Tag Archives: south carolina

Blood and Indigo — the great reveal

photo of photo in the Charleston Museum

photo of photo in the Charleston Museum

“Blood and Indigo” — that’s my working title for a novel about slavery and planters taking place in the mid-eighteenth century in South Carolina.  I wasn’t planning to be so open about the project just yet (though I am now more than two years into it), but there is an indigo workshop being held in September just outside of Charleston and I’ve launched a kickstarter campaign to try and garner the cost of the class and a rental car (I have miles).

IMG_2461It would be so perfect!  I traveled to Charleston this past April, as some of you know, but was only there for a short while — I took tons of pictures and did two plantation tours and visited the Chalmers Street former slave auction site and spent two afternoons in the Charleston Museum,  but this would be fabulous — I’d get to see the area in the fall (and take tons more pictures) and the indigo!!  Well, check out Sea Island Indigo!!

IMG_2454It all started with a book by India Flint called “Eco Colour”.  In it, she devotes a page to the colonial settler, Eliza Lucas Pinckney, and her work with indigo.  Next came Eliza’s letters.  Once I started asking myself, ‘what were the lives of her slaves like?’, I was off and running.

from my indigo vat, 2012

from my indigo vat, 2012

For more than two years now, I have been writing, writing, writing, and researching, researching, researching (there’s an example of great writing right there!). I have learned so much about American history that I feel like a different person than when I started out.  Reading history about the enslaved changes you. Details about the slave trade, the slave codes, the brutality, the labor practices, the attempts at rebellion, the words used by the elite to describe “their” African Americans — all change you. The most recent and best thing I have read about racism (I cannot recommend this article enough) was published in a recent issue of The Atlantic Monthly, and it’s called “The Case for Reparations”.  Written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, it is hard-hitting, incredibly full of examples of ongoing harm, and it will make you shake your head in sadness and wonder at what we are — we Americans, this America.

An African American crafter, as part of the weekend, will be teaching participants rag quilting and talking about Gullah culture.  I cannot say how perfect this event feels as a boost for my writing project!

paper piece revealing what must be the name of one of Eliza's sons

paper piece revealing what must be the name of one of Eliza’s sons, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney

Even if a donation does not make sense for you at this time, please share my excitement for this work!  And now that the cat is out of the bag, I will feel freer to discuss what I am learning here on the blog, and hope you will gladly come along for the ride.

Quilter Mary Alma Parker

"Memphis Blues" by Mary Alma Parker

“Memphis Blues” by Mary Alma Parker

Even if you have a loyal cadre of readers, sometimes blogging feels like dropping pennies into a deep, dark well.  “Hello?!”  you call out.  “Anybody there?!”

In the spring, as some of you know, after a quick trip to Charleston, South Carolina, I posted some images from the Textile Wing at the Charleston Museum, including the quilt by Mary Alma Parker pictured above.  My sewing readers voiced their appreciation.  Plop!  The penny dropped down. And, that was that — or so I thought.

Turns out, that was not it.  Last month Mary Alma Parker’s daughter, Clare Butler, emailed me. Not only had she had found my post (really?! by what miracle?), but she had read it to her mother and my appreciative words ‘really made her mother’s day’!  How cool is that?!

Ms. Butler and I exchanged a couple of emails, and she has given me permission to tell you more about her mother and her mother’s quilting.

First, find better pictures of “Memphis Blues” in the Charleston Museum’s flickr set.

sorry so blurry! a phone picture shot through glass

sorry so blurry! a phone picture shot through glass

I was taken with the quilt’s exuberant use of prints, its lovely colors, and the playful departures from traditional patterning. Based on those three aesthetic traits, as well as the title, “Memphis Blues”, I speculated that the maker was African American. I could find nothing online to contradict that assumption. Well, I was wrong.

Mary Alma Parker was born and raised in Memphis and has lived in Charleston with her husband (a Charleston native) for the last 25 years.  Her daughter told me that her mother was “very influenced by African-American design aesthetics and artistic composition from her early years and throughout her life”.  Mrs. Parker took my incorrect assumption about her origins “as a compliment”.

Her daughter also wrote this:  “She chose to use the paper template hexagons as her motif on Memphis Blues because many quilters viewed them as crafty and trite”.  She wanted a familiar visual motif so that the “focus could be on the randomness of her composition, color, and pattern choices”.  That certainly worked!

I also learned that Mrs. Parker never used a machine for anything and that she belonged to a quilting group in Charleston where they “focused on learning a variety of techniques”.  It was in that group where she discovered a love of the applique method.  Mrs. Parker went on to make a completely original Baltimore album quilt, as well as a one featuring collard greens, called “State Vegetable”.

