With all the technological breakthroughs in digital textile design, so much is available nowadays to fabric enthusiasts. Formal artistic training is optional, while creativity and imagination are key. And though the skills and expertise involved in textile design are usually relegated to the domestic sphere of “crafts,” I believe the special body of knowledge that is derived from this area of creative expression truly reflects our humanity in a very real and profound sense.
Of course, black people have been deeply connected to the material history of textiles in this country and were involved in every aspect of the industry from the cultivation and harvesting of the cotton fiber, to the innovation and manufacture of finished goods. Needless to say, American slavery and the triangular trade that generated it was a brutalizing and dehumanizing process and yet, somehow, African Americans understood that even the most mundane and routine design interventions were necessary to help counter the highly organized systems of power and exploitation they faced. Without question, through the refashioning of a fundamental notion of what it means to be a US citizen, African American influence in the textile technologies (along with their inestimable impact in the areas of music, storytelling, and metalwork) was critical. African enslaved persons deliberately and methodically invented and arranged ingenious networks of emancipatory codes and sign systems into their day-to-day rhetoric of American civic life even as they employed the very technologies that helped to enslave them.
Adam Banks points this out brilliantly when he writes about Ozella McDaniel Williams who, until her death in 1998, carried with her the knowledge of how to painstakingly place different color knots on quiltwork in order to direct freedom seekers out of slavery and towards a mnemonic path to freedom through the Underground Railroad. And even David Walker, who composed the seminal “Appeal, in Four Articles: Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America,” purposely designed the document at a size that could be easily concealed once sewn into the fashions Walker sold at his early 19th century clothing store. This way the idea of freedom and emancipation could spread without risking detection by those who would rather thwart liberty.
For all these reasons and more (namely, the fact that my sewing pastime has had me on the lookout for all sorts of cute new materials), I am so digging what Kweli Kitwana is doing with fabrics. Based on her keen awareness of African American history and cultural signifiers, she is designing fabric with some of the most unusual prints I’ve seen in a while. Scenes from the Middle Passage and the Civil Rights era (as well as some traditional West African motifs) are reinterpreted with fresh, contemporary colors — not the same old primaries and earth tones. Kitwana also has a very clever sense of irony in her designs. With her occasional selections of gothic slavery scenes juxtaposed against pastel backgrounds or arranged as flower petals, her fabric prints display a thematic gravitas that is hard to deny, despite their distinctively attractive character.
Here are some of my favorites: