Monday, September 8, 2014

Remembering Cuesta Benberry

Each year the American Quilt Study Group salutes African American quilt historian  Cuesta Benberry of St. Louis, Missouri, one of its founding members, by auctioning off the SAME quilt among the members attending its annual research seminar!

Whoever wins the quilt gets to hang it in her/his home for one year and then has to return the quilt to be auctioned again to raise funds for the Cuesta Benberry Keynote Speaker Fund of the American Quilt Study Group.  Cuesta passed on August 23, 2007, a great loss to the quilt history world and to all her friends scattered around the world. She is sorely missed as we salute the 7th anniversary of her passing.

Cuesta's personal quilt collection and research archives now reside at Michigan State University Museum in Lansing, Michigan. Click here to see a video tracking some of the process of unpacking and documenting this collection. It is fascinating!

Photo taken by AQSG member Bettina Havig.

Label on the back of the quilt that is auctioned off each year, year after year.

The quilt AQSG re-auctions each year is a replica (not an exact duplicate) of the only quilt Cuesta ever made. The replica was made by another quilt historian, Xenia Cord of Indiana. Cuesta told me once that her church friends had a hard time believing she was known for her work in the field of quilt history because she never made quilts. However, Cuesta made her mark as a world re-knowned quilt historian, studying the wonderful quilts others made! Just google her name!
Cuesta was a great friend and I treasure her correspondence that I saved over the years. I have had the privilege of having this quilt hang in my office for almost one year.

When we return the quilt, we also send something else with the quilt that the winning bidder gets to keep permanently.

I am giving AQSG members a hint (below) of what I will send along with the returning quilt this year. Each was added to my teaching collection with this auction in mind.

Friday, August 8, 2014

History of Purple Dyes & Purple Snails

One thing leads to another when I start browsing Facebook and Blogs. You never know where it will lead you. Such fun!

I have spent the past hour trying to prove whether this first snail is real or not. Still not sure. Someone recently claimed to find one in Northern California. Click here to learn more about it if you are curious.

But the next two are for real and I have put the links below. 
Just click on the captions directly below each photo.

Click here to see more about this photo.

Click here to go to source of this photo.

Here is what Wiki has to say about purple snails.

So what does any of this have to do with quilt history?
Human beings love for colored cloth! 
Especially purple since it was discovered by the "purple people" -- the ancient Phoenicians.

Ohio Amish quilt quilt sold by antique quilt dealer Darwin Bearley. Click here to see his book.
To see more purple quilts, click here and here.

1950s Rolling Star block as seen on eBay - - Brackman#3795

Marie Webster's Poppy pattern as seen on eBay.

(Learn more about Marie Webster here and Marie Webster inspired fabrics here.) 

But at first only the rulers wore purple.


"Murex is the dye first famous as “Tyrian purple,” named for the city of Tyre, today in Lebanon but 3000 years ago the center from which that energetic trading nation, the Phoenicians, controlled a far-flung luxury trade in murex-dyed silks. Later, the dye was known as “royal purple” or “imperial purple,” from the Roman and Byzantine emperors who reserved the color for members of the imperial family."     Philippa Scott

To get the whole story, read this whole fascinating article on 
the discovery of a "royal" purple from sea shells 
by Philippa Scott by clicking here.

Click here to see a video of the Murex extracted purple color. 

Hope you're not squeamish. Be forewarned.

Here is a written explanation of the process.

~ Mauve ~

What happened when 18 year-old English chemist William Perkin accidentally discovered a way to produce mauve in mass quantities? This is such a (yes!) also fascinating read!  His lucky accident "revolutionized organic chemistry — and fashion" according to some.

Don't have time to read the books? Just click on the links (the highlighted words) throughout my posts.

A review by The Guardian:  "Mauve with the times.
Since its accidental creation in the 1850s, the colour has aroused strong emotions. Simon Garfield chronicles a vivid history.

The Red Dyes: Cochineal, Madder and Murex Purple: 
A World Tour of Textile Techniques 
by Gosta Sandberg

This book reveals the fascinating history of how the natural red dyes came to various people and cultures centuries ago. Click here to find a copy.

Here is an Anne Orr design styled after Marie Webster's earlier Poppy medallion.
Both are Honorees of The Quilters Hall of Fame. The Anne Orr Iris can be seen
at Mark French's eBay store here

Click here to read more interesting details about the meaning of the color purple 
among various cultures through-out history.

Another version of the same Iris pattern above.

