Category Archives: Quilting history

I LOVE to Talk About Quilts and Quilting!

If you love to talk and love to quilt, there are few things more fun than talking about quilting. Count me in!

GUILD PRESENTATIONS

This year I’ve had a chance to share my quilts and thoughts on quilting a number of times. Guild presentations are the best! Here are some photos from my talk with the guild in Waverly, IA. Click any photo to open the gallery and see them bigger.

I have presentations on medallion quilts, the Mill Girls, and the Underground Railroad Quilt Code. The latter two are very appropriate for historical societies or other groups, as well as quilt guilds. Besides my classes on medallion design and construction, I’m currently developing a couple more workshops. Check my page on presentations and classes, and please contact me if you’d like to know more.

PODCASTS

Besides guild presentations, I had a whole lot of fun talking with Elizabeth Townsend Gard, head of research on the Just Wanna Quilt project. I have two podcast interviews in the can and am scheduled to speak with her again soon.

I wrote about the project and linked my first podcast here. Click on this link to find the recording. It’s 52 minutes, on the long side. We talk about how and why I started quilting, what medallion quilts are, how I see green quilting and our responsibility as quilters to make the Earth a better place, and more. The second podcast is shorter and can be found here.

MY QUILT IN HOUSTON! 

The last fun thing I want to share with you is that I had a quilt at the Houston International Quilt Festival in November! Okay, full disclosure: it was in Houston at Quilt Festival, but it was in a booth, not on exhibit. The Just Wanna Quilt project had a non-profit booth, to reach more quilters and investigate the dynamics of a large quilt show. My quilt Dizzy helped decorate the booth.

Sharing about quilts and quilting, not much better than that!

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Just Wanna Quilt

Have you heard about Just Wanna Quilt? It is a research project on quilting, with the ultimate focus on copyright and intellectual property issues of the quilting industryElizabeth Townsend Gard, the lead researcher, law professor, and a quilter herself, is going full-immersion into quilting to understand the subject better.

The long-term goal for the project, as summarized by Abby Glassenberg of While She Naps,

is to create two bodies of work about intellectual property as it relates to quilting … The first will be intended for the hobby quilter. It will include “everything you need to know about copyright and intellectual property when it comes to quilting. Just simple. So that we can get everyone on the same page on things they don’t understand.” The other will be a more in-depth work for people in the quilting industry. “Every single person in this field is using materials and you should feel confident in what you do with them so that you don’t get in trouble, or if you get in trouble you do it deliberately,” she says.

In a lot of academic research, the initial stage is a review of the existing literature. In quilting, there is very little formal (academic) research existing, outside of quilting history. Elizabeth’s project includes surveying the whole landscape to create a basis for the research product. To do so, she’s initiated a series of podcasts, interviewing dozens of participants in the quilting industry, from corporate leaders, entrepreneurs, fabric and pattern designers, and hobby quilters.

You can find those interviews here. I’ve barely scratched the surface listening to them — there are dozens, and more being added all the time. Most of them run between about 30 and 60 minutes. They’re the perfect thing to listen to while you’re working on a project. Elizabeth’s interview style is very conversational. She comes across as charming and funny, and the focus is always on the interview subject and their part of the quilting world. It’s so interesting and I’ve already learned so much.

And here is a fun thing — she’s just posted a podcast interviewing ME! Click on this link to find the recording. It’s 52 minutes, on the long side. We talk about how and why I started quilting, what medallion quilts are, how I see green quilting and our responsibility as quilters to make the Earth a better place, and more.

In truth I’m not sure how this helps the research, but I had so much fun sharing my quilting world. 🙂 Thanks in advance if you choose to listen. Either way, check out the long list of podcasts available. If you love quilting, you’re sure to find this fascinating, as I do.

Resources for Quilt History

In the excitement of the modern era of quilting, we sometimes forget that people have been quilting since ancient times. The simplest definition of a quilt is two layers of fabric with padding between, and stitching through all three layers. Given this, there is some evidence of an Egyptian pharaoh wearing a quilt more than 5,000 years ago.

More recently and with stronger evidence, quilting seems to have arisen in Europe centuries ago. (Don’t be fooled, though! Cultures across the globe have long histories of quilting. It is NOT merely a European or American construct.) Quilted garments were used for warmth and for armor. Only later were quilts used to line walls as insulation, or used as bed coverings.

Most quilts with which we’re familiar are bed covers from the 1800s through present. Whole cloth, broderie perse, early medallions and block quilts, crazy quilts from the 1880s, we’ve all seen photos of antique textiles. The peripheries of quilting history include so much more. Slavery, industrialization, labor history, women’s rights, art; all are part of quilting’s story.

