods had reached the Lakota Sioux of the Plains. Even so, Lakota women began to make quilts only after the onset of reservation life. American Indian boarding schools taught sewing to Lakota women as a strategy of assimilation, reasoning that manual arts could serve as a source of income. Young women brought skills learned in sewing classes home to their reservations, where quilting joined strong traditions of women’s handwork and community-based arts. 

Photo of girls sewing class

Girls’ sewing class at the Fort Totten Indian School, 1913. Fort Totten, Spirit Lake Indian Reservation, North Dakota.
Courtesy State Historical Society of North Dakota

The morning star represents fulfillment, the release from darkness, ushering in a new day. It’s really a wonderful symbol. Kevin Locke Lakota Sioux

Zimiga's Sundance Star quilt, whose colors represent the four directions, would have been used in one of the seven sacred ceremonies of the Lakota. The Star quilt—given to honor individuals at birth and other milestones throughout life, as well as at giveaways—is a traditional emblem, a source of pride, and an item of tribal identity.

photo of parade of horses with quilts drapped over their back

Quilts draped over horses in a 4th of July parade, 1924. Fort Totten, Spirit Lake Indian Reservation, North Dakota.
Courtesy of William Maxwell Collection, University of North Dakota Library


Transforming Tradition

Madelyn Shaw, Curator of Textiles, Division of Home & Community Life, NMAH

Stitching pieces of cloth into blocks and lengths to make the utilitarian and decorative objects we call quilts has a history about as long as the history of cloth making itself. The techniques of piecing, appliqué, and actual quilting, which involves stitching three layers of cloth (face, backing, and batting) together, span many cultures across time.  

Piecing quilts—although by no means only a woman’s craft and art—did give women, who had few other socially accepted outlets for personal expression, a means of staking out a creative space. That Lakota women adopted quilt making into their own culture is a tribute to the elasticity of the pieced quilt as an art form, as well as to the universal appeal of textile arts. Each individual quilter makes dozens of choices that affect the final work: what colors to use, solid or patterned fabrics, size of the pieces, placement, background, borders, thickness of the batting, size, and design of the quilting stitchery. All these, and more, combine in almost infinite variety in the mind and hands of the quilter. 

‘Rising Sun’ quilt with multicolored central star and complex patterned background and border
Mary “Betsy” Totten mentioned her “large spread called the ‘Rising Sun’” in her will, ca. 1860. She had made the quilt, an extraordinary combination of piecing and appliqué work, between about 1825 and 1835. Gift of Mrs. Marvel Mildred Matthes. See more
This Star quilt, crafted by an unknown maker in the 1880s, is pieced from silk fabrics and is extremely unusual. During that period, it was far more common for silk quilts to be patterned as “crazy quilts,” with random patches and embroidered details. Gift of Mrs. John Cropper. See more
Diamond-shaped pieces can be used to form many different patterns, as illustrated by this silk quilt dating to the second quarter of the 19th century. See more

Although the single large star pattern pieced from diamonds of cloth is ubiquitous in American quilting, Grace Zimiga’s choice of colors and her border design mark her work with her own version of a Lakota aesthetic, representing not acculturation or assimilation but exchange, adaptation, and transformation.

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Behind the scenes at the National Quilt Collection

National Museum of American History

Blending Traditions

Elaine Nichols, Supervisory Curator of Culture, NMAAHC
Joanne Hyppolite, Museum Curator, NMAAHC

In America, quilting is a symbol of the blending of different cultural traditions—European, African American, American Indian, and others. Each tradition borrows from and contributes to this art form in a continuing evolution exemplified by Grace Zimiga’s Sundance Star quilt. The National Museum of African American History and Culture’s quilt collection also reflects these connections. Our collection includes a Broken Star quilt, one of several variations on the pattern used by Zimiga.

quilt with four quadrants, each with the same three pineapple on branch pattern
Lydia Hardiman created this quilted pineapple appliqué bedcover in 1885 as a wedding gift for her daughter Lucy. Symbolizing home and family, the pineapple motif was a popular theme for wedding quilts. This special quilt, which was passed from one generation to the next, appears to have been cut down from its original size. Gift of the Lyles Station Historic Preservation Corporation. See more.
women in room sewing quilts using sewing machines
Dr. Doris Derby, noted activist and photographer, documented the grassroots activities of the Civil Rights Movement, including economic cooperatives such as the PPC Sewing Co-op in 1970, where African American women made quilts for sale. Copyright Doris A. Derby
The community of Gee’s Bend, Alabama is well known for its African American quilters. Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith. The George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama, Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Star quilts carry numerous meanings depending on the makers’ cultural orientations, the number of points on the star, and the colors of the design. Although African Americans have crafted Star quilts and other patterns, information about definitive traditions that can be assigned to their quilting styles remains unresolved. Since the 1990s and early 2000s, quilters and scholars have challenged claims that coded quilts were used on the Underground Railroad. Some scholars have also questioned the idea of distinctive African American styles characterized by the use of irregular strips, bold colors, and improvisational and asymmetrical accents grounded in African cultural retentions. 

Nevertheless, unifying threads that demonstrate unique styles can be found within specific local communities like Gee’s Bend, Alabama. As more research on African American quilting traditions emerges, we will better understand the origins and impact of varied influences.

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