More colors to come!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Identifying Quilt Patterns - Mountain Mist & More

We have been having a discussion on the Facebook list Quilts-Vintage & Antique about the various small booklets that Stearns & Foster has published over the years about their Mountain Mist quilt patterns. I also have a larger magazine format book published by Oxmoor House on Mountain Mist patterns. Here are the covers of the four "booklets" in my collection. I just found a 5th one on eBay today with still another colorful cover dated 1938 which should arrive in a couple of days:

The 1996 booklet (above) is 8.5x5.5. I've opened it flat and scanned it so that you can see the front and back cover is
actually a photo collage of  Mountain Mist advertisements and products. Vickie Paullus and Linda Pumphrey are authors with Merikay Waldvogel as a guest author.

Here is the 1938 Mountain Mist Blue book cover now on the way:


Collecting quilting ephemera is a fun sideline to collecting quilts.  Before the Internet, paper ephemera were collected to try to help identify quilts. Prior to copy machines, collectors traced copies of patterns by hand in order to share. The pattern collecting Round Robins of the 1950s-1960s is a great example of how early collectors managed to identify patterns.

Some of our Quilting Foremothers as Quilt Historians, Pattern Designers and Pattern Archivists

(click on each highlighted name below for more information)

Marie D. Webster

Although the first book dedicated solely to quilt history written by Marie D. Webster was published in 1915, there were a limited number of quilts or patterns illustrated….but it was a beginning.  It has been re-published by her granddaughter Rosalind Webster Perry. I highly recommend this new version because Rosalind added color photos as well as Marie's own story. Also, Rosalind has published two books of Marie Webster patterns with the help of Marti Frolli. If you are interested in learning more about the great impact Marie Webster designs had upon American appliqué, you need Rosalind's two books in your library: A Joy Forever: Marie Webster's Quilt Patterns and Marie Webster's Garden of Quilts.

Ruth E. Finley

A second book on quilt history by Ruth E. Finley in 1929 also had a limited number of photos and designs.  (You can read additional material about Ruth Finley in my 2009 article for TQS by clicking on Ruth Finley's name in large bold letters above.)
Works about or by Ruth E. Finley

Ruby Short McKim

Some might argue, therefore, that the first extensive index of quilt patterns in hardback* was Ruby Short McKim's One Hundred and One Patchwork Patterns. Fortunately, two of McKim's granddaughter's have launched a wonderful new website McKim Studios and are in the process of republishing all of Ruby's patterns. I personally like Ruby's series quilts.

 Ruby Short McKim was one of the earliest syndicated quilt pattern columnists who went by her real name and was well known to her followers -- if not the earliest. She was one go-getter kind of woman as well as a talented designer. Her patterns continue to be made into new quilts every decade.

(as seen on eBay in 2006)

(as seen on eBay in 2011)

Carrie A. Hall and Rose G. Kretsinger
                                             (1866-1955)                               (1886- 1963)

Carrie A. Hall and Rose G. Kretsinger's book The Romance of the Patchwork Quilt in America published in 1935 by Caxton Printers, Ltd., Caldwell, Idaho was next. Another excellent article on Rose Kretsinger.

Carrier A. Hall and Rose G. Kretsinger's book.

Sample page from Hall/Kretsinger book. Each quilt block on the left is identified on the right.

Barbara Brackman

The next big jump in quilt pattern identification was Barbara Brackman's Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns begun with her own limited release of a series of books first printed in 1979 and bound together by those old fashioned 2-pronged metal hinges. I have a Second Edition set of this series she published in 1981.

Yvonne M. Khin

Another pattern indexing book (above) that followed shortly after Brackman's first printing of her self-published series was  The Collector's Dictionary of Quilt Names & Patterns written by Yvonne M. Khin, (1980 by Acropolis Books Limited, Washington, D.C.)  It's subtitle: "The Definitive Resource to 2,400 Quilt Patterns by Category and Name with Complete Index." I didn't hear about Khin's book for some reason until long after I heard about Barbara Brackman's series.

In 1983 Jinny Beyer came out with her book The Quilter's Album  of Blocks & Borders, published by EPM of McLean, Virginia.  One of the leading quilt teachers in the late 20th century quilt renaissance, Jinny is even covered in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Jinny also had an enormous impact on quilt makers as a result of her pioneer work in fabric design with RJR Fabrics. She set the pace for all to follow in fabrics designed specifically with quilters in mind. To see a video interview of Jinny, visit TQS Quilting Legends here.

