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Quilting and the Hopi

Updated on September 15, 2011

Learn how the Hopi embraced quilting and gave it meaning in their culture...

Introduced to the Hopi by missionaries in the 1880s, quilting has become a fixture in Hopi society over the last century. Quilting, along with other domestic skills, was taught to Hopi women in the hopes of anglicizing them. Instead, the women adapted quilting to their own customs to the extent that handmade quilts have been incorporated into one of their most important religious rituals.

The photo is a collage of images of Hopi people taken between 1893 and 2003. The woman at the bottom right was the first American First Nations female GI to die in combat.

Oraibi Pueblo, circa 1899
Oraibi Pueblo, circa 1899

Black Mesa

The Black Mesa of northeastern Arizona is a harsh but beautiful land that has been inhabited by the Hopi for centuries. There are 11 villages on the three individual mesas that extend out from Black Mesa (First, Second and Third Mesa). Dated to A.D. 1150, the village of Oraibi on Third Mesa is considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America.

Oraibi Pueblo, circa 1899, Wikimedia Commons

The Missionaries Arrive

A group of Mormon missionaries led by Jacob Hamblin arrived in Hopi country in 1858. This was just the first of many attempts by various religious denominations to convert the Hopi to Christianity.

The missionaries quickly discovered that sewing lessons and quilting bees were an effective way of drawing the Hopi to the mission. While the men and women would stitch, the missionaries would preach their sermons. Fabric and supplies would be handed out in small amounts so that the Hopi would return the following week in order to receive more.

Hopi weaver, 1879, Wikimedia Commons

Life on the Land

An agrarian society, the Hopi cultivate vegetables and cotton. Men farmed in the summer and spent the dormant winter season spinning and weaving cotton and wool textiles. By teaching the women sewing skills, the missionaries and government schools caused a reversal in traditional gender roles because historically, the men were responsible for manufacturing fabric and clothing. In the early days of the quilting bees, men often attended as well as women.

Hopi potterymaker, seated, with examples of her work (1900).

The women did not lack artistic skills however, because they were responsible for pottery making and basket weaving. There are many examples of decorative elements from these two crafts being used in quilting. For example, pottery motifs are painted onto white squares that are then pieced together.

Due to the harshness of the region (it is very cold in winter) and the limited resources available to the Hopi, by necessity, quilts are primarily utilitarian and few early quilts have survived because they were used until they wore out. A few have been documented indirectly in photographs taken during the first half of the twentieth century.

Hopi Baby Naming Tradition

A fascinating result of the introduction of quilting into Hopi society is the inclusion of quilts into their ritual of Baby-Naming. After giving birth, the mother and child are secluded for twenty days. On the morning of the twentieth day, the paternal grandmother gives a blessing with sacred ears of corn especially chosen for this purpose and gives the child a clan affiliated name.

She also gives the child a hand made quilt. After the grandmother has finished her blessing, other family members can also offer the baby a clan name and a quilt. Depending on the size of the family, the baby can end up with numerous quilts. This is a very brief synopsis of the Baby Naming ceremony. To learn more about this tradition, please read Hopi Quilting: Stitched Traditions from an Ancient Community by Carolyn O'Bagy Davis.

Hopi mother, Edward S. Curtis, 1922, Wikimedia Commons

The Peaceful Ones

The Hopi are called the "Peaceful Ones" and while the missionaries found that they were generally receptive to their teachings, they did not convert easily and have retained more of their ancient ways than most other native tribes in the United States. To me, this is exemplified by how they adopted quilting into their society. They quietly attended the quilting bees and learned what they could, went away with scraps of fabric that they could turn into quilts they could use for warmth and continued living their lives according to their old ways and customs.

The books that I used in researching this information are shown below.

Hopi Quilting Links

The subject of Hopi quilting is a bit obscure, but here are a few links that I found for your information.

Other Books about Native American Quilting

Native American Designs for Quilting
Native American Designs for Quilting

More than 160 inspiring designs, representing a wide range of Native American cultures, have been assembled by Dr. Joyce Mori, a well-known anthropologist. These patterns can be found on pottery and rugs, and they are used in beading, jewelry, and other crafts and are perfect for quilting motifs. The book spans the time from prehistory to the present, and where possible, the patterns have been identified by tribe or region.

Quilts of the Southwest
Quilts of the Southwest

These stunning quilts from award-winning designer J. Michelle Watts were inspired by the timeless motifs of the American Southwest. The influences of culture, landscape, color, and design come together to play a key role in the creation of this imaginative collection of quilt designs. Concise instructions and abundant step-by-step illustrations make the projects easy for everyone to follow.

This Old Quilt: A Heartwarming Celebration of Quilts And Quilting Memories
This Old Quilt: A Heartwarming Celebration of Quilts And Quilting Memories

"This Old Quilt" offers something for every quilter; stories are set in time periods from the turn of the 20th century to the modern day and range from the humorous to the historical to the heartwarming. Contributors include Alice Walker, Terry McMillan, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Whitney Otto, and Patricia J. Cooper and Norma Bradley Allen.


Did you enjoy learning about the Hopi and their quilting tradition?

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    • Redneck Lady Luck profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 4 years ago from Canada

      You really have found a wealth of information of fabric and quilting. I would never have associated the native people with quilting. Weaving yes but not the other. How enlightening.

    • RMKK-Marlene profile image

      RMKK-Marlene 6 years ago

      I am taking a beginner quilting class this afternoon and decided to check out some quilting lenses. I love this historical account of the Hopi and their quilting tradition. I see other angels like your lens too. ^SquidAngel Blessed^

    • Charlino99 profile image

      Tonie Cook 6 years ago from USA

      Wonderful information.

    • Ann Hinds profile image

      Ann Hinds 6 years ago from So Cal

      Great lens. We spent several weeks touring the Hopi Reservation and tried to soak in all the handiwork that is so appealing. Angel blessed.

    • MamaRuth profile image

      MamaRuth 7 years ago

      I enjoyed this lens very much. Very interesting tie-in of two fascinating topics.

    • profile image

      tssfacts 7 years ago

      Great Lens. I am featuring it on my hand quilt vs machine quilt lens.

    • justholidays profile image

      justholidays 8 years ago

      Just came back to this lens to spread a little more love.Blessed by a SquidAngel.

    • FlynntheCat1 profile image

      FlynntheCat1 8 years ago

      Wow, a fascinating lens. Blessed.

    • lollyj lm profile image

      Laurel Johnson 8 years ago from Washington KS

      Fascinating lens. I just loved it!! 5 to you and Merry Christmas!!

    • Wednesday-Elf profile image

      Wednesday-Elf 8 years ago from Savannah, Georgia

      Your quilting series not only shows us some gorgeous designs and background history of quilts, but fascinating stories of the origins and use of quilts in many societies. This one about the Hopi Indians is extremely interesting. A 5+ lens!

    • justholidays profile image

      justholidays 8 years ago

      What a fantastic lens! Not only do I learn a lot about these people but I've always been interested in customs of Indian Americans - by the way, they're beautiful!Dom.

    • ZenandChic profile image

      Patricia 8 years ago

      Wonderful lens!

    • Heather426 profile image

      Heather Burns 8 years ago from Wexford, Ireland

      love it! 5*****