Quilt Making: A Ritual from African Spirituality
The process of quilt making in the African American community is a ritual. It dates back to slavery days. It is there that these artists (although they weren’t called that then) would pick up whatever used cloth, feedbag or tattered material they could find and incorporate them into unique pieces of art designed for comforting and keeping loved ones warm.
It’s no secret that quilts are ancestral. It’s easy to see why because quilt making is part of a tradition that has been passed on for generations. However, there is a deeper reason why quilts are so ancestral in nature. The making of these covers intertwines rituals that we have long forgotten but are permanently embedded in our DNA. As a practitioner and priestess of Ifá (an ancient spirituality from Yorùbáland West Africa), I see many parallels in the traditions of making quilts to rituals performed in African spirituality such as Ifá. It, like much of African Spirituality, is a communal spirituality in which the work of a collective helps to aid in increasing the power of any ritual. In the African American Community, quilters are mostly women. They often perform their craft as a collective, sitting together in sewing circles, singing gospel songs and praying. This is a ritual in itself. You can see remnants of it in such spiritual items as the Egúngún Masquerade costumes in Yorùbáland, the Voodoo prayer flags in Haiti or the Black Masking Indians in New Orleans. These items also serve as their own unique pieces of art that can often be found in museums. The very making of quilts have clear ties across the African diaspora and serves as proof that we remember who we are. My own spiritual mother, Chief Ifáṣèyí Bamgbàlà Olátúnjí-Arẹ̀sà (Yorùbá West Afrikan Ifá-Òrìṣà Priest, Professor and Psych-ologist) asserts that quilts are the Egúngún Masquerades modified.
"Remember, we had to mask everything (no pun intended). We couldn’t walk around masquerading like this, so we had to transform them into something more acceptable, non-obvious, and most of all non-threatening."
In different forms of African spirituality including Ifá, devotees use the method of singing spiritual songs and prayers to invoke àṣẹ (or life force) into garments,
medicines and other spiritual items or tools. The process of making such things themselves is in fact performance art. Similarly, the process of collective quilt making is performance art. Often times, artists take old pieces of material from clothes that are no longer used. Those pieces of cloth contain powerful energy, or àṣẹ from the previous owner. By adding previously used materials from loved ones as well as singing and praying while making this special, ancestral cloth, this ritual ensures heightened spiritual vibrations and sacred life force are built into the very threads of the garment. The quilts are traditionally made for loved ones and this sacred process helps the quilt have both spiritual and healing properties. The procedure helps to ensure that the quilt truly embodies the spiritual meaning of comforter. It contains a spiritual vibration and a warmth that can’t be acquired by a duvet bought from the store. It also serves as proof that making quilts, whether creating it as an individual or a collective, carries on intergenerational traditions and is ancestral work.