(1936 - 2011)

Judith Bell Rehmel attended Purdue University studying interior design, earned a Bachelor's of Science Degree from Earlham College and attended Indian University East. She researched and published several indexes of quilt patterns. Her first book Key to 1,000 Quilt Patterns was self-published in 1978 amd republished at least three times.

Her book below was published in 1986.  

Barbara Brackman

More Brackman books followed her orignal self-published books -- many more

In 1993 American Quilter's Society published a hard back version of Brackman's integrated set of 7 volumes, also called Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns.   

Also in 1993 EPM of McLean, Virginia published Brackman's Encyclopedia of Appliqué.

The latest addition to the documentation of American quilt patterns is perhaps the most comprehensive of all, Rose Lee Alboum's The American Legacy Quilt Index Series. Please do take the time to check this out. Odering is on hold for a short time as Rose moves into her new studio, but she'll be up and running soon and taking orders again.

I first met Rose Alboum via eBay. We were bidding on the same two sets of early 20th newspaper clippings of syndicated newspaper quilt patterns. At that time eBay clearly listed the other bidders contact information and it was possible to directly contact another bidder before the sale was over. We began conversing and decided to share the sets we had each won by making xerox copies for each other. Later I would meet Rose face to face at her first AQSG meeting. I think it must have been about 2006 or 2007 when AQSG was meeting in one of the New England States. Her efforts at indexing her "great American quilt book"  (as in "Great American Song Book," which my music historian husband introduced me to)  have been remarkable.  I encourage you to explore Rose's website. She has indexed an incredible number of 20th century quilt patterns as well as later 19th century quilt patterns.

How Do You Indentify the Quilts in Your Collection?

Today there are thousands of photos of vintage and antique quilts on the Internet. Any one of these books is helpful in identifying the pattern of a quilt you may have purchased. Meanwhile, quilt historians have a lot of work to do to create an encyclopedia of patterns created since the 1970s!

If you have other books you think should be added to this list, please share in the comments below or send me an email.

Here's to the dedicated researchers and archivists among us!

Karen B. Alexander

* I emphasize hardback book because Ladies Art company came out with sales catalogues in the late 1890s that were the pattern encyclopedias of that day.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Quilting and Lopez Island

The Quilt Cabin

As we prepare for the first Lopez Island Quilt History Retreat, as well as the opening of the 2014 Brave, Bold, Beautiful: Women of Lopez exhibit at the Lopez Island Historical Society, I become fascinated once again by the stories of the  women of this island. 

I am naturally drawn to memories of my mother-in-law Wini Alexander, as well.  Wini became a part of this history when she moved here in 1981 at the age of 64. What an incredible impact she had on my life as well as on the history of quilting in this island community. 

You can read more of my writing about quilting on this island via the links below:

Enchanted Quilters Raffle Quilts

Below is the Winter Wonderland (my name) Sampler quilt Enchanted Quilters made in 1997 and raffled in 1998, the year before Wini died.

1997 L-R: Wini Alexander, Carole Knutsen, Darlene Demetrick and Carol Gregory.

Lopez Island 4th of July Parade, 1998

Wini Alexander (l) and Norma Peal (r)

I'll be posting photos and stories about the LIHS exhibit Brave, Bold, Beautiful: Women of Lopez after the museum re-opens at the end of April.  Please visit our Facebook page as well as our website.

 I will also be posting photos and stories of the Quilt Retreat after it ends.

REPOSTED from 2012

 I really can't talk about the meaning of my Quilt Cabin without sharing some of the story of my mother-in-law's influence in my life. Without her, I don't think I ever would have gotten into quilting….and I simply can't imagine what my life would have been like had I not gotten into quilting—which led me to quilt history!

The three quilts quilts above made by Wini (Winifred Margaret [Waters] Alexander, 1917-1999) were instrumental in launching me into the study of quilt history. The documentation of Wini's needlework is ongoing.

In  2005, the LaConner Quilt Museum Invited me to curate an exhibit of Wini's needlework to run January - Feb 2006. It was a great catalyst to get me started in documenting her needlework. Inasmuch as I had saved 30 years of her correspondence, I relied heavily upon the letters I had saved to help create detailed documentation.

Wini, as she was known to her many friends, was a prolific seamstress and needle worker all her life, and taught junior high level Home Economics in the Seattle Public School system in the 1970s. After she retired from teaching, she taught clothing construction and embellishment, as well as quilting and other forms of needlework through guilds and fabric or quilt shops wherever she lived.

