Happy 4th of July!
Quilting has played an interesting role in America’s history as well as ancient history. Read on to find out where quilting started and how it played a major role in American history.
Quilting – A Long History
Quilting is an art that has been around for a very long time. It is reported that there was quilting on a garment shown on the carved ivory figure of an Egyptian dating about 3400 B.C. During the 14th Century quilting was used to produce Gambesons which is a padded jacket that was worn as armor. Sometimes it was worn separately or worn under plate armor to add some padding for protection and comfort for the Knight. At times Gambesons were even worn over metal armor to help protect it from the elements of the weather. Usually produced with wool or linen the stuffing that was used is not like the quilting batting that we use today. They didn’t have the privilege of running down town to pick up some cotton, corn or wool batting to use so they would use scraps of cloth or even horse hair.
Jumping ahead to the 19th century quilting and the American Colonial times, we find that a lot of women were weaving, spinning and making clothing. Some of the wealthier women were showing off their quilting skills with needle work on whole cloth quilts. The term quilting comes from the word quilt which actually means “stuffed sack” in the Latin form of the word culcita. Stuffed sack may not be the best word to describe quilting but when you think about putting batting between two layers of cloth to make a quilt so you are in a way stuffing an internal layer. Some antique quilts have been found with worn-out blankets or order quilts used between new material as the batting. Money was tight so women would do this to make use of their older materials so as not to waste them. The pioneers had recycling down long before the “going green movement” ever started. Although more common to find blankets or quilts used as batting, some quilts are found with paper stuffing inside of them. During the pioneer days paper quilting became popular. Women would save letters from home, catalogs or newspaper to use as patterns for piece quilting but they were also used as insulation in quilts. I’m sure early pioneer women were not thinking about preserving a bit of history inside their quilts, but historians have actually been able to find out about pioneer life from some of the old papers that were used in quilts.
Quilts have also been a form of capturing history in more ways than by the reading material found inside of them. If you have a chance, do a little research on an African American slave born woman named Harriet Powers. She is known for her use of applique techniques to record local legends, events and bible stories on her quilts. If memory serves me correct, I think she was even recognized by the US Postal Service along with some other quilters in a series of stamps. Only two of her quilts have survived the test of time and the first one she made is actually on display at the Smithsonian Institution after first being shown at a cotton fair in Athens, Georgia.
So you see, quilting has a very important history that we should cherish. Quilting is an art that has been handed down for many generations and hopefully it will continue to be handed down to all future generations. Whether you are into the art of quilting or not, it’s hard not to enjoy and treasure all the time and love that is put into a this art.
Underground Railroad Quilt Block Codes
Underground Railroad is an important part of history. I have always been fascinated by the story of the Underground Railroad Quilt codes but have never taken the time to find out exactly what the codes really were and how they were able to communicate with them. I know there is still some controversy among historians about this theory. Some say that it is not supported by any documentary evidence like slave memoirs or recorded history of interviews with escaped slaves but there is something so believable in this theory. It is supposedly based on only one person’s history as written in the book, Hidden in Plain View.
The theory is that in the Southern states before and during the American Civil War when the slaves were trying to escape the bonds of captivity that the Underground Railroad quilt codes were started. Few slaves were able to read or write and at the time it was illegal to teach them, so that is when the codes started to play a part in their quest for freedom. The codes were created by both Blacks who were free or former slaves and whites who didn’t believe in slavery and wanted to aid those trying to escape through the Underground Railroad. A lot of our quilt patterns have their roots in the African traditions. The slaves brought them over to our country when they were captured and forced to leave their homelands. It wouldn’t surprise me if these patterns, designs or symbols would be a way to communicate with each other that their owners could not interpret. I found it interesting that in Africa, men were the ones to make the textiles and women didn’t really start this until they came to North America. It only makes sense, because the men were put to work out in the fields and women were to take care of the households.
If you think about it, quilts being slung over a fence or hanging on a windowsill would be a perfect way to aid in the Underground Railroad cause. At the time it was a common way to air quilts out and most of the plantation owners or overseers would not pay any attention to them or think anything about seeing them there making it a perfect way to communicate.
Here are a few of the common quilt block designs used in the Underground Railroad quilts and what they were supposed to mean to the runaway slaves.
Tumbling Blocks: This symbol was used to let the slaves know that a conductor or runaway slave hunter was in the area and it was time to move again.
Bear’s Paw: This symbol let them know to follow a mountain trail and then to follow an actual bear’s trail which would lead them to water and food.
Shoofly: A symbol that would identify a person who knew the codes and would help and guide them.
Drunkard’s Path: This was a warning signal to remind slaves that slave hunters were in the area and to take a zigzag route or even travel south for a bit. Slaves heading south were not suspected of trying to escape.
Log Cabin: This is a symbol that meant it was time to seek shelter and that this person was safe to speak with. It was like a safe house along the journey.
In reading about the Underground Railroad quilt codes, I am no closer to knowing for sure if this is fact or fiction, but I do know that whenever I use one of these quilt patterns, it makes me think about this time in our history that brought sadness and heartache to so many people. It helps me to really appreciate the history of our quilt designs and gives me the desire to want to learn more.
Lanette Herrmann is co-founder of Something and More Hand Crafted Gifts, http://www.somethingandmore.com, and has enjoyed woodcrafting and other types of crafts for many years. She started out learning how to braid rugs with her grandmother. She got her love of hand stitching and weaving rugs from her mother. She also enjoys quilting, using the scroll saw and many other woodworking tools. When she isn’t working at her full time job, Lynn’s favorite pastime is spending time with her family.
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Photo: Keira Bishop