Chic African Culture Africa Factbook

Quilting is a part of African Spirituality

Quilting fabric symbols mirrors African and African American spirituality and history. African slaves combined quilt patterns and hand sewing as a path to freedom.



No one is precisely sure when quilting began but from evidence found in the Temple of Osiris at Abydos, Egypt. People wore quilted clothing as many as 5000 years ago. An ivory carving in the British Museum depicts the first Egyptian Dynasty king wearing a quilted mantle scarf.

The history of quilts began long before newspapers and books and before European settlers arrived in their New World. We need to be aware that quilt history pre-civil war from 1619-1865 did not yet have the guidelines for good quilt history research that is used today.

Oral history has been around longer than written history. Quilts served as clothing, bedding, window and door coverings, and freedom for African slaves.


Coded Quilts of African Freedom

If it is not documented, it did not happen, but African slave history was not recorded. Quilt names have always had meaning and how enslaved men and women made encoded quilts, then used them to navigate their escape on the Underground Railroad, according to Ozella McDaniel Williams, and printed by the authors Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard of Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Railroad.

Fabric is lifeless, but in the hands of African slaves, quilting fabric symbols became a means of freedom and a political statement. During the Underground Railroad 1830-1862, slaves made coded quilts and then used them to navigate their escape. Slaves would use the quilt to memorize the code to freedom. No documentation of coded Underground Railroad quilts existed in print until the late 1990s when a South Carolina flea-market quilt seller, Ozella McDaniel Williams, told her oral family history to the world.

The coded pictures were as follows:

African slaves combined quilt patterns and hand sewing as a path to freedom
Quilting fabric symbols illustrates African and African American spirituality and history. 

Monkey Wrench pattern – First publication in 1884 as the Double Wrench in Farm and Fireside magazine. The Monkey Wrench pattern signaled slaves to prepare for the journey physically, mentally, and spiritually.

Wagon Wheel pattern- This quilting pattern goes by many names, such as the Dresden Plate originating from Dresden, Germany. "The circular pattern commonly called the Dresden Plate would seem to be an easy pattern to date if it weren't for Anna Tuels' mother who made that 1785 quilt." - Barbara Brackman The Quilt Detective: Clues in Pattern, 2007. This pattern told slaves to pack their belongings because they were about to go on a long journey.

Bow Tie or Hourglass- This was a symbol for slaves to know the Underground Railroad conductor was here and it was time to get ready to leave. The pattern was first published by the Ladies Arts Company in 1895; the International Quilt Museum displays a quilt named “The Ohio Star” date range made between 1850-1860.

Bears Paw pattern - Directed slaves, whether traveling North or South to the swamps and marshlands to follow the literal footprints of the bear since bears always go to water, berries, and other natural food sources.

Drunkards' path pattern – Whether traveling North or South to freedom, evil spirits follow a straight line, the drunkards path was a visual reminder to take a zigzag route to elude pursuing slave catchers and their dogs.

Flying Geese pattern – Slaves were to follow the geese flying north. 

Log Cabin pattern – Hung on the fence of a safe house, it symbolized danger or safety. The center square of the block was sewn in black, red, or yellow to represent the focal point of the quilting design. The name, Log Cabin, comes from the narrow strips of fabric or logs arranged around the center square. 

Each fabric strip or log was added to the pattern like logs were stacked to build a cabin. There are intriguing stories of how quilting was used to help the slaves escape through the Underground Railroad. 

A Log Cabin quilt hanging in a window with a black center for the chimney hole was said to indicate a safe house. Underground Railroad quilts, a variation of Jacob's Ladder, were said to give cues as to the safe path to freedom.  

Quilting fabric symbols illustrates African and African American spirituality and history. 

These stories of coded freedom quilts have been told from generation to generation, filling our imagination with visions of quilting being a part of the fight for freedom. While some historians say to take these stories with a grain of salt, and it is unlikely that quilts were ever used in the Underground Railroad simply because there are no surviving quilts or written documentation, there is a flip side.

There is a reason the Underground Railroad was so successful; people knew how to keep a secret the world was not supposed to know. People's very lives were at stake, then it stands to reason that there would be no trace of interpreting quilts symbols would be written down by anti-slavery people.

We need to be aware that quilt history pre-civil war from 1619-1865 did not yet have the guidelines for good quilt history research that is used today.

Adinkra symbols and pictures used as words and phrases are nothing new to Africans.

The Akan have an ancient and rich cultural heritage that includes the extensive use of pictorial symbolism in the writing system known as Adinkra, which was created by the Ashanti craftsmen of Ghana. Sankofa Ashanti or Asante Adinkra symbol is represented either by a bird with its head turned backward, taking an egg off its back, or as a curvy heart shape.


Sankofa Know your history is to know yourself.
Sankofa

The African tribe, the Akan, believes that the past illuminates the present and that searching for knowledge is a life-long process. The Sankofa symbol illustrates the quest for knowledge and the importance of learning from the past. 

Sankofa Means: san means to return + ko means to go + fa means to look to seek and take= Sankofa Sankofa means the return and gets it, symbolizing the importance of learning from the past. Sankofa also stands for; you can always correct your mistakes or, with wisdom, use past experiences to build a promising future. Knowing your history is to know yourself.

There are many similarities between the coded language of West African Adinkra symbols and African American slave quilt-coded symbols. Adinkra symbols are coded pictures that relate to the Asante people's history, beliefs, and philosophy. Adinkra symbols are well-known visual symbols that have a hidden meaning, deciphering.

Adinkra symbols are the same as reading a sentence as long as you know what the coded symbols genuinely mean. West African Adinkra symbols represent ideas, proverbs, expressions, attitudes, and behavior depicted in the simply drawn figure; think of it as a way of writing in code. African Adinkra symbols are visual symbols that represent the joining of spoken and pictorial language.

Many cultures in our world have used quilting as a means to document their history
Many cultures in our world have used quilting as a means to document history.

Specific quilting patterns were unknown during the pre-Civil War days of the Underground Railroad 1619-1865. However, people growing up in the Ohio area as well as other slave and free border states might well have heard stories of quilting patterns in connection with Ohio's part in assisting escaping slaves; oral history has been around longer than written history.

As we know it in North America, the quilt was originally a strictly utilitarian article, born of the necessity of providing warm covers for beds in freezing temperatures. Quilts were also used as hangings for doors and windows that were not sealed well enough to keep out the cold in slave cabins. The earliest American quilts were made by English and Dutch settlers; no record exists.

Many cultures in our world have used quilting as a means to document their history, survive harsh environments, and bring comfort during times of strife. For generations, careful hands have passed down their gifts until they have finally reached us, and it is now in our hands to continue the quilting journey.

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