Tag Archives: Quilt history

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.



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.


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.


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.


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.

The Future of Quilting, Part 2

I’m overwhelmed by what wonderful comments were contributed to my Part 1 post. Based on those responses, quilting is alive and well, at least with those who read here. (If you’d like to chime in, please do. I think we’ve all had fun reading these.) 

Quilting is a living craft, with a long history dating to ancient Egypt, and a long future stretching out far beyond our imagination. Like many crafts, especially those primarily engaged for self-expression, quilting’s popularity ebbs and flows. Influences include other parts of popular culture, resources available (including time,) and alternative means of self-expression. Only after printed fabric became readily and economically available in the early 1800s did quilting blossom as a pastime in the US. Prior to that, it was a rich woman’s hobby to create decorative objects, not primarily a means to create warm bed coverings, or to use up scraps.

Quilting’s current popularity has been, on average, growing since the 1970s. The ’60s ecology movement and the US bicentennial in 1976 helped spur interest that had waned throughout the middle of the century. From double-knits (who quilted with these?) to cotton-poly blends to twee calicoes to today’s wide variety of colors and prints, the options expanded. In 1979 the first rotary cutter was introduced, and gradually acceptance was granted for machine stitching, and even machine-quilting!

Today we live in a sweet spot for quilting. What other options could there be for cutting or stitching or quilting than those already available? These tasks can be done by machine or by hand, with sophisticated tools or those used for centuries. Either way, it is still a matter of layering three materials and stitching through them. What new could be done to attract more to the hobby?

in the last post I mentioned a couple of events that set me thinking about this subject. The first was the announcement last week of the demise of Quilters Newsletter. It will cease publication after the October issue. The magazine, around for 47 years, was a big part of the bicentennial revival of quilting. QN is known for its wide-ranging look at the quilting field, including interviews and reviews, information on shows, reader submissions, historical features, and patterns. I list patterns last because it is not a pattern magazine, unlike most others out there. In fact, it is the third magazine to shutter recently that didn’t focus on patterns. (There may be more — list them if you think of others.) The Quilt Life, featuring Alex Anderson and Ricky Tims, ceased publication in 2014. Quilter’s Home, published by the same company as Quilters Newsletter, ended in 2011.

When Quilter’s Home announced its closure, the editor’s blog said, “Effective with the August/September issue, Quilter’s Home will cease publication. Why? It seems more of you are turning to the web for quilting lifestyle information rather than the newsstand.” The internet killed the magazine.

The cause of Quilters Newsletter‘s closure wasn’t announced, though it apparently was accompanied by a series of layoffs by the parent company. In her post about it, Abby Glassenberg of While She Naps added more in comments:

In talking with several magazine publishers this week I’ve come to learn that it often isn’t subscriptions that keep a magazine afloat, it’s advertisers. It seems that the big companies that used to pay for print ads in sewing magazines (the sewing machine companies, fabric, thread, and notions companies) are now allocating their ad dollars differently (paying for Facebook ads, paying for Google search) and are reaching their audience directly through social media. Without their ad dollars it’s very difficult for magazines to stay afloat.

It might be that the future of publishing and the future of quilting are unrelated, but I don’t think so. Magazine publishers depend on advertisers; advertisers must find the viewers/readers/clicks where they can, and apparently it isn’t on the printed page. Or if it is, it must be on the pages of pattern magazines, which seem created simply to sell us lines of fabric.

What do we, as quilters, want from quilting periodicals? And why do we want it? Do you want your quilting magazines on paper or online, or both? Do you want to find both articles and patterns? Do you want articles focused on technique, or on personalities within the industry, or on industry trends, or on … what? Please feel free to comment below.

The other event that spurred my questions about the future of quilting was my local 4-H county fair. (4-H is a US organization for kids. It is delivered by university extension services to every county and parish in the country.) On Sunday I volunteered to judge this year’s quilt projects for my local guild. Though the fair has separate judging, my guild also reviews the entries and provides a prize for each of the three age groups. It is intended as motivation to continue in the craft. This was my fourth time judging and had the fewest entries by far. The intermediate age group (I think 7th – 9th grade) had only one entry, while the junior and senior categories had four each.

Who teaches kids to quilt? And how can we get more of them excited about trying? Are there ways to engage young adults?

