Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



In Approaching Textiles, Varying Viewpoints: Proceedings of the Seventh Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2000


Copyright © 2000 by the author(s).


Two hundred years ago the American landscape included African American women and children toiling in the indigo and cotton fields. Indigo stains covered their arms, and the fermenting stench followed them around the landscape. During this time weaving mills began to appear on plantations and these same women were trained in the craft of weaving. Today that history is all but lost.

Certainly, these African American women weavers succeeded in dressing their mistresses; however, their most important impact on the American economic scene was to complete their masters' plan to create a self-sustaining slave based economy. Not only was slave labor valued for profit and prestige, it provided the planters with a chance to create a self-sustaining farm. The plan was that the costs and expenses of slavery would be absorbed by the labor of the slaves themselves. It was this philosophy that led to the creation of a slave-based textile industry and the creation of the female Negro textile artisan.

In the low country of North and South Carolina and the Chesapeake Bay region of Virginia, African American women played a very important role in the development of textile production prior to the industrial revolution. Beginning with the development of indigo production in the mid-1700s and expanding to cotton, African American women began working in what was to become the early textile economy. They worked the cotton and indigo fields, then toiled over the stench of the indigo vats. Thereafter, these women became the spinners, weavers and dyers of the plantation south, and the actual originators of a robust textile economy.