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Folk Artists Gallery African-American Quilters’ Gathering of Harrisburg

About African-American Quilters:

The African-American Quilters’ Gathering (AAQG) of Harrisburg, PA brings together folks who enjoy creating beautiful works of art from bits of fabric. The group welcomes all quilting enthusiasts, regardless of race or gender. When folklorist Amy Skillman visited one of their monthly meetings, they talked with her about creativity, collaboration, and giving back to the community.

“Why is quilting important to me? Because it’s the best thing I do.”
Narda LeCadre holds up a quilt she made. The quilt is mostly white, with diagonal lines of small blocks of colorful fabrics.  Narda is a Black woman with short hair and dark-rimmed glasses, and she is smiling proudly.

photo by Amy Skillman

Founding AAQG member Narda LeCadre displays a quilt she made called "Garlic Knot"

About African-American Quilters

The first stitch

“A friend of mine coordinated a quilt show at Harrisburg Area Community College,” recalls founding member Carol Spigner. That was in 2007, during Black History Month. “She collected quilts from Philly and from local quilters... And, in the room with the quilts, there was such a buzz and such enthusiasm...”

We looked at each other and said, “We need a quilting group in Harrisburg.”

Two years later, the pieces finally started to come together. “We asked people to bring their quilts, and anybody they knew who quilted,” recalls Carol. “And we went around the room and told the story of how we got to quilting. Then we asked people if they wanted to have a group, and so that was really the genesis... It’s been great fun.”

The African American Quilters Gathering of Harrisburg meets monthly and welcomes all quilting enthusiasts, regardless of race or gender. AAQG creates a space to enjoy creativity, to learn and share, to make mistakes and support one another, and to give back to the community.

Carol Spigner, who now lives in New Mexico, still joins each month via Zoom if she is available. For this meeting, there were three women joining via Zoom and nine women in person.

Nine members of the African American Quilters Gathering of Harrisburg meet in a large room. Four women sit on a long couch along the left-hand wall, sewing in their laps. The others sit at a long table running down the center, also working on quilts. Around them are sewing machines, neat piles of fabric,  and other quilting supplies.

photo by Amy Skillman

A typical meeting of the African American Quilters Gathering of Harrisburg. This member’s basement has been turned into a quilting studio, with plenty of light and table space to create a comfortable workroom.

What makes a quilt

A quilt is composed of three layers: the top (with the pieced design), the filling (cotton or Dacron batting, flannel sheets, or an old blanket), and the back (usually a simpler design that complements the top).

Quilting is the process of stitching through all three layers, to hold the quilt together through wear and washing. That can be done by hand or with a sewing machine: either a regular or long-arm machine. It can be quite elaborate, with detailed floral or geometric patterns. Or, it might be quite simple and utilitarian: "tied" quilts have one big stitch every few inches.

Paper templates help keep the pieces precisely the same size and shape.

photos by Amy Skillman

Among these Harrisburg quilters, some members are skilled with piecing together the cut fabric, while others are skilled with the actual quilting.

Every woman has their own aesthetic

Each gathering begins with a “show and tell,” giving members the opportunity to share what they have been creating and get input on design dilemmas. The quilts range from single‑panel baby quilts to full-sized bed coverings.

Carol says, “Every woman in this room has their own aesthetic, in terms of color, in terms of the way they like to work. As we work together, we can often look at a quilt and know who made it because their style is so distinctive.”

Six different quilts show a variety of different styles. Clockwise from top right: (1) A bold geometric pattern of strips and squares of black and vivid primary colors. (2) A simple nine-patch of calico alternating with olive, mustard and raspberry-colored solids; the edges of the squares are fringed. (3) A dark solid background with geometric embroidered flowers. (4) A variety of quilt squares sewn together with no framing between them; the fabric prints are Harry Potter themed. (5) A closeup of Grandmother’s Garden in calico and white muslin. (6) A yoyo quilt with brightly colored calico circles on a black background.

photos by Amy Skillman

Quilts are infinite in their variety, with endless ways to combine shapes, colors, prints, patterns, and sewing techniques. The quilting stitches can be their own work of art, demonstrated by the back of a quilt at lower right.
AAQG hosted a quilt display at Fort Hunter Barn in 2021, showcasing quilts made by members.
    >> This still shot from the video shows three large quilts plus bits of two others.  In the center is one in jewel tones and black that looks like stained glass.

photo by Amy Skillman

news video from CBS-21 at end of this article

Carol says, “I’m just learning as I go. When I was growing up, I made garments, so I had that kind of foundation. But I find quilting much more creative. ... Even if people use patterns, their choices come from inside.”