Like many quilters, Mrs. Parker was a recycler before recycling was a thing.  Her daughter wrote:  “I now recognize her as one of the thriftiest recyclers of just about everything — way before it was popular as it is today.  You’ll notice the circles used as the quilting pattern on Memphis Blues in the borders — those are tracing of cans of food from her pantry.  She always used cans as pattern weights when she sewed all of our clothes when my sister and I were growing up, so it is logical that she would use them as patterns for her quilting stitch designs too”.

Clare has promised me pictures of the Baltimore album quilt, and if she finds them, I shall be sure to post them.


P.S. Mary Alma Parker was also a collector of unusual vintage quilts and many of those in the permanent collection in the Charleston Museum were her finds.  Here are two links and some text her daughter emailed me:

One in particular that you may recall seeing in the museum is the cigarette silks quilt.  A partial picture and description can be seen on this page: http://www.charlestonmuseum.org/early-20th-century-quilts.  Cigarette silks were one of the first premiums marketed to influence sales of a product in the US and targeted the growing leisure class of women interested in crafting. Here is a brief explanation of the trend: http://www.geocities.ws/nimue_139/history.html





gratitude and slavery

“If the only prayer you say in your entire life is ‘thank you’, it would be enough.”   
Meister Eckhart.

IMG_9153That shell and that driftwood came from Sullivan’s Island, SC. On the beach, which oddly reminded me very much of Martha’s Vineyard, I could look out to the east, knowing that Africa lay beyond the horizon. I wondered how many ‘recent slave imports’ did exactly that. I wondered what mix of bewilderment, rage, defeat, and sadness they might have felt. I acknowledged how little idea they had of what lay ahead.

Sullivan’s Island is where captives coming into the port of Charleston were quarantined for a few weeks before being taken to the auction block. During the very busy slave importation years of  the 18th century yellow fever, malaria, and small pox repeatedly and vengefully swept through the lowcountry. Any slave sick enough to die within the quarantine period was allowed to do so. It is heartrending to learn that a ten percent loss of cargo (read: African life) was deemed an acceptable margin in the slave trading business.
sullivan-islandWith the obvious aim of fattening them up for sale, the Africans were fed better during quarantine than at any time during the Middle Passage. They were groomed, oiled, and if plagued by dysentery (but not sick enough to die), plugged up temporarily with whittled corn cobs. If punished, they were paddled rather than whipped, for welts on the back signaled a wayward, unmanageable African, and would reduce his value on the block. There are reports of the sailors miming monkeys scratching their underarms to get the Africans to wash themselves. There isn’t much you can read about this island’s history without feeling sick.

There is no memorial.  Toni Morrison saw to changing that. See images of the Memorial Bench here.  [Update: just learned on a website called African American Charleston that in 1999, “On July 3, a 6-foot historical marker is placed on Sullivan’s Island near Fort Moultrie to honor those enslaved Africans who arrived in bondage via Charleston Harbor.”]

Right before I went to this trip to SC, I heard a sliver of coverage about how much slaves contributed to the building of the ivy league schools in the Northeast. Maybe it was a review of the following book by Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony and Ivory: Race, Slavery, & the Troubled History of America’s Universities:

Many of America’s revered colleges and universities—from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to Rutgers, Williams College, and UNC—were soaked in the sweat, the tears, and sometimes the blood of people of color. The earliest academies proclaimed their mission to Christianize the savages of North America, and played a key role in white conquest. Later, the slave economy and higher education grew up together, each nurturing the other. Slavery funded colleges, built campuses, and paid the wages of professors. Enslaved Americans waited on faculty and students; academic leaders aggressively courted the support of slave owners and slave traders. Significantly, as Wilder shows, our leading universities, dependent on human bondage, became breeding grounds for the racist ideas that sustained them.

[from the Amazon page selling his book].

IMG_2454 renovated slave shack, Magnolia Plantation

So — for the beautiful quads that populate this neck of the woods, with their stone edifices, filigreed ironworks, brick walkways, and carved doors: thank you to the enslaved, skilled laborers. Thank you.

It sounds lame, the previous paragraph, but how much MORE lame would it be never to say thank you, never to acknowledge the contributions made? I am deciding to trust Meister Eckhart on this one.

Sweetgrass baskets

IMG_8160Meet Rose Marie Manigault, basket-maker extraordinaire.  She is holding the basket that I purchased from her at Magnolia Plantation, near Charleston, SC. There is so much to say about her work and methods and presence, but let me start by directing your attention to the poking tool in the basket on her lap.  It is a utensil (spoon? fork?) with the utilitarian end removed and the remaining stem blunted. Thinking about all the harm I do to myself while quilting, I asked if her fingers were calloused.  She said “no”.
IMG_8895As I watched her work, it was clear why she found my question puzzling (maybe it was just weirdly personal). She poked and tugged and wrapped with deft skill — no fingers harmed! Look at those incredible pine needle knots!