Wini helped organize many raffle quilt projects to raise funds for various non-profits throughout her quilting life. She was also instrumental in helping found the Enchanted Quilters of Lopez & Shaw Islands and the Northwest Quilting Connection, and created NQC's newsletter, serving as its editor for 12 years until her passing in August 1999.  After Wini moved to Lopez Island in 1981, people occasionally addressed mail to her simply as "The Quilt Lady on Lopez Island" and the mail invariably reached her!

Cowboy Dan, Sarah in Pink, Dancing Lori Jo all made in 1975 and presented to the kids on Christmas Eve. Below they are snuggled under them on the cots in the living room, cots that were set up in order to create more sleeping space for visiting adults.

Another great thing about these three quilts is that the kids designed them themselves without ever suspecting their grandmother would turn them into quilts.  The eldest created her self-portrait at school by laying down on butcher block paper and having someone draw around her. Then she filled in the face and clothing. When she brought this home, the others wanted to make one, too, so I found similar paper and we made two more. Then I suggested we "send them off to Grandma so she can see how much you have grown." The rest is history.

The additional wonder of these quilts for my children is that Wini used scraps from actual clothing she had made them for the clothing on each quilt, so they recognized themselves immediately!

Documenting the Quilts We Create

Wini began to make a list of the quilts she had made after I gave her a journal following my lecture “Documenting Our Lives As Quilters” at a National Quilters Association meeting in Bellingham, WA, in October 1985. 

According to this journal, Wini attempted her first quilt about 1948.  Her first entry reads, “The first quilt I made was not worth remembering. It was a Double Wedding Ring, made by machine with as many shortcuts as possible. It ended up as a furniture cover when we moved.” (Her eldest daughter recently told me that she remembers that quilt!)

Her next attempt at quilting was "an appliquéd tulip made as a bedspread for Ronnie [eldest daughter] in our new Normandy Park House in 1959. Appliqué was so-so, quilting not good. She has it still (?)"  A 2nd quilt was also made in 1959. "Embroidered and appliquéd (1959) Pinocchio Story Quilt for Marlee. Given to cousin Janet after Marlee died." (Note: Wini's youngest daughter Marlee died in 1965 at age 16 of cancer. The family was living briefly in New Orleans at the time.)

Quilt #4, “Spider Web,” was a "strip quilt done on paper which I didn't know about removing! As I quilted it over an old bedspread I realized what a poor job I'd done. Done about 1969/70. Now used for Lopez Quilt show Banner."  

Quilt #5, “Marlee's Star,” Wini records on page 2: "In 1964 I ordered a set of Pennsylvania Dutch Hex Signs for embroidery or quilting. I tried several and Marlee really liked a 12-point star design, so I decided to make a quilt for her hope chest. A few months later she died. Ten years later (1975) I made the quilt. Now used on guest bed."

1975 marks a definitive year in Wini's quilt making for she records making 5 quilts in that one year alone. The three you see hanging on the line at the beginning of this blog post are among the five she made that year. Below is a photo of Sarah's drawing next to the finished quilt.

Presented to Sarah Xmas 1978

1976 Sarah's Art Quilt

This is the first quilt made by Wini that I ever saw and it blew me away. It arrived the year before the three full-portrait quilts you saw above.

I sent Wini our eldest child's art work starting at age 2. When Sarah was 8, Wini interpreted her selected favorites of Sarah's art into quilt blocks and made a quilt for Sarah's 8th birthday. Even the quilting designs in the solid blocks are copies of Sarah's art!

From there her quilt making and her quilting skills took off. By now, in addition to daughter (Ronnelle nicknamed Roni) and son (Gary), Wini had a daughter-in-law (Karen) and three grandchildren (Sarah, Daniel, and Lori Jo), all who dearly loved her quilts and anything she made with thread and needle. The documentation of Wini's needlework history, especially her quilting, is ongoing. One of the biggest challenges will be to discover the specific sources for her patterns.

-- To Be Continued --

Friday, March 21, 2014

Did a Secret Quilt Code Help Slaves Escape to Freedom?

February and the Gnashing of Teeth 

Whew, February is over once again. Quilt historians across the country gnash their teeth and pull their hair out as all the quilt code stories start hitting the news every February, realizing that once again their efforts to shine some light on this "myth" seem to have come to naught. 

"Hidden in Plain View:  A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad", 
writtten by Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard,  
was  first published in February 1999. 