I love the history of our art, in all its beauty and shame. I’m inspired intellectually as I consider the constraints under which our predecessors worked. Visual inspiration comes at all turns, from the most technically perfect pieces to those created with a freer hand.

We’re so fortunate to be able to access much of that story. With online resources, books, and groups, we can learn more easily than ever. How and why did various quilting styles arise? What technological advances changed our methods? What was the impact from the social, economic, or political environment?

Here are a few resources you may find helpful in answering some of these questions. I invite you to suggest more links and other means to find out more.

Web Resources
There are so many museums and other institutions that have put collections online. If you have favorites, please share.

The Quilt Index — searchable database of tens of thousands of photos and quilt stories from all eras and collections around the world.

Material Culture — a broad look at fabric and quilt history by respected historian Barbara Brackman.

Women’s Work: Quilts — a new blog by Brackman looking at quilts within the context of economics and the business of quilting.

Civil War Quilts — Barbara Brackman’s blog chock full of information on both textiles and quilts from the 1800s.

Womenfolk.com — a variety of articles on the history of quilting in America, with some connections to other cultures and countries, by Judy Anne Breneman

Quilthistory.com — lots of articles, links and other resources from group-list members. It appears the group is closed or disbanded now, but some of the resources may be worth your look.

Books
I’ll only list a few of my favorites here, but feel free to suggest more in comments.

American Quilts: The Democratic Art, 1780-2007  by Robert Shaw — one of my favorite texts, with large full-color photos on at least half of the 376 pages. Shaw acknowledges the origins of quilting prior to the American experience, but he delves deeply into quilting in this country. The roles of slavery, industrialization, economics, and politics are all discussed. It is gorgeous and clearly written. If I could only keep one book on quilt history, it would be this.

Making History: Quilts & Fabric From 1890-1970 by Barbara Brackman — Brackman’s book, one of many by her, reviews fabrics, dyes, and print patterns over an eighty-year period, along with popular quilt styles of the time. The text gives plenty of information and full-color photos to help anyone interested in the subject. As a bonus, there are patterns for nine projects inspired by different eras. I haven’t reviewed the project instructions so can’t tell you about writing quality or accuracy of the directions, but the quilts are appealing.

Dating Fabrics: A Color Guide 1800-1960 by Eileen Jahnke Trestain — this is in essence a swatch book, using photos rather than slips of fabric. Taking two or three decades at a time, Trestain groups fabrics by color, showing the evolution of colors and print styles over 160 years. She also discusses changes in dyes and manufacture, as well as quilt styles. For a small book, there is a lot of information packed in.

Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns by Barbara Brackman — my edition, published in 1993, is a comprehensive reference of quilt blocks, including pieced sashing and strip quilts. The blocks are presented as line drawings in black and white. Each is numbered for indexing, and identified by names and source. Many blocks have multiple names, and many names have multiple block styles. Each pattern category includes a key, grouping blocks by construction method for ease of finding. I don’t use this book a lot but I’m sure glad to have it.

Museums
There are museums that focus on quilting history, and other museums that exhibit primarily contemporary quilts. Still others have a broader range but may have continuing or special exhibits on quilts. Here are just a few.

International Quilt Study Center & Museum, Lincoln, NE — though the emphasis here is on quilt study and preservation, the museum is a premier site for exhibitions as well. They have several galleries with exhibitions that turn over regularly. They also have online resources to view.

Kalona Quilt & Textile Museum, Kalona, IA — this small museum has ongoing exhibits featuring Amish quilts. In addition, another gallery hosts changing exhibits of “English” (non-Amish) quilts.

Quilters Hall of Fame, Marion, IN — I haven’t been to this museum, so can’t say with confidence how it’s arranged or what the galleries feature. I do know if I were driving through the area (between Indianapolis and Fort Wayne,) I’d make the effort to stop.

This list from Craftsy offers more quilt museums you might find compelling, though they don’t necessarily have a historical context.

Groups
Across the US and internationally there must be many groups whose mission is to study quilt history. Unfortunately, I only know of one group that specializes in quilted textiles. That is
The American Quilt Study Group

Do you have favorite resources about quilt history? Please let us know in comments.

Quilts From Central Asia

Last month Jim and I traveled across northern Nebraska and through Wyoming to Yellowstone National Park. We’ve posted several times about our 3,000 mile road trip in our joint blog, Our View From Iowa.

When we returned, we dropped south into Colorado before driving across southern Nebraska. For our route, the most convenient way to cross the Missouri River is on I-80 at Omaha. To get that far, we went through Lincoln, NE, home of the International Quilt Study Center & Museum.

A few days before, Jim asked me if I wanted to stop at the museum on the way by. Well, YEAH! I visited the museum with my sister a few years ago and was glad for the opportunity to go back.

