Tag Archives: Quilt history

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.

 

Quilt Myth #1: Quilts Originated from Necessity

There are a number of pervasive myths in quilting, some of them so ingrained that even long-time quilters believe them. It’s time to take on a few of these to set the record straight!

The first myth is one I see perpetuated frequently. It’s the story that quilting came about as a way to use scraps and used clothing, by people who had nothing else to use.

Of course, innumerable quilts were created just this way, and still are. People using the bits and pieces available have long made bed clothes both utilitarian and beautiful, from scraps of new fabric and cuts from salvageable parts of used clothing. But this is not the origin of quilting.

There is evidence that quilting may have existed at least 5,400 years ago. Yes, you read that right! According to quilt historian Averil Colby, an ivory statuette of a First Dynasty Egyptian pharaoh shows he wore a quilted robe. The photo in the attached link doesn’t show it well, but a side view with different lighting shows heavy relief with a diamond pattern. The relief suggests indentations made by decorative stitching (quilting,) rather than a surface design.

From the next 5,000 years, there are extant a number of examples of quilts, created for a variety of uses across Asia and Europe. In the Middle Ages, quilted garments were used as body armor. The garments were called “gambeson,” and they looked quite like quilted jackets that people wear now.

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Docent at Edinburgh Castle with audience volunteer. She is wearing the gambeson, quilted body armor. 2016.

Over the centuries, quilted objects also included rugs, wall- and window-hangings for both decoration and warmth, undergarments, and outer layers of clothing. These items were made from a variety of fibers, including wool, linen, silk, and cotton. The preferred fiber depended on the type of object as well as the region in which it was made.

In the New World in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the quilts with which we’re familiar were mostly bedding. But they were not common. They were objects in homes of the affluent. Fine fabric was scarce. It was mostly imported and subject to heavy taxes.

Cotton fabric, in particular, was rare and expensive. As a crop in America, cotton was not mature. The modern cotton gin, used for separating fibers from seeds, was not invented until 1793. The new process allowed the variety of cotton grown inland to be economically feasible, but until then, raw cotton production was quite low. The first American textile mills emulating English technology didn’t open until 1814, and production took decades to ramp up, along with the cotton fiber crop.

Then as today, quilts were many times more expensive than woven blankets. They were listed in estate documents (wills) and included in dowry chests. They were luxury items that took tremendous time to create. Only people of means had the leisure time or the servants or slaves to expend that amount of time.

Because fabric is fragile and perishable, the historical record has unavoidable gaps. Textiles that experienced the hardest use are least likely to persist. But that also argues against the notion that “used clothing” was a resource for making quilts. In the days when most people had two or three changes of clothing, when use was hard and washing methods harsh, there were no “good” scraps left when clothing was ready to be replaced. While even that cloth may have been layered with stitching, it would have created the crudest type of covering.

It may be that the myth persists because so many of us have family heirlooms, quilts made during the Depression or in the 1940s. Many of these quilts used feed sack fabric, or did include scraps from either new sewing projects or from older clothes. However, even in these relatively meager times, fabric was much more available than it was a hundred years before.

Quilting’s story is long. It is a mistake to assume that what we know from recent history can be generalized over the longer term. In this case the assumption is just wrong. Quilting did not originate from necessity. On the contrary, it was a household craft for those who could afford multiple layers of fabric for one object, and the time required to create it.

What quilting myths would you like explored here? There are a number I can think of, but I’d like to know what notions you’re interested in. 

Needles

I ordered longarm needles the other day. It was so easy to do that I could take for granted the availability of sewing needles. But needles have not always been so common.

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Last summer a needle was found in a cave in Siberia. It was a little more than 7 centimeters long (about 3″,) made of bird bone. It is the oldest complete needle found and was made some 50,000 years ago. The maker was not homo sapiens, or even Neanderthal. It was Denisovan, a contemporary species of hominid! Other ancient needles have been found in places ranging from southern Africa to China to eastern Europe.

