Slave Quilts: Background information when reading The Invention of Wings

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Read-Alikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Invention of Wings

by Sue Monk Kidd

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd X
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Jan 2014, 384 pages

    May 2015, 384 pages


  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Judi Sauerbrey
Buy This Book

About this Book

Slave Quilts

This article relates to The Invention of Wings

Print Review

Among the many unifying symbols in all the intertwining relationships that course through The Invention of Wings, one of the most important concerns is not another person but a quilt.

"This a story quilt," Mauma Charlotte tells her daughter Handful. "My mauma made one and her mauma before her. All my kin in Africa...kept their history on a quilt." Later, as Handful stitches the appliquéd squares together, she begins to understand just how much of her mother – her earlier life in Africa, her experiences with slavery – is in the quilt. "Mauma had sewed where she came from, who she was, what she loved, the things she suffered, and the things she'd hoped. She'd found a way to tell it."

In her book, Stitched From the Soul: Slave Quilts From the Antebellum South, folklore historian Gladys-Marie Fry notes that for enslaved women, quilting was a survival mechanism, "...a type of emotional and social release that provided...the means by which they recorded and preserved their was their personal and communal history, recorded not on paper but on fabric." Since they were forbidden by law to learn to read and write, these story quilts became a way for slave women to validate and preserve their own experiences separate and apart from the day-to-day drudgery of involuntary servitude.

Harriet Powers's Bible Quilt African-American slave quilting possesses a definite yin-yang dichotomy. Many slave women were skilled in needlework and clothing construction and did much of their work on behalf of the families who owned them. In fact, the exquisitely appliquéd and stitched quilts, known as "best" quilts, still handed down in southern families were largely crafted by these women in bondage.

For their own use, however, slave women made utility quilts out of scraps left over from clothing construction, more often from their own rough garments than the best cottons, silks and velvets belonging to the "big house." Here and there a piece of fancier material smuggled into the slave quarters, would be incorporated into what came to be known as "life" quilts. These types of folk art pieces, created communally and on their own time, became symbols of bonding and slave women could take pride in their unique creations rather than simply following the patterns they were told to fashion for their masters. As the fictional Handful observes in the novel, for each quilter, the life quilt was "the meat on her bones," and definitely a piece of each woman's individual soul.

Few of these masterpieces exist today due to natural deterioration, hard use, the vicissitudes of war and the displacement of Reconstruction. The fictional quilt in The Invention of Wings is based on two extant ones by an actual slave woman from Georgia, Harriet Powers (1837-1911). Fascinated by oral history and employing a traditional African style of appliqué, Harriet stitched local legends, Bible stories and even astronomical events such as the Leonid meteor storm of November 13, 1833.

In desperate need of money, Harriet Powers was forced to sell her "Bible" quilt (see image above). The buyer, Miss Jennie Smith of Athens, Georgia, purchased it for five dollars, and received an oral interpretation of the different squares as well. Harriet had originally asked ten but was bargained down and was only partially consoled by Miss Smith's promise to allow her to visit "the offspring of my brain," as she always referred to it. Following Jennie Smith's death, the quilt, which had not been designated in her will, made its way to the Smithsonian Institute's collections when the liquidator in charge of Smith's estate gave it to the venerable Washington, D.C.-based institution.

For information about the role of quilts in the Underground Railroad, read the 'Beyond the Book' for Song Yet Sung.

Picture of Harriett Powers's Bible quilt by Rhonda Leigh Willers of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. Wikimedia Commons

Filed under Cultural Curiosities

Article by Judi Sauerbrey

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Invention of Wings. It originally ran in January 2014 and has been updated for the May 2015 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Become a Member

Join BookBrowse today to start discovering exceptional books!

Find out more

Top Picks

  • Book Jacket: After the Miracle
    After the Miracle
    by Max Wallace
    Many people have heard one particular story about Helen Keller—how the saintly teacher, Annie ...
  • Book Jacket: The Lost Wife
    The Lost Wife
    by Susanna Moore
    The Lost Wife is a hard-hitting novella based in part on a white settler named Sarah Wakefield's ...
  • Book Jacket
    Firekeeper's Daughter
    by Angeline Boulley
    Voted 2021 Best Young Adult Award Winner by BookBrowse Subscribers

    Angeline Boulley's young adult ...
  • Book Jacket: Hello Beautiful
    Hello Beautiful
    by Ann Napolitano
    Ann Napolitano's much-anticipated Hello Beautiful pulls the reader into a warm, loving familial ...

Book Club Discussion

Book Jacket
The First Conspiracy
by Brad Meltzer & Josh Mensch
A remarkable and previously untold piece of American history—the secret plot to kill George Washington

Members Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    Pieces of Blue
    by Holly Goldberg Sloan

    A hilarious and heartfelt novel for fans of Maria Semple and Emma Straub.

Win This Book
Win Girlfriend on Mars

30 Copies to Give Away!

A funny and poignant debut novel that skewers billionaire-funded space travel in a love story of interplanetary proportions.



Solve this clue:

S I F A R Day

and be entered to win..

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.