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Quilter keeps tradition alive

When Black Loyalists first arrived in Port Roseway (Shelburne) in 1784, they brought with them skills and artistic and cultural traditions that became the very means of survival. Boat builders, carpenters, cabinetmakers, blacksmiths, seamstresses, and weavers carved a working town on Nova Scotia's rugged shoreline under harsh British colonial rule. While many of the cultural traditions and skills have been lost through assimilation and limited preservation efforts, many African Nova Scotian artisanal products continue to carry a traditional theme reflective of these origins. Pastor Alfreda Smith has been quilting since she was a young girl. She's carrying on a tradition passed down from her ancestors.


This article was originally written for NovaNewsNet of the School of Journalism, University of Kings College, and posted on 14 February 2003. It is reproduced by permission of Shauntay Grant.

PASTOR Alfreda Smith is basking in the warmth of her cozy living room in the black community of North Preston, just outside of Dartmouth, NS. She and her cousin Rosella Fraser are nestled among a heap of old patchwork quilts.

"I'm tellin ya, Mama made down some quilts!" Smith exclaims, sifting through the pile.

"This is her summer quilt," she says, her eyes beaming as she proudly displays her mother's prize. "It was made from old dresses, blouses, all torn up and put together into patches."

She lovingly caresses the fabric, reminiscing.

"I can remember her sitting down and making this quilt, and this quilt right now is 62 years old."

"Praise the Lord," replies cousin Rosella.

Smith is carrying on an old family tradition - the art of quiltmaking.

She belongs to the Happy Quilters of Cherry Brook - a collective based in Cherry Brook, a black community near North Preston. The 12 members of the Happy Quilters are gearing up for their fifth anniversary celebration at the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia.

The group is carrying on the spirit of the traditional sewing circles that were common in Nova Scotia's black communities.

"It could be in my blood," she says, "stemming off from the elders. They all liked sewing."

Learned craft from her mother

Smith says she first learned the craft from her mother, Annie Simmonds. "She taught me how to sew. And how to make quilts."

Two of her mother's quilts - both of which are more than 60 years old - and one of her own are registered with the Nova Scotia Heritage Quilt Project, a quilt registry started in 1995 to document historical quilts made before 1970. The project is a subsidiary of the Mayflower Quilters Guild, a 300-member organization representing quilters from across Nova Scotia.

"Every house you [went to] in North Preston - in my younger days - [had] quilts on the bed," says Smith.

She says cold winters and poorly insulated homes made living difficult in her community when she was young.

"How we survived I can't tell you," she says. "We didn't have any heat except for a wood stove, and the woodstove was downstairs, and the only way you got heat upstairs was when it went up through the stovepipe. Oh, the quilts came in handy!"

Now more than 50 years later, Smith has expanded her craft to include potholders, shoulder bags, book caddy's and quilts of various styles and sizes.

"I like to keep up the technical work," she says. "I know I am creative, and so I like to keep working at it."

But she says when she was young people in her community quilted out of a need to survive rather than for artistic purposes.

Ancestors quilted out of necessity

"They didn't have that much," she says of her predecessors. "So they went around to the white folks - who they worked for - and they begged for hand-me-down clothing. What wasn't good enough to wear, or didn't fit, that's what they tore up and made something to keep themselves warm."

Alma Johnston, co-ordinator of the Happy Quilters of Cherry Brook, agrees with Pastor Smith.

"Years ago when people made quilts it was out of necessity," she says. "Now we see the quilts being made for beds, wall hangings, for clothing for many other reasons than just bed coverings."

Johnston says the focus has moved away from quilting "out of necessity."

"People now don't make quilts just to keep warm," she says. "People now make quilts because they enjoy making [them]. And now when people make quilts they buy new fabric."

In 1998 one of Pastor Smith's quilts was featured in "In This Place," the first major exhibition of African-Nova Scotian art, sponsored by the Black Artists' Network of Nova Scotia.

"The exhibition grew out of a desire to find out if there was any black art in Nova Scotia," says David Woods, president of the artists' network.

What was supposed to be a small displaying of the works of a few African-Nova Scotian artists' turned into a huge exhibition of more than 100 pieces which toured the province and became the most popular show in the history of the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design.

"[The show] was pulling in 75 to 100 people a day," says Peter Dykhuis, Administrative Director at the college's Anna Leonowens Gallery.

"Most of the work was never seen in public prior to this exhibition," says Woods, a visual artist. "Before that, all of us were working in isolation. We didn't see the connectedness between us."

Woods says a chance conversation with Smith is what motivated him to incorporate quilts in the show.

"She said, 'Are you having quilts in the show?' I had never even thought of that," says Woods. "But when she mentioned it we began to realize that, for women, quilting was as much their artwork as it would be a painting."

Smith has been a member of the artists' network for about eight years.

"It was her influence that pushed us to make quiltmaking a significant thing in what we do," says Woods. "We now actively collect quilts, [and that] really came out of her suggestions and her passion for quiltmaking."

Web sites related to this topic

Black Artists' Network of Nova Scotia: http://www.banns.ca/

Nova Scotia Heritage Quilt Project http://users.eastlink.ca/~robsonbh/QuiltPageN.html

Mayflower Quilters Guild: http://mayflowerquilters.tripod.com/

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