I do not worry about quilting’s death. Barring catastrophe (widespread cotton blight, world war, worldwide economic depression…) I believe quilting will continue. As noted above, the popularity will ebb and flow over time for numerous reasons. But the craft and the industry continue to change through time. Individually most of us have little to no impact on either. Collectively there may be more impact. It might be fun to take a look at trends in quilting next…

What do you think about the health of quilting as a craft, and as an industry? I’d love to hear your comments below. 

Underground Railroad Quilt Code

Last year my niece and her husband were traveling through Iowa. They stopped at a rest area near Wilton. Afterward she sent me the following pictures.

URCQ rest stop in Iowa code
URCQ rest area tile work
URQC sampler

The Iowa government website, traveliowa.com, says this about the display:

When you’re driving on I-80 by Wilton, you won’t want to miss the interstate rest area that features interpretive panels that explain Cedar County’s involvement in the Underground Railroad as well as the story of the “Underground Railroad Quilt Code.” Secret messages were hidden in quilts through geometric patterns and the sequencing of stitches and knots to “map” the path slaves should follow to freedom. These safe routes were displayed in the everyday custom of hanging quilts out to dry.

I’ve never stopped at this rest area before. If I had, I would have been quite dismayed to see the displays. The fact is, there is no proof and no reason to believe quilts were used to convey secret messages. Below the bar I’ve reposted a story I first published three years ago, which tells the whole story.


Did quilts help guide escaped slaves to safety? Did different quilt blocks have specific meanings to slaves, perhaps based on their African past? Was the pattern of stitches and knots informative about routes to take, perhaps creating a topographical map?

The most famous telling of a quilt code says that indeed, quilts were a vital part of the Underground Railroad, and their history with it was unwritten until very recently.

One of the blocks in the quilt code is the Bear’s Paw, shown here.

This pattern consists of several squares, rectangles, and right triangles. When different scraps of fabric are used, the pattern takes on the complexity of a map that is remarkably similar in design to the African Hausa embroidered map of a village …Just as the Hausa design defines the perimeter of the village and identifies major landmarks, the Bear’s Paw pattern could be used to identify landmarks on the border of the plantation …

Because the bears lived in the mountains and knew their way around, their tracks served as road maps enabling the fugitives to navigate their way through the mountains. … The bears’ trails formed a map.

From Hidden in Plain View, by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard, Ph.D.

Slaves escaped in all directions. We are used to thinking of them traveling north to Canada. But in fact they also went south to Mexico and Spanish Florida, disappeared into cities and remote areas, and took shelter with Native American communities. Best estimates are that between 40,000 and 100,000 slaves successfully escaped northward. Most escaped on their own, getting help only after reaching the North.

The Underground Railroad is attributed with helping to move slaves to freedom during the late-1700s to mid-1800s. (Freedom activism long preceded the phrase “Underground Railroad,” which wasn’t used until the 1830s.) Not a physical railroad, of course, it was an “underground” movement of abolitionists and allies, with a web of routes and safe houses. Those slaves who escaped endured incredible trials of strength and courage.

There are documented truths about the Underground Railroad, from those who made it function and those who escaped. But it also has been romanticized and mythologized. It is not always easy to separate fact from fiction.

Hidden in Plain View?

Prior to 1999, there were few known sources claiming the existence of a quilt code. According to wikipedia,

The first known assertion of the use of quilts … was a single statement in the narration of the 1987 video Hearts and Hands, which stated “They say quilts were hung on the clotheslines to signal a house was safe for runaway slaves.” This assertion does not appear in the companion book and is not supported by any documentation in the filmmaker’s research file.[1] The first print appearance of such a claim was Stitched from the Soul, a 1990 book by folklorist Gladys-Marie Fry, which states — without providing any source — “Quilts were used to send messages. On the Underground Railroad, those with the color black were hung on the line to indicate a place of refuge (safe house)…Triangles in quilt design signified prayer messages or prayer badge, a way of offering prayer. Colors were very important to slave quilt makers. The color black indicated that someone might die. A blue color was believed to protect the maker.”[1] …

The idea, clearly presented as fiction in Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, that slave quilts served as coded maps for escapees, entered the realm of claimed fact in the 1999 book Hidden in Plain View, written by Raymond Dobard, Jr., an art historian, and Jacqueline Tobin, a college instructor in Colorado.[3]

In 1999, the stories of a woman named Ozella McDaniel Williams were published in the book Hidden in Plain View, by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard, Ph.D. The book also includes a mesh of related research about African symbolism, escape routes, and information about the times.