The book is often referred to as HIPV to shorten its long title.

Every year during Black History Month the myth/legend/story of the so-called "quilt code of the Underground Railroad" raises its mighty head once again, much like the multi-headed hydra of ancient Greek mythology.

But, wait. Myths and legends have a purpose 
in human culture, right?

Click  to read about author here.

Before HIPV there was the child's book 
Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt published in 1993.

But before Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt
there was Following the Drinking Gourd in 1992.

Why did this quilt code legend just suddenly appear after 
the two children's books appeared?

Many feel the two children's books inspired the story Ozella McDaniel Williams began to tell Jacqueline Tobin in 1993. Unfortunately, Mrs. Williams died before the Dobard/ Tobin book was published so we can no longer ask her if these books influenced her.

After the book was published, a few more members of Ozella's family stepped forward to claim they too had been aware of the tale for years; only they had a slightly different version of the story. This is the nature of oral history and legends.

Where do Myths and Legends come from?

Like many legends and myths, we may never get to that "first" instance the oral story itself emerged. But we can usually pin point when it first appears in print.

 But even then, we still don't know "for sure" where, when and through whom the first story emerged by word of mouth.

Why do Myths and Legends arise, even today?

Legends and myths seem to meet a need in our lives. Have you ever wondered about the "why" of that? It's a great story onto itself. Read what Joseph Campbell has to say about myths. Or just google "myth-making" or "urban legends".  Urban legends are alive and well all over the world today. Also check Wiki for Urban Legends.

The REAL History of the Underground Railroad

In spite of all that we do know about the history of the Underground Railroad through written records and documents from that era, people are still drawn to colorful legends and myths about the UGRR that are unprovable.

Even historical societies that promote "real" UGRR history often have something about "the secret quilt code" added to their website just because the public has been constantly asking about it since Hidden in Plain View appeared in 1999.

Though these historical societies and websites may call it a "theory" rather than a "fact", they have enough marketing savvy to make good use of the widespread public interest in the code by adding it to their websites. 

Here is what Wiki has to say on the matter of the secret quilt code with lots of references you can check out.

1999 Book Reviews

Notice what the New York Times Book Review wrote about HIPV?  "Mesmerizing..." 

Yes, it is mesmerizing -- as a story. But is the story historically accurate?

Many reviewers did find it mesmerizing! It is indeed a story adults could love as well as children. It has all the parts needed for a good unsolved mystery....a legend with a good story line.

But what most reviewers failed to note is that 
the authors did not solve the mystery. 

In fact the author, Jacqueline Tobin,
actually claimed they didn't really know 
what the real meaning of each block was.

"Hidden in Plain View is the story of one woman's family," explains Tobin, a journalist and teacher.... (and one of the authors) "It's frustrating to be attacked and not allowed to celebrate this amazing oral story of one family's experience," says Tobin. "Whether or not it's completely valid, I have no idea, but it makes sense with the amount of research we did."  Source - Time

How do we explore and document 
"theories" based on oral history?

First, oral history is a whole different field than documentable history. It's wise to understand the difference and how the academics approach these two very different fields.

In fact, the reliability quotient of either form of history is constantly debated, generation after generation! It takes hard work to "document" (some would say "prove") what a layman may consider a historical fact. Today I know that many things I grew up thinking I understood and "knew to be so" as a child or even young adult, were in fact not so. That's what research and learning is all about.

Does the Secret Quilt Code 
have a Documentable Paper Trail?

In spite of not knowing "whether or not it is completely true...", the authors say they wanted to get the story "out there" so that others might follow in their footsteps and look more clues and evidence....since they had no evidence themselves, only conjecture and speculation about one woman's story within one family.

This is a natural progression of research for unproved theories.  Research based on a "theory" that comes from an "oral" source is especially challenging.  Therefore, you publish and hope others might be able to  build upon your theory.

Several quilt historins very quickly proved that some blocks supposedly used in the "secret quilt code" 
didn't even exist during the time of slavery. Read about the history of the blocks at "Betsy Ross Redux-
the Underground Railroad Quilt Code", researched and written by Leigh Fellner.

But how many people who read the book "got that part" of Tobin's and Dobard's statement in the book that their presentation was a theory-- not a proven fact?  

It was the marketing efforts on the publisher's part, in my opinion, that obscured this very significant statement within the authors' story. And once the publisher's PR department got one of the authors (Raymond Dobard) invited onto The Oprah Show during Black History Month (where the book received a strong plug from Oprah), book sales soared and a myth was born.