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Elias Howe, an inventor of the sewing machine, developed the needle with the thread hole at the pointed tip. According to legend, “He had the idea of a machine with a needle which would go through a piece of cloth but he couldn’t figure out exactly how it would work. In his dream, cannibals were preparing to cook him and they were dancing around the fire waving their spears. Howe noticed at the head of each spear there was a small hole through the shaft and the up-and-down motion of the spears and the hole remained with him when he woke.” This dream led to his contributions to the modern sewing machine, circa 1845.

***

By 1847 with the introduction of specialty machinery, more than 50 million needles were made each week in the Redditch district of England. These needles were for hand-sewing tasks, and Redditch still specializes in them. (I’ve been looking for information about needle production in the US during the 1800s, but so far haven’t found any.) During the US Civil War, sewing needles became hard to acquire by Southern civilians. The North’s blockade kept most imported supplies from reaching southern ports. Soldiers’ uniforms and bedding took priority for the supplies that could be purchased or made. The lack of needles for civilians meant that repairing old clothing and bedding was difficult, if not impossible.

***

On the American frontier, settlers faced deprivations of many kinds. In 1855 the community of Pass Creek Canyon in Wyoming was visited by a peddler named Aaron Meier. He brought his wares to the remote settlers, including fabrics, tools, and candies. But the item they needed most was darning needles, as it had been months since the last one broke. With Christmas coming, the Jewish peddler made a gift of all the needles he had to the women of the community. Aaron Meier later founded Meier and Frank department stores in Portland, OR.

***

While England still dominates the production of hand-sewing needles, Germany makes the majority of machine sewing needles. Groz-Beckert and Schmetz are two brands you may know. Here is a fascinating video by Schmetz showing how needles are made.

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Needles are not scarce anymore in the US. There is no reason not to replace them when they’re due. When a needle is dull, it needs to punch its way through fabric layers, making a popping sound. When it is sharp, it doesn’t make that noise. In addition, your machine motor needs to work a little harder with a dull needle, and you may hear the machine laboring.

Experts recommend changing the needle every 8-10 hours of sewing (machine time, not cutting, pressing, and pondering time). That may not sound like a lot, but if your machine stitches 1,000 stitches per minute, that’s actually about a HALF MILLION stitches! While you’re stitching, you may sew through several layers of fabric and batting, and occasionally hit pins. (I do!) Your needle takes a lot of abuse.

Take a look at some great photos by Schmetz Needles USA of a needle that looks sharp. Once magnified with increasing power, you can see the burr on the tip. A dull needle doesn’t do your machine or your project any good.

And please dispose of your needles carefully. I use an empty yogurt cup with a hole poked through the lid. When I get rid of needles, bent pins, and dead rotary cutter blades, they go in there. And the cup is always safely out of reach of children!

Presentations in 2017

I still have openings for presentations and workshops in 2017. And it’s not too early to book for 2018! I’m located in east central Iowa and can travel.

Contact me at catbirdquilts @ gmail.com for more information or to schedule guild presentations or classes.

LECTURES OR PRESENTATIONS

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Medallion Quilts Design Basics

What challenges do medallion quilts present? Learn the basics of medallion quilt design principles, including unity, symmetry, balance, proportion, and movement. Find out how to achieve these with color, value, shape and size, line, and placement. Mixed presentation including PowerPoint slides and trunk show. Approximately 1 hour.

The Underground Railroad Quilt Code: History, Mystery, or Bunk?

Were quilts used to help slaves escape? What codes might have been used to convey information to fugitive slaves? What was the legal, economic, and political environment during the Underground Railroad years? This class looks at pre-Civil War history and existing evidence on the quilt code. Approximately 1 hour.

The Mill Girls, Revolutionaries in America

Who were the Mill Girls and where did they come from? What part did they play in changing America forever? How did the textile industry in which they worked propel slavery in the U.S.?  Learn the fascinating stories about how these girls and young women drove the industrial revolution in America,  led the labor and women’s rights movements, and helped bring quilters to where we are today. Approximately 1 hour.

Collaborative Quilting and Round Robins

Most of us collaborate in our quilting, using patterns designed by others or creating with partners. Round robins are group projects that pass through the hands of a number of quilters. Round robins are fun and challenging, stretching quilters’ creative powers. Learn about the joys and challenges of collaborative quilting, including sample rules for round robins. Approximately 1 hour.