Her wares were lined up on a high table set up under a pergola draped with wisteria. It was a little too early in the season for the vine to be in bloom, but it couldn’t have been a prettier site — especially dovetailing, as the time did, with a horribly raw week in Boston.

IMG_8161Look at the variety! That central, smallish basket in the foreground is a pattern called “Elephant Ears”.  I learned that the baskets darken with age and that sweetgrass, once abundant, is becoming harder to procure.  Unlike osier and other basket-making materials, sweetgrass, palmetto, and pine needles require no soaking to render them pliable.

Many beautiful examples of African American basketry are collected in the Lowcountry Digital Library.  The knowledge about how to weave fanner baskets and employ them to winnow rice were two of the many African skills that allowed planters to amass fortunes growing rice with slave labor. The fanner basket below, is at the Charleston Museum, and is made of bulrush.
IMG_2499Here are a few more examples of baskets at the Museum.
IMG_2516 IMG_2517Ms. Manigault was kind enough to pose for my pictures and sign the bottom of my basket. Anyone presuming to take her picture without making a purchase was shoo’d away.  As a crafter (even absent issues of race), I could relate to this.
IMG_8896I haven’t quite found the right place for my basket yet.  But I will.  And it will be used.
IMG_8862  IMG_9156IMG_2440 IMG_8165IMG_8897Here is a link to Magnolia Plantation. I could not find a single reference, pictorial or otherwise, to Ms. Manigault or her baskets. Can anyone else?!!



The Textile Wing at the Charleston Museum

The textile wing of the Charleston Museum in South Carolina featured some beautiful quilts (mostly antique), garments from the colonial era on through to the 70’s, embellished accessories, and very intriguing notions.


Embroidered Satin Bag, c. 1795. Attributed to Margaret Dick Burgess

IMG_2554 I didn’t know what ‘toilet pins’ were, so I looked them up.  An online draper called Merchant & Mills, gave me this tidbit:

…traditional toilet pins are an unusual pin being quite long at 45mm. Before the button became commonplace, many clothes were pinned together and a lady would have pins on her dressing table. The toilet pins come from and era when one would need pins for hats, corsage,etc. 


Silk Embroidered Bag, from 1920’s


Crib quilt, c. 1889. Log cabin variation made by Mary Louisa Schirmer Tiedeman


incredibly small hexagons — dime-sized?


“Field of Diamonds”, c. 1820. Maria Boyd Schulz

Don’t you just love the beautiful poking tools in the silk-lined box?IMG_2555 IMG_2563Paper pieced. More chintz. One of the names on the star below, “C.C. Pinckney” must refer to Charles Cotesworth Pinckney — one of Eliza Lucas Pinckney’s two sons.  Eliza Lucas Pinckney was a remarkable British settler who helped establish indigo as a crop and valuable commodity in the 1740’s. star-close

IMG_2572 IMG_2573 IMG_2574 IMG_2575These Civil War era fabrics must have faded some. I wonder what they looked like 200 years ago. I can’t imagine them appealing to me any more than they do at this saturation.

There was one contemporary quilt. IMG_2569

"Memphis Blues", 2000. Mary Alma Parker

“Memphis Blues”, 2000. Mary Alma Parker

I apologize for the blurriness of the pictures (better ones in this flickr set), but I hope you can see that the hexagons in this quilt are made to appear dimensional both through color/pattern choices and a willingness to let the surface ‘poof’ a little. The color of the surround was a deep and appealing blue, while the center panel of paper-pieced hexagons exuberantly combined prints. Notice, too, that in places one of the surrounding ‘petals’ does not match.  Sometimes the center color fades and blends with its ‘flower’ and other times the color selected practically pops off the quilt with contrast. Skillful blending of tone and color give the panel this lovely fluid feel, as the colors fade from dark to light to dark again.

I assumed looking at the work that its maker is African American. Why? Because of the title, the lively use of prints and the occasional departure from pattern (print mixes and departure from pattern being well-appreciated and documented signatures of the Gee’s Bend quilts, as well). Does anyone know? I couldn’t find anything online, even with a variety of search terms and approaches.  I DID learn that Parker is a very common name, as is “Mary Alma”.  Turning up various treasure troves of genealogy featuring white Parker families proves nothing one way or the other, of course, given that many slaves took their owners’ names once upon a time.