Quilting is a part of the fight for freedom
Quilting fabric symbols mirrors African and African American history. African slaves combined quilt patterns and hand sewing as a path to freedom.
|Log Cabin quilt pattern hung on the fence of an anti-slavery safe house it symbolized danger or safety.|
The history of quilts began long before newspapers and books and certainly 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.
Fabric is lifeless but in the hands of African slaves quilting fabric symbols became a means of freedom and a political statement. 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:
Monkey Wrench pattern – First publication in 1884 as the Double Wrench in Farm and Fireside magazine. The Monkey Wrench pattern was a signal to slaves to get ready for the journey physically, mentally and spiritualty.
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 Hour Glass- Was a symbol for slaves to know the Underground Railroad conductor was here and it’s 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 as 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 in much the same way 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.
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 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, pictures used as words and phrases is nothing new to Africans.
Adinkra symbols are the same as reading a sentence as long as you know what is the coded symbols truly 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.
Certain 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 boarder 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.
The quilt, as we know it in North America, 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 made by English and Dutch settlers, no record of them 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.