“The more you do it, the better you get and there’s so many different ways to go. Every choice you make takes you down a different path.”

A Black woman sits on a couch, focusing on her hands which might be sewing something small. She is wearing glasses pushed down on her nose, and has curly hair held back with a shiny black band.

photo by Amy Skillman

Cherry Lewis does a bit of hand sewing.
It is impossible to categorize a particular African American style, says Africana Studies scholar Floris Barnett Cash. Yet, ”we cannot completely deny the existence of a ‘Black aesthetic,’ at least for some women. An individual does not necessarily know the origins of all the elements of the culture in order to practice it. As we conceptualize the diversity of quilts and quilters, we must broaden our vision to include the dual cultural heritage of African-Americans.”

Carol and others among the Harrisburg quilters agree. Quilters draw on their heritage as well as the full range of personal experiences in their lives.

Numerous framed photographs hang close together on the wall.  This photo is taken at an angle, so the images in the frames aren’t visible.

photo by Amy Skillman

Generations of family photos on the studio wall echo the patterns of a quilt.

Patterns are everywhere

Liz Carter, who used to work in a fabric store, sees quilt patterns in everything. She recalls being inspired by a brick wall in a TV show she was watching. “I immediately jumped up, got a piece of paper and pencil, and drew it out. It’s a nice pattern!”

Marie Fourney has had the same experience with clothing: the fabric of someone’s dress might suggest a pattern. “You begin to see things differently,” agrees Liz, saying she’s not very creative about making her own patterns, “but once I see something, I think, that would be a nice pattern.”

The work of a lifetime

Narda LeCadre is another founding member of the African American Quilters Gathering of Harrisburg. A self-proclaimed night owl, she is often quilting at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. She has been quilting since 1974, and (like many quilters) made clothing long before she started quilting. After her mother passed away, she started dreaming about quilts, so she knew she had to make one.

A quilt, a blue and white pinwheel pattern, is spread on a table. Narda LeCadre stands behind the table with her hands touching the quilt.  The photo is cropped so that only her hands and a portion of her body is visible; the quilt is the center of attention.

photo courtesy of the artist

Narda LeCadre displays a quilt that needs repair.

Narda still has that original quilt, and estimates there are over 300 of her quilts out in circulation. She also has about 120 tops at home waiting to be quilted. And since they do wear out, quilts often come back to her for repair and restoration. With 17 grandchildren and 6 great-grandchildren, she expects to be busy quilting for a long time.

Although most of her quilts are what she calls “utility quilts,” Narda is known for making quilts that have as much detail and design work on the back as they do on the front. She rarely has a plan when she starts a quilt. “I put two pieces together... and figure out a size for a block. Then I just fill it in, so it doesn’t necessarily make any kind of sense, but it works.”

Creativity in collaboration

During the show-and-tell part of their day together, Marie Fourney shows a quilt she just finished. The question among the group is, whose quilt is it?

Marie Fourney (left) holds a corner of a quilt she made, with another Black Woman holding up an opposite corner. The design features bands of color zigzagging up from lower left to upper right.  The bands are shades of turquoise, with darker blue just below each band suggesting a shadow.  Darker grays and greens set off the bright bands. The quilt’s border is about 9 inches wide, blue at the outside framing narrower bands of white and sea-green.

photo by Amy Skillman

Marie Fourney (left) shows a quilt she made, with Liz Carter (right) lending a hand. This pattern is called bargello — strips sewn together to create the appearance of movement or waves.

The answer isn’t simple. Gloria Johnson made the top and gave it to Marie (“What a lovely gift to give,” Liz comments). Marie continues, “I created the back and then Laura did the quilting.”

When Liz Carter’s turn comes, she shows fabrics she has chosen and asks for advice on how to cut it so the pattern remains visible and foregrounded. When someone asks about batting, everyone choruses “That’s an Ann question!,” turning to their local expert on that topic.