CLASSES and WORKSHOPS

UntitledHaving Fun with Economy Blocks

Learn to make Economy blocks the size you want for a setting you love. Using them alone, you can create fun and stunning scrap quilts. Brainstorm other ways to use these versatile blocks and begin to see the possibilities. You’ll learn how alternate blocks can create a sparkling secondary design. You’ll see other settings such as in borders, medallion centers, or as the beginning of a great modern quilt. This one-day workshop is fun for quilters of all skill levels.

Medallions for Beginning Quilters

Can you measure and cut accurately and sew a pretty good 1/4″ seam? Have you noticed all the modern medallion quilts around and want to get in on the fun? Or maybe you love the history and beauty of traditional medallions. Join me to learn some basic medallion techniques. You’ll improve your 1/4″ seam, chain-piece, press, and construct five basic blocks. We’ll cover multiple methods to make half-square triangles and flying geese, so you can choose what works best for you. With blocks in hand you’ll assemble them into a medallion quilt top. This 5-session class is for confident beginners.

Medallion Improv!

This Design-As-You-Go class will show you strategies and techniques to customize a medallion quilt. Whether you love modern style, traditional, or somewhere in between, your imagination and favorite fabrics will create a quilt unique to you! You’ll learn how to create a center block to serve as your focal point and inspiration; choose and size borders to enhance the center block and each other; and lots of tricks for dealing with color, shape, value, balance, and unity. This 5-session class is for the experienced quilter who isn’t afraid to design her own quilts or change patterns to suit her own vision. Class size is limited due to extensive discussion time needed.

Contact me at catbirdquilts @ gmail.com for more information or to schedule guild presentations or classes.

Body Armor

While touring Edinburgh Castle, Jim and I encountered a man describing medieval arms. He demonstrated the long bow and the crossbow, detailing differences between them. One of the great benefits of these weapons is they could be used from a distance. Closer contact between enemies was dangerous for both.

He showed us a gambeson, or quilted coat. It looked remarkably like the coats worn by many in the audience. Its purpose, though, was not warmth, but protection. It could protect the skin from cuts and tears rendered in close combat.

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Docent with audience volunteer. She is wearing the gambeson, quilted body armor, and a helmet and is holding the crossbow.

The demonstration reminded me of an essay I wrote a few years ago, while at the tail end of recovery from depression and anxiety. Excerpts from it are below.


BODY ARMOR

This morning I awoke thinking of body armor. Imagine the padded chest protectors used by umpires, or those worn by fencers. These carry on a design idea with ancient origins. In the Middle Ages, thickly padded, quilted material was used to make body armor. It protected the warrior from blows of early weaponry.

Body armor, a means to protect oneself from attack.

The quilted armor, torn through all three layers, tattered and frayed. Underneath the skin is mottled, bruised, still tender. It heals, but slowly. My armor, variable in heft, could not protect me. I sit, needle in hand, pondering how to mend it, reinforce it.

I have mended quilts before, but never all the way through. Repairs can be simple enough, depending on the nature of the rip. If threads are loose at a seam, tuck them back in and stitch, following the same line. If the fabric is rent, darning or patching may secure it. These tears, though, and there are many, these will take time.

***

We all carry armor. For some it is thin, easily penetrated. Others have thick, sturdy armor that lets nothing in. And we all have potential sources of attack.

Clubs, chains, arrows and swords, most of the danger came from close combat. It still does.
Usually the risks are emotional rather than physical. Most of us have people in our lives who provide a continuing stream of negative emotion. A co-worker’s tone of voice, gossip, or undermining; a family member’s repeated reminders of mistakes made, or warnings of those yet to be made. Besides things done “to us,” we have loss, worry, hardship. All can take their toll, leaving us damaged and weakened. We are vulnerable and hurt and afraid.

We’ve all been taught to be afraid of strangers, replacing potential trust with suspicion. We’ve all been cautioned about sharing too much personal information, especially in the age of identity theft and cyber-stalking. We hide ourselves from others, careful not to reveal facts or feelings. If they don’t know what hurts us, it’s less likely they will.