Author Tobin met Williams in 1994. Williams was a South Carolina quilt vendor at a flea market mall. In 1997 during their second of three meetings, “Ozella,” as the book refers to her, 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.

About another, the Monkey Wrench block, the authors state, “Ozella told us that a quilt made of Monkey Wrench patterned blocks was the first of the ten quilts displayed … a signal for the slaves to begin their escape preparations” and gather physical and mental tools.

Along with this understanding of the block, the authors include discussion of the role of the blacksmith on the plantation, with tools including the monkey wrench. The blacksmith’s metal-working ability may have hidden the smith’s function of conveying information to other slaves under the ring of the hammer. A photo of an African textile is shown, to further convey the importance of tools in the previous environment.

More than 120 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, claims of a quilt code arose. Had the evidence been missed all those years? Was the truth really hidden in plain view?

What is the Truth?

To anyone used to reading academic research, even in laymen’s terms, Hidden in Plain View clearly falls short. In fact, the book reads as one long, breathless speculation on the possibility that quilts were used to help guide slaves to freedom. The linkages to African symbolism in art and song do not confirm or deny the potential. This alone does not negate the premise. Finding the truth is somewhat more difficult.

Historians, including those with expertise in quilts and other textiles, eagerly reviewed the possibilities to answer the question: Were quilts used to help guide slaves to freedom?

Strong evidence in support 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.

Did slaves make quilts, and are there existing quilts that provide provenance on this?
We do know that slaves made quilts. Surviving examples made prior to Emancipation are mostly those made for owners, rather than for the slaves themselves. Despite the abundance of cotton in the South, fabric was scarce even before the Civil War began. The South had very few mills, and they were small, mostly making rough cloth. Most finer fabric came from the North or from Europe.

For their own use, many quilts made by slaves would have been “utility” quilts. (This may have depended largely on regional differences, as well.) These had rougher fabric, simpler construction, and ties or long stitches of thick threads, rather than fine quilt stitching. Woven blankets were more prevalent than quilts. Slaves were typically issued one blanket each two years. Washed with lye, both types of bed covers disintegrated over time. Clothing provisions also were meager, and using remnants or scraps from “old” clothes to make quilts was unlikely.

There are no existing quilts known that have documentation of being used to signal or communicate escape information.

Did slaves make quilts using the blocks in the purported quilt code?
Some of the blocks are documented from pre-Civil War. Others are not. One problem with documentation is that blocks were assigned different names in different regions, or at different times. Also there may be multiple block designs that have the same name. Assuming that one design always went by the same name is problematic.

For example, the Bear’s Paw design shown above is now considered a traditional block. Most quilters today, if they know block names, would call it a Bear’s Paw. Ozella Williams called it a Bear’s Paw. But Barbara Brackman, a premier quilt historian, documents three different blocks by the same name in her Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns. Which one was used, if any?

Other blocks show no history of use before the Civil War. Double Wedding Rings is a design that originated in the late 1920s. Log Cabin blocks were popularized during the Civil War.

From Leigh Fellner’s extensive review of the quilt code: (this link is no longer active)

In fact, the Log Cabin pattern seems to be limited to the North as a popular expression of Union sentiment; I have not been able to find any documented examples dating from before the Civil War. Quilt historian Barbara Brackman notes in Quilts from the Civil War that the earliest date-inscribed quilt of this pattern is dated 1869: “Quilt historian Virginia Gunn has found three written references to Log Cabin quilts as fundraisers for the union cause in 1863, the likely year for the beginning of the style. At that point the underground Railroad no longer functioned as it had before the War….So we must not imagine Log Cabin quilts as signals in the decade before the War. Rather, like Emancipation, the pattern grew out of the War. It is more historically accurate to view their symbolic function as an indicator of allegiance to President Lincoln and the Union cause…One indication that a Union connection [with the pattern] continued is the relative lack of late nineteenth-century Log Cabin quilts made in the former Confederate states.”

How would the quilts have been used to communicate?
According to Williams in Hidden in Plain View, quilts would have been used to communicate before escaping. With ten different quilts showing the different blocks, each would signal a specific piece of information. Wouldn’t it be easier to communicate most of this in words rather than in a semaphore-like system?

Also, the authors (not Williams) imply that the quilts may have been used en route, for instance to signal safe houses. Because most travel was in the safety of darkness, how would a runaway slave find the quilt, and see it well enough to interpret it? They discuss different colors as having particular meanings, but this becomes especially problematic in darkness.

