African-American quiltmaker Susana Allen Hunter turned the "fabric" of everyday life into eye-catching quilts with an abstract, asymmetrical, and often, modern feel. Created from the 1930s to the 1970s, Susana Hunter's quilts reflect her life in rural Wilcox County, Alabama—one of the poorest counties in the United States.
Strip Quilt by Susana Allen Hunter, 1950-1955. THF73619
Susana Hunter made handsome, unique quilts, fashioned literally from the fabric of everyday life.
Susana's quilts are pieced in a design-as-you-go improvisational style found among both blacks and whites in poorer, more isolated pockets of the rural South. People living in these more remote areas had less access to quilt pattern ideas published in newspapers or printed in books. For fabrics, rural women depended on mail order catalogs or whatever was available in the local store. These "constraints" left quiltmakers like Susana Hunter free to use their imaginations. Bedsheet Pieced Together from Commercial Sugar Sacks by Susana Allen Hunter, 1930-1970. THF94355
Making an improvisational quilt top required a continual stream of creativity during the entire process, as the quiltmaker made hundreds of design decisions on the fly, fashioning an attractive whole out of whatever materials were at hand. Overall visual impact mattered most—not minor details such as whether a patch in a row had a square or rectangular shape. Size and shape was determined by the scraps available at the time.
Sewing Thimble Used by Susana Allen Hunter, 1930-1969. THF93486
Handmade Fan Used by Susana Allen Hunter. THF44759 For Susana and her husband Julius, life often meant hard work and few resources. The Hunters were tenant farmers who grew cotton and corn, tended a vegetable garden, and raised hogs, chicken and cattle. They lived in a simple, two-room house that had no running water, electricity or central heat. The outside world came to them through a battery-powered radio and a wind-up phonograph. Though the Hunters didn't have much in the way of material goods or the latest 20th century technology, they never went hungry, raising much of their own food.
Portrait of Susana Allen Hunter, June 1960. THF125834
Susana Hunter wanted all of her quilts to be different. Some of her quilt designs have a warm, homey feel. Many resemble abstract art. Other quilts pulsate with the visual energy created by many small, irregular pieces of vividly-colored fabric sewn together. Still others incorporate cornmeal or rice sacks, often reserved for quilt backing, as part of the design of the carefully-pieced quilt top.
The collections of The Henry Ford contain several hundred quilts. As an earlier blog post noted, 120 of these can be cross-searched with other quilt collections on The Quilt Index. We have also been adding our quilts to our own collections website, including this striking red and white Lady of the Lake patterned version from around the turn of the century. View our quilts on the Quilt Index or our collections website, and watch for more to be added!
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
I have always had a love for history— though, as an Anthropology major focused in Classics, my interests were initially focused on more ancient times. Interning at The Henry Ford, with its vast collections of objects relating to the American experience, has definitely broadened that love! Each day, I have the opportunity to “walk though” nearly 400 years of American history, whether represented in Greenfield Village, with all of its historic buildings, or Henry Ford Museum, with its historic objects. Here, history sits “side-by-side,” offering objects and stories from different eras. And all of the objects here have a story. As an intern working in the curatorial department, I am able to help bring these stories to the public and share my passion for history in a different way.
The Henry Ford’s collection is so vast that we can’t display all of our artifacts all at one time. Yet, with the advancements in digital technology, we can bring these objects and stories to the public through the use of the internet. Currently, we offer images and information for about 20,000 of The Henry Ford’s historic objects on our collections website. But there are additional opportunities to share our collections on the web. That’s what my work as an intern has focused on.
I have been preparing information about many of the quilts in our collection for The Quilt Index, an internationally-known online database of quilt construction and history. This database is comprised of information about hundreds of thousands of quilts owned by museums and individuals. It's the single largest source of information on quilt construction and quilt history resources on the web.
My internship project involves working with others on our staff to gather additional information about each of our quilts and its quilt maker, if known. Since I seem to have a flair for computer programs, my efforts were chiefly focused on learning The Quilt Index’s software system, and then adding information about The Henry Ford’s quilts to this database. Information on nearly 120 of our quilts can now be found on The Quilt Index.
Applique Quilt by Susan McCord, 1880-1890 (Object ID: 72.140.1).
While The Henry Ford’s collections webpage has allowed people who come to our website learn about our quilts, The Quilt Index broadens our reach. Through The Quilt Index, people all over the world can readily find information on many of our quilts—even if they were unaware that we have a quilt collection. Too, The Quilt Index allows researchers to examine our quilts “side by side” with quilts from other sources—even though the quilts themselves may be thousands of miles apart.