This continues throughout their time together: excitedly sharing ideas, offering feedback, and supporting each other in their creativity.

By hand or by machine?

Ann Smyser is the go-to person for that final step of quilt-making, whether it’s to be done by hand or by machine. The time-consuming labor of hand quilting was traditionally shared (and still is!) by women gathered for a “quilting bee" with the quilt rolled onto a large frame. A home sewing machine is not well suited for the job, so Ann has invested in a long-arm quilting machine with a robotic arm. It can be programmed for any stitching pattern, opening up a whole range of creative possibilities.

“It’s a huge frame [much like that used for quilting bees], and you put your quilt in there and the machine ... moves along the width of the quilt to add the quilting to the area between the rails. Then you advance it, like you do with a traditional quilt frame, to quilt the next area.”

“The challenge,” Ann says, “is to pick a design that complements your quilt. For instance, this one [she points to one in her lap] is just solids and I wanted something to tie it together. I wanted the quilting to show a lot. And this one [points to another quilt] is really busy so I didn’t use such a bold design.”

The quilt is piled loosely on a chair.  Its pattern is made up of blocks maybe 9 inches square, each one a large, bold ‘equals’ sign. The blocks alternate, turned at 90 degrees to one another: two vivid solid-color bars on a black ground, or two black bars on a colored ground. The concentric circles of quilting look like stacked discs.

photo by Amy Skillman

Concentric circles of stitching in dark thread complement the bold solids and right angles of this quilt.

Piecing it together

The quilt pattern called “Grandmother’s Garden” is composed of many individual “flowers,” made of hexagonal petals that are cut individually and sewn together. Sharon England, who started quilting about 15 years ago, started one of these quilts last year.

While acknowledging that creating all those flowers is slow going, Sharon says, “I wanted to try something by hand. When you travel, it’s hard to bring a machine and everything, so this way all you need is your fabric.”

Closeup of a Black woman’s hands stitching fabric together. Each of the petals is a hexagon of colored calico, about an inch in diameter.  Each flower is made with six hexagon petals around a solid-yellow center hexagon.  A zippered bag with a clear plastic cover holds a dozen or so completed flowers.  A different calico is used for the petals of each flower; most feature a floral print.

photo by Amy Skillman

Cherry Lewis hand-sews petals for her own “Grandmother’s Garden” quilt. The bag on her lap holds completed flowers.

Strengthening a community

Particularly among African American quilters, their art form has been a way to raise awareness and gather resources for social justice activities. In her essay “Kinship and Quilting: An Examination of an African-American Tradition,” Floris Barnett Cash traces the history of quilt making as both an economic and community effort.

“part of the Black Experience” “Mutual cooperation and concern are aspects of the tradition of self-help and self-reliance in the Black Experience. Contemporary quilt groups serve social, economic, and political purposes as well as outlets for sewing and creative expression.” —Floris Barnett Cash

Quilts were made and sold to help fund the Underground Railroad. Many women bought their freedom with money raised by the sale of their quilts. Annual fairs where quilts were sold or auctioned to raise funds have been traced back to anti-slavery initiatives in the early 1800s.

The Freedom Quilting Bee, launched in Alabama by Estelle Witherspoon during the Civil Rights Movement in 1966, rejuvenated quilting among African American women as both an economic activity and an initiative to register African American voters. That group continued their collective work until its last member passed away in 2012.

A Black woman, Narda LeCadre, shows off a quilt she made.  Its blocks are set next to one another with no framing, and are placed diagonally against a black background.  Made of strips in various earth colored prints, the blocks give the impression of overlapping hills or arrows.

photo by Amy Skillman

Narda LeCadre shows a quilt she made.

More than a warm blanket

In this historical context, it is easy to see why community service is so important to these women. The majority of the quilts made in the group are made for charity. Recently, they have been making quilts for local children who are in the foster care system, providing homemade warmth for children who don’t always have warmth in their lives.

Pam Tulchinsky said “Sharon brought that group to our attention. Anyone who is able, participates. Ann did 22 quilts last year!” When Amy comments that this is a “hard act to follow,” Liz responds, “Well, we don’t try.” Sharon jumps in to say, “That’s what’s so great about this group. They are so nonjudgmental. They encourage everything. No such thing as [competition]. That’s why it’s so lovely to be here. I feel honored to be part of this group.”