The current exhibits included four small galleries, none of which drew my interest. Besides the small exhibits, a large gallery displayed dozens of quilts and other textiles from Central Asia.

It’s easy (for Americans!) to believe that quilting has its origins in the US, and is primarily an American craft. But people quilt all over the world and have since early textile history. The quilts in this exhibit show the beauty of a quilting tradition with which we’re less familiar.

The items on display played many functions. There were household objects, such as bedding and wall-hangings to decorate the interior of yurts. Some clothing for children had triangle motifs to bestow protection from danger. And horse “blankets” would dress up the plainest horse. Here are just a few of the many objects. Click on any picture to open BIG in a new tab.

Patchwork and embroidered wall hanging from southern Kyrgyzstan, mid-20th century. Note the combination of pineapple and other blocks in the outer borders. Also see how the HST are a little unpredictable.

We missed the label on this one. See the asymmetry with the extra border on left side. Also the placement of blocks is asymmetrical. Some of the blocks are unpieced ikat.

Patchwork hanging from Uzbekistan, mid-20th century. The tiniest flying geese I’ve ever seen. See how the corner blocks differ on all these miniature pieces of the bigger quilt.

Patchwork hanging from Uzbekistan, mid-20th century. So intricate! And note the background setting triangles for each of the blocks. Have you ever been so bold?

Wholecloth ikat quilt, Uzbekistan mid-20th century. I want this…

Embroidered quilt, Uzbekistan, late 19th-century. This reminds me of Indian coverlets from the 1700s.

I could have spent a lot more time looking at these beautiful pieces. But the road called and we headed home.

Quilt Myth #2: Quilts Helped African-American Slaves Escape

Let’s start with the punchline: NO. Or at least, NO, there is NO evidence that this is true.

The myth is that quilts were used in an “Underground Railroad Quilt Code” to help slaves escape their bondage.

The story was propagated by authors Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard, Ph.D., in the book Hidden in Plain View. The book was published in 1999. Though it was not the first reference to the idea that quilts helped slaves escape to the north, it is the most famous.

Author Tobin met Ozella McDaniel Williams in 1994. Williams was a South Carolina quilt vendor who told Tobin stories she claimed were passed down through her family. This oral history, if confirmed, would change our understanding of methods of communicating about the Underground Railroad and routes to freedom.

According to Williams, there were eleven quilt blocks in the code. The blocks were sewn into quilts, which would be displayed one at a time on fences or clothes lines. Because it was normal to air quilts regularly, showing the quilts this way wouldn’t arouse suspicion by owners or overseers.

The blocks shown below are woven into Williams’ version discussed in the book. Some versions include other blocks, as well.

A short version of the code says

The Monkey Wrench turns the Wagon Wheel toward Canada on a Bear’s Paw trail to the Crossroads. Once they got to the Crossroads, they dug a Log Cabin on the ground. Shoofly told them to dress up in cotton and satin Bow Ties and go to the cathedral church, get married and exchange Double Wedding Rings. Flying Geese stay on the Drunkard’s Path and follow the Stars.

The book presents this very short interpretation, but it includes linkages and suppositions and speculations about the meanings of all the blocks, as well. For example, the Bear’s Paw block shown above is interpreted as both a map of the plantation itself, as well as advice to follow actual bears’ trails over the mountain. A mesh of related research about African symbolism, escape routes, and information about the times is used to support the premise.

The Evidence
Strong evidence in support of this story could consist of testimony of escaped slaves, or from former slaves after emancipation; testimony from freedom activists; public records or contemporary writings; or remaining textiles with long provenance and supporting documentation, among other things. Weaker evidence in support might include other contemporary information such as textile availability and use, for example; or direct linkages between African symbolism and the quilt code.

If none of this evidence exists, there is no support for the claim that quilts were used as part of an Underground Railroad communication system, helping slaves to escape.

When the book was published, historians eagerly reviewed the possibilities to answer the question: Were quilts used to help guide slaves to freedom? Reputable historians of both the Underground Railroad and of quilts agree: there is insufficient evidence to support the premise that a quilt code was used to communicate this way.

In short, NO, there is no evidence the myth is true. 

I’ve written much, much more about this in a prior post on the Underground Railroad Quilt Code. It is a lengthy post, which is why I did not recreate it in full here, and I encourage you to take a look if you’re interested to know more.

I see this myth repeated too frequently, including a reference to it just the other day. The story is included in school lesson plans and incorporated into popular fiction. As I said at the end of the linked post, “Truth is strength. We don’t need to pretty it up with cozy quilts and homey images. We owe it to those who suffered slavery, to ourselves and our children, and to the future, to know and tell the truth.”

If you’d like to read about Quilt Myth #1, please see this post.