Thursday, March 1, 2012

7 Isabella Baumfree: Wool & Slavery in New York

Wool quilt from an online auction.
Wools are harder to date than cottons because
 they change so little over the decades.

Early-19th-century needleworkers chose from a variety of bedcover styles with wool quilts--- pieced, embroidered and quilted--- an alternative to cotton or silk spreads. Some of the fabric in surviving wool quilts was imported: camblets, calimancoes and satinets---but much was domestic---worsteds, woolens, jeans cloth and hickory cloth.

Calimanco is satin-weave wool polished to look like silk with
 reflective qualities perfect for elegant wholecloth quilts.

The reverse of many calimanco quilts is
 utilitarian wool of coarser yarns in plain weave.

American wool production suffered in comparison to England's because of limited sheep stock. Domestic flocks made better mutton than fabric.
Raising sheep along the Hudson in Ulster County, NY

Upstate New York produced a good share of domestic wool at the turn of the 19th-century. Dutch-speaking descendants of Niue Amsterdam’s farmers continued to keep sheep as they had for generations. Embargoes and war inspired a few innovators to improve their flocks with Spanish merinos.
Breeding Merino with domestic herds
 improved wool quality over the decades.

Isabella Baumfree, about 15 years old when the war began, was a slave in this Dutch-speaking rural culture South of Albany near the Hudson. Born in Ulster County about 1797 to James Bomefree or Baumfree (perhaps named " tree" in Dutch for his height, a gift to his daughter) and his third wife Bett.
Ulster County in yellow

By the end of the war the girl had been sold three times. She had given birth to a daughter Diana and was entering into a marriage with a fellow slave named Thomas by whom she had five more children.

Baroness Hyde-de-Neuville lived in America during the teens and painted this portrait of an enslaved washerwoman about Isabella's age.
For their children Isabella and Thomas had hopes for a future in freedom. Months after Isabella’s birth the state of New York had decreed that any slaves born after July 4, 1799 would be freed when they reached the age of 28 for men and 25 for women. Isabella, born before that date, was to remain enslaved for life. The children, born after 1799, would remain indentured for years. Diana, for example, could expect to be free in the 1840s, 25 years into the future.

Isabella about 1860. This photo shows her crippled hand, injured during slavery. Her master told her he'd extend her time as once injured she was of less use to him.
Laws changed after the war and a new date for freedom was set for all: the Fourth of July, 1827. Isabella’s master’s family decided to recoup some of their investment in her by illegally selling her seven-year-old son to an Alabama plantation where he would be enslaved forever. (Isabella went to court to reclaim him.) Her last duty as a slave, she wrote, was to spin 100 pounds of wool into the fall.
"The subject of this narrative was to have been free July 4, 1827, but she continued with her master till the wool was spun, and the heaviest of the 'fall's work' closed up, when she concluded to take her freedom into her own hands, and seek her fortune in some other place."
But in 1812-1814 this was all in the future. During the war Isabella's fate was to be a slave for life. And some of her fate was spinning wool.

Wool wholecloth quilt from an online auction.
We see no reflective shine in the photo so we can guess the fabric on the face is not the fancier polished wools.

Not only must we reconcile our images of domestic life in the teens with the concept of Northern slavery, we also have to reconcile slavery with the quilts made anywhere in the United States at that time.

Embroidered wool bedcover, New York, dated
 December 26, 1815 and signed by Polly Delano

Who spun the wool for these blankets, spreads and quilts? Who wove it? Who quilted it? Who pieced it?

Wool quilt thought to have been made about 1820
from Laura Fisher's store

Once free, Isabella led an interesting life first as Isabella and later as Sojourner Truth. Read her Narrative of Sojourner Truth by clicking here.

A famous public speaker against slavery and for the rights of women, she spoke English with a Dutch accent. An excellent promoter, she made a living selling copies of her book and portraits of herself.

Isabella with her workbag.
She sold many card-sized portraits.
"I sell the shadow to support the Substance." 

In March the topic will be early wool quilts

See below for information about these Sketches of America
It’s hard for us to reconcile the reality of slavery with our image of New York’s small country villages so far from a Southern plantation, but slavery was always there. We only know Isabella’s story because she reinvented herself in the 1840s as Sojourner Truth and dictated her best-selling Narrative of her life.

See information about Sketches of America here:
See more about Polly Delano's wool bedcover here:


Rosemary Youngs said...

What a great story about Isabella, thank you so much for sharing.

Becky in VA said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Becky in VA said...

Don't know why my comment was deleted.

Laura G said...

Barbara I hope it is OK to ask this in a post but where and when do you teach about fabrics. I would love to learn from you directly.
P.S. I do have all your books!

Barbara Brackman said...

Laura--I have retired from teaching and traveling. Try to share what I know through blogs and other internet sites and in books. Thanks for asking.

Quiltingmama said...

Thank you, Barbara. This is a fascinating and sad story (but you already knew that).