Though the group’s members feel no sense of competition among themselves, they do enjoy a bit of friendly rivalry with other creator groups. In regard to Ann’s 22 quilts, one of the quilters said, “We are going to outdo the knitters and crocheters this year!” said one of the quilters.

Cherry Lewis, a Black woman, holds a corner of a quilt she made, while another Black woman (mostly out of the frame at right) holds up an opposite corner and points to a detail on the quilt with her free hand.  The quilt is made of long, narrow horizontal strips of fabric, alternating dark and light.  Colors range from dark brown to peach; some strips are printed calico and some are solid color.

photo by Amy Skillman

Cherry Lewis (left) shows a "Jelly Roll" quilt that she made, while Liz Carter (right) lends a hand.

What you do with what you’ve got

Cherry Lewis brings out one of her quilts that is going to the foster care center. This is a Jelly Roll pattern: a set of 44 strips in complementary colors that are pre‑cut to 2½ inches wide.

Everyone raves about this quilt, with its hand quilting and rich shades of brown. The strips of fabric used to make it were unremarkable in themselves — the beauty came from how Cherry sewed them together.

Quilts as a cultural record

In 2015, the African American Quilters Gathering of Harrisburg created a large quilt illustrating African American history in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania as part of Dauphin County’s 230th Anniversary. The quilt was unveiled at the Civil War Museum and is now housed with Dauphin County until they can make a hanging frame for it. Eventually it will go on display at the County Courthouse. For now, the quilt travels throughout the county and wherever it goes, the group is invited to be there.

This quilt features tan ‘story squares’ with embroidered or appliqued pictures and lettering, each referring to a person or event, set on a dark background. Around the edge of the quilt are 24 story squares. A diamond of nine story squares occupies the center of the quilt, with a bright line of orange and green African print fabric separating the diamond from the outside squares.  Images on the story squares include a man walking with a bundle on his back, a football, a baseball and bat,  a horse-drawn wagon, a choir, primitive buildings, and photographs of people.

photo courtesy of Carol Spigner

Heritage quilt made by members of the African American Quilters Gathering of Harrisburg

Each of the quilt’s large pictorial squares focuses on a person or historical event. This is a “story quilt,” similar in style to the Bible quilts made by African American folk artist Harriet Powers in the late 1800s.

“[Quilts] provide a record of [African American women’s] cultural and political past.” —Floris Barnett Cash

Quilt scholar Patricia Ferrero, in her book Hearts and Hands, says that quilting bees functioned "as invaluable agents of cultural cohesion and group identity" for women. Barnett Cash agrees, saying that such community networks “formed the foundation for a new African-American culture” in the years following the Civil War.

“The basis of family structure and cooperation was an extended family of kinship ties, blood relations and non-kin as well. Female networks promoted self-reliance and self-help. They sustained hope and provided survival strategies.   . . .   Black women carried these concepts of mutual assistance with them from bondage to freedom.”

Cynthia’s quilt is mae up of four-inch squares, sewn together in irregular color groups -- violet, royal blue, green, and various brown shades. The quilt obscures all of Cynthia but her proudly smiling face. She is African American with short grey hair and a broad face.

photo by Amy Skillman

Cynthia Shields shows her “Take Five” quilt, explaining it has five colors in five blocks and takes five hours to make.

“I’m inspired because these ladies are phenomenal. Their willingness to share what they know is really heartwarming for me. It’s almost like I’ve known them half of my life.”

See More, Learn More

The group meets monthly on the 4th Saturday of the month, in various locations, and all are welcome. For more information or to attend a meeting, contact Liz Carter at mizanna (at) verizon.net.

For the Love of Quilting: a ten-minute introduction to the African American Quilters Gathering of Harrisburg, PA.
AAQG Quilt Show at Fort Hunter Barn in 2021 -- video by CBS-21 News


1. Cash, Floris Barnett. “Kinship and Quilting: An Examination of an African-American Tradition,” The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 80, No. 1 (Winter, 1995), pp. 30-41.

2. Pat Ferrero, Elaine Hedges, and Julie Silber, Hearts and Hands: The Influence of Women and Quilts on American Society (San Francisco, 1987), p.48.