***

“God has given you one face and you make yourselves another.” We all obscure ourselves with masks, partly in the roles we play. Mother, spouse, employee, brother. We create contracts with others based on these roles. As a mother, I hesitate to share my personal concerns with my children. As a mother, I should be strong, helpful, wise.

Last year my mother-mask dropped. The year was a journey through dark and uncomfortable places, with an anxiety disorder that came from nowhere and took over my life. Self-criticism replaced self-confidence, tears replaced contentment, withdrawal replaced responsiveness.

My already-thin armor was shredded by a swirl of unceasing questions, by panic that left me gasping for breath. One day in March I entered a campus office to pick up exams. Before I could speak, my emotional strength left, puddling on the floor, leaving me fully exposed. There is no armor, no safety when you are doubled over, panting and helpless. The only defense then is the compassion of others, those who would protect you when you cannot protect yourself.

Characterized by powerlessness, self-doubt, and confusion, my anxiety was evident to those who knew me best. Those, except my children. With none of them at home, it was easy to hide the damage at first. Eventually, they all could sense my unease and unhappiness.

Besides the roles we play, other masks are those of personality: funny, patient, kind, verbose. Some put on a happy mask, or a calm mask, suffering the slings and arrows while pretending they’ve done no harm. We hide the wounds, we hide our true selves by presenting a false persona. If you think I am funny, must I always be funny? Even when I am in pain? Class clowns and comedians have the reputation of hiding their pain, anger, and anxiety with laughter. Surely they are not the only ones.

***

Threading my needle with a sturdy strand, I begin on the outer layer. If I can fix what people will see, the rest will not seem as urgent. First I slide the thread into a hole, leaving a knot within the layer of batting. Out again, I take neat stitches, pulling the fabric taut. As each tear is mended, I bury the knots inside.

Each stitch I take is a breath, each breath a question with no answer. Though I’m accustomed now to the absence of answers, my discomfort is palpable, physical. Each stitch is a small stab that brings both healing and pain.

The smaller rips go easily, receding into the whole. The larger ones leave evidence, with stitches crossing the grain of cloth in multiple directions. The worst area, above my heart, is a mess, still visible to all. Perhaps an appliqué in cheery print will distract from the damage done.

***

Physical barriers can protect us, too. Fences, imposing homes, possessions, excess weight, can be ways to create a moat between us and others, or between us and what else we may fear. Those who overcame poverty may fear returning to hardship. They may calm those fears by owning things, assuring themselves of their relative wealth.

Sweet may be the uses of adversity, but few of us will embrace it gladly. It’s easy to remember Scarlett O’Hara’s triumphant moment, raising her face to the sky, “As God is my witness … I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.” Her fear of want overwhelmed her ability to make good judgments. Her armor grew tougher and thicker than ever in her quest for security.

While most of us put up fences, some are open. We are open about our pain and about our joy. We tell people when we care about them; we tell them what we value about them. It is a vulnerable position to take. The risks are even greater pain, both from the actual blows, and also from humiliation. Must everyone know the arrow’s tearing of flesh? Yes. When you are that open, yes, they will know.

***

Early this year, I suffered another heavy blow, this one from outside myself. Tearing out the back of my armor, the knife stabs hit over and over, taking advantage of my weakness. The wounds are deep, their scars still scabbed and stiff. Reminders of the attack come as I move through each day, my routine altered by injury. “What wound did ever heal but by degrees?”

Though I hadn’t finished repairing the previous harm, this new destruction takes precedence. I must decide whether to reinforce the armor, or merely repair it to its earlier strength.

***

My armor has evolved. In my teens and early twenties, I was one of those known as a “good listener.” Others shared their stories with me, but I rarely shared my own. Now I disclose, but I do not burn bridges, I do not name names, what I reveal is about myself, not about others. That is for them to reveal.

“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.” Trust is my challenge. Part of my anxiety last year centered on how my judgment could be so faulty, my trust so badly placed. The most recent attack showed me again that trust should be carefully allocated. As I rebuild my armor, it is thicker, heavier than I want to wear.

And still I love, and still I trust, though not as readily.

I am open. I see it as a feature, not a flaw. Yes, it has its risks. Still, they are risks I’ll choose to take. I get to choose, and I choose to be open. I get to choose, and I choose love.