We have so many great quilts in our collection. When I first started working with the quilts, I could tell you which one was my favorite. Yet now that I have spent a great amount of time learning each quilt’s story, I have a hard time choosing just one! But there are some that do stand out more for me. These include the 1880s Vine Quilt by Susan Noakes McCord and the 1980s Indianapolis 500 Quilt by Jeanetta Holder. These two quilts are quite different in feel and are almost 100 years apart in age. Yet both of these quilts interest me. Susan’s appliqué quilt is so intricately detailed with many thousands of pieces, all sewn by hand. And I love the story surrounding Jeanetta’s 1980s quilt, made to celebrate race car driver Bobby Unser’s three Indianapolis wins.
The thought that I am able to share the information I have learned about our quilt collection with people all over the world is a very humbling experience. It really hits home for me, though, because I had to use The Quilt Index to complete a class assignment during my undergraduate studies. Now, here I am adding information to the site for others to use just like I did just over a year ago!
Susana Allen Hunter (Object ID 2007.71.15, THF37810)
Since joining The Henry Ford in 2010, I had been hearing about the wonderful collection of quilts made by Susana Allen Hunter. I had seen photos of the exhibition that The Henry Ford mounted in 2008 and had glimpsed the quilts in storage. But, I was not quite prepared for the true beauty and historical value of the collection until I got to see the quilts displayed.
The Henry Ford recently loaned part of its collection to the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) for its exhibition, “The Improvisational Quilts of Susana Allen Hunter.” On May 9, I attended the opening with Marc Greuther, chief curator, and Jeanine Head Miller, curator of domestic life. Was I ever impressed! These quilts are a stunning representation of artistry and the daily life of an African American woman living in the difficult conditions of rural Alabama as late as the 1970s.
In collaboration with the GRAM, we loaned 22 quilts from the collection, along with personal objects that belonged to Susana. Our textile conservator, Fran Faile, worked with GRAM staff to ensure that these significant pieces were handled and installed according to museum standards.
Jeanie Miller had secured the initial collection and then painstakingly researched its rich history. She worked with GRAM curatorial and education staff and shared not only her knowledge, but her passion for this extraordinary collection. She understood its value, and the way it captures rich stories of a distinctive time and place. Such stories are elusive and very difficult to collect and preserve. In this collection, The Henry Ford holds a remarkable piece of African American and women’s history.
During the process of acquiring the collection, Jeanie had developed a strong relationship with Tommie Hunter, grandson of Susana, who had lived with her as a young boy and with whom Susana lived in her later years. After Jeanie’s masterful presentation at the GRAM exhibition opening on the quilts and the related materials she has collected, she conducted a question and answer session with Tommie, his wife, Susie, and the audience. What a delight.The personal nature of the memories and tales of Susana Hunter’s quilting had the audience’s rapt attention.
The opening was great fun - food, wine, and people to share the excitement of the evening. But the sense of pride I felt to be associated with an institution that had the foresight to acquire and preserve such a remarkable piece of American history will stay with me always.
People often send us letters offering items for our collection. Recently, I received a letter in the mail that surprised and absolutely delighted me.
Among the notable collections of The Henry Ford are 12 quilts made by an exceptionally talented, unassuming Indiana farm wife named Susan McCord (1829-1909). I opened the letter to find that the family of McCord’s great-grandson was offering us the opportunity to acquire one more: a Triple Irish Chain quilt made for her daughter, Millie McCord Canaday, about 1900.
It was the last remaining quilt known to have been made by Susan McCord. Soon after, this beauty was on its way to Dearborn to join the other 12 McCord quilts in The Henry Ford’s collection.
The Triple Irish Chain is a traditional quilt pattern — but in Susan McCord’s hands, this design became much more. Like all of her quilts, the Triple Irish Chain demonstrates McCord's considerable skill at manipulating fabric, color and design to turn a traditional quilt pattern into something extraordinary.
I could easily imagine Susan McCord carefully choosing fabric from her bag of scraps, cutting it into thousands of fabric squares, carefully determining their placement within the overall design and sewing the squares together. I could picture McCord then topping off this creation with her utterly unique, “signature” design — a stunning vine border, the leaves expertly pieced from tiny scraps of fabric. And it certainly wasn’t hard to imagine Millie McCord’s delight when she received this lovely gift!
To all who see Susan McCord’s quilts - whether experts or casual observers - the remarkable beauty and craftsmanship is evident. Now beautifully photographed, the story of this quilt can be readily accessed through our online collections – so that anyone, near or far, can enjoy McCord's quilt at the click of a mouse.
Do you have any special family quilts or other handmade heirlooms? Share your story in the comments below or on our Facebook page.
Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford, is an unabashed Susan McCord “groupie.”