Unraveling Empire is a community quilting project exploring the links between textiles and the global slave economy.

Quilter Rachel Wallis, a Studio in the Woods resident artist, is organizing series of community quilting circles/discussions in New Orleans, February 1 – 20, 2017. Each of the three quilting circles will explore the way in which textiles and the textile trade played a crucial role in the economic system of slavery, and ultimately the foundation of much of our contemporary economic and political system. At each quilting circle, we will hear from a guest speaker about one aspect of the history of textiles and issues of racial and economic justice. This will include the role of Louisiana, New Orleans, and the cotton trade as the economic engine of the slave economy in the US; the ways that African Americans have built a culture of textiles and quilting as a form of resistance and community memory; and how the 20th and 21st century textile economy echoes the trends of labor exploitation that has been made invisible to the average American.

As we learn about and discuss these topics, we will embroider in the outlines of the textile economy in the 17th-19th century onto a quilt pieced from chambray work shirts. We will trace the trade of Indian cotton and silk for West African bodies; the role of enslaved people in introducing indigo to the colonies; the cotton boom that drove the domestic slave trade and the forced migration of hundreds of thousands of enslaved people; and the cotton mills, fed by Southern cotton, that built the economy of the industrialized north. All the quilting circles will be free and open to the public, and no sewing or embroidery experience will be necessary.

In this moment of resurgent white supremacy and revisionist history, this project allows us to dig back into the ways that slavery laid the foundation of our country as we know it today. It also creates a space to both celebrate the role that textiles have played in cultural resistance and storytelling in African American communities, and to acknowledge the exploitation that has always existed just out of sight in the fabric industry. The completed quilt will be available to community groups and spaces to be used as a tool for teaching and organizing.