Are there any documented first-hand reports of quilts used to communicate in code?
Historians’ examination of the written record does not uncover this communication. Pamphlets and books with first-hand accounts, including histories taken by the WPA in the 1930s, do not provide evidence of this communication.

I reviewed text of the book Underground Rail Road by WIlliam Still. Still helped hundreds of slaves escape, and interviewed each. His book does not include any mention of quilts used to escape. Two other sources include Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, and North American Slave Narratives, a collection of the University of North Carolina, which includes “all the existing autobiographical narratives of fugitive and former slaves published as broadsides, pamphlets, or books in English up to 1920.” I did not examine these records myself, but am reporting the consensus of several historians.

Other than the oral history reported by Ozella Williams and a handful of others who came after her, there is no support for the use of quilts this way.

Is there other evidence presented in the book that provides firm support for the premise?
No. The book includes lengthy discussion of secret societies and the role of the griot (historian/storyteller) in African societies. It continues with supposition on the Freemasons and the ability of free blacks to travel to the South without repercussions. African symbolism and spiritual songs are linked to the quilt code as well. But none of these provide evidence of a quilt code, merely weak support of the possibility.

The authors also depend substantially on present-day children’s literature for support, books like Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson. It’s actually a lovely book — I’ve bought it myself — but it is fiction, not academic research.

Conclusion: 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.

Does it Matter?

Does it matter if this story is told and believed, even if it is not true? Is it harmful to let it persist?

I believe it is harmful. It provides a romanticized version of an ugly past. It allows us to imagine that slave women had leisure and resources to create beautiful bedding for their own use. Though some surely did, that was not typical. If the quilts were not their own, it’s implied they somehow had access and power to decide which of the owner’s quilts to air (and signal) and at what time.

It suggests that “African” symbolism was consistent across all cultures, and all slaves would interpret the textile symbols in consistent ways. This minimizes the richness and complexity of the various cultures from which they came.

The book Hidden in Plain View is factually incorrect in many places, and depends on speculation for most of the rest. Readers who believe this source of information will perpetuate the stories. Ozella Williams was a quilt vendor. She may have told the stories in good faith, or she may have told the stories to sell quilts. The potential conflict of interest should not be ignored.

School curricula on slavery and the Underground Railroad that include this “history” are wrong. Schools began including the story in the early part of the new century. As I researched for the post, I found many suggested lesson plans, still in existence. Typically, the plans suggest having students design quilts using the code blocks. The children are learning lies.

And now there are at least a couple of popular authors of adult historical fiction, who include this premise in their plot lines. When I presented on this topic recently to a group of twenty, most of them came to the presentation assuming the myth was fact. Several attributed it to the novels they had read.

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.

The Worst Book I Own

I reviewed the holdings in my personal quilt library this week. It’s always a treat to touch each book, flip pages, remember why I keep it. There was one I didn’t open, but merely re-shelved. If I numbered my 81 quilting books from 1 to 100 (yes, I meant that — just imagine a gap in numbering…) with 1 being best and 100 being worst, there is a qualifier for 100. Hands down, the worst quilt book I own is Hidden in Plain View.

In 1999, the stories of a woman named Ozella McDaniel Williams were published in the book Hidden in Plain View, by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard, Ph.D. The book also includes a mesh of related research about African symbolism, escape routes, and information about the times.

Author Tobin met Williams in 1994. Williams was a South Carolina quilt vendor at a flea market mall. In 1997 during their second of three meetings, “Ozella,” as the book refers to her, 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.

The book tells Williams’ tale of 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.

Sounds intriguing, yes? Indeed it is, and intrigue led the book to bestseller status.

What about it is so bad? And if it’s so bad, why do I keep it?
As a piece of writing, it is badly done. Full of breathless suppositions and conjectures, the authors repeatedly ask questions rather than state conclusions. Facts and fiction are woven together to try to create a whole cloth. But there are holes throughout. Since the book was published, extensive research has shown many errors of fact. In addition, there is no supporting evidence of the premise. You can read a lengthy summary of the Underground Railroad quilt code stories, and evidence refuting them, here.

It’s not at all clear if the story, either as told by Williams or as reported by the authors, is intended to be a fraud. Any or all of them may have been conveying history as they actually understood it, rather than with intent to profit off fiction. Either way, between the poor writing and the poor scholarship, this is a book that had a much larger audience than it deserved.

I keep the book because we need to keep a record of myth as well as truth. Those who know the difference can show it most easily when they have both to draw from, including myths in their original form.

As I said in 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.”