Meeting Raymond Dobard

Just before the book was being released and again shortly thereafter, I met and chatted with Raymond Dobard at two seperate events and also conversed with him by email and by phone.  (The fact that he was a friend of a friend helped me make the connection.) I never could pin Dobard down about what this so-called quilt code "really meant".  But soon he was in great demand as journalists sent their requests for interviews and event planners sought him for speaking engagements. I taped a couple of the radio/TV interviews for my own research purposes.

The Aftermath -- Secret Quilt Code Now Taught in Schools

Within a year the quilt code story began to make its way into school curriculums. Trying to do away with this "secret quilt code" story in our public school system is rather like trying to do away with "Princess stories" or trying to keep boys from pretending they are "Super Heroes". Myths do have their purpose.

There is now hope that clearer education will prevail!

However, there is hope! Here is what one educational group in the State of Ohio has done in preparing Lesson Plans using HIPV to teach critical thinking. What a delight to stumble across this program several months ago. I found it at the Ohio Literacy Resource Center at Kent State University.  E-mail:

What do African Americans think about this story?

Click here for a good resource about what African Americans themselves were saying about quilts and the Underground Railroad in 1997 and 1998 before the book "Hidden in Plan View" book came out. Remember, this event took place in Ohio just before the book was released. Seems a little unusual the code wasn't mentioned since Ohio was such a busy passage way for escaping slaves in no small part due to the Quakers in Oberlin.

Wouldn't someone have made a quilt about the secret quilt code for this 1998 project, if in fact such a code had been used to help escaping slaves? But they didn't because there was no such known code in 1998 — yet. Hidden in Plain View had not yet been written.

However, the 1998 project presented some great UGRR history in this Ohio project where the Underground Railroad had a strong presence and left much recorded history behind. But there is NO mention of the UGRR secret quilt code in the Ohio project.

Everyone has Their Opinion

As to what African American quilters think of the code today, from what I have personally heard from some of them, they are on both sides of the fence -- just as are the non-African American quilters. There are those who have fallen in love with the story and those who are upset at the scholarship behind it. Some African American scholars are even upset at how The Code now seems to have become the "flagship" for Black History Month overshadowing truly important people and facts in African American history. 

The most outspoken African American academic about the lack of truth in the so-called quilt code that I am aware of is Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi. (Dr. Mazloomi is also the founder of the Women of  Color Network). You can see what she has to say on the matter in the series "Why Quilts Matter" that Shelly Zegart released in August 2011.

The UGRR quilt code is one of the subjects Shelly Zegart tackles. (I interviewed Shelly about the making of this series in 2012 at the annual American Quilt Study Group seminar.) You can see Dr. Mazloomi on the second disc of the series, 9th segment, under "Quilt Scholarship: Romance and Reality".  (As I have posted before, I am a big fan of this series and assisted with one section of the Discussion Guide.)

Why Do Quilts Matter

Dr. Mazloomi stated, "What I think they've done is they've taken a folklore and said it's historical fact. They offer no evidence, no documentation, in support of that argument." Source of quote.

Giles R. Wright (1935-2009), former director of the Afro-American History Program, New Jersey Historical Commission, Trenton, has had much to say about this "quilt code myth".  In 2000, Mr. Wright wrote a critique titled: Hidden in Plain View: The Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad and presented it at an event co-sponsored by Camden County Historical Society and Camden County Cultural and Heritage Commission in 2001. You can read an update of Wright's article here.

To read another interesting analysis of the book, its research and its methodology,  go to  click here. Lection is a site devoted to popular-culture book reviews.

7 June 2005

I picked up Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard's Hidden in Plain View while on a Civil War tour of Tennessee and Mississippi battlefields last week. Subtitled "a secret story of quilts and the underground railroad," the book intrigued me because it mixes my mother's profession (quilting) with my own interests in American history. The book still intrigues me, but more as storytelling and rhetoric than as history.

The authors are insistent that what we count as history needs to change, though: Tobin and Dobard are adamant that oral tradition and material culture are as important evidence for events and their interpretation as the textual documents so beloved of conventional historians. But I find Hidden in Plain View frequently wanting as an analysis of oral tradition and material culture, and that is the great stumbling block for me to acceptance of this book as authoritative.

"What to do! What to do!"  

Does anything need to be done?

Quilters (and other folks) who believe this "story" don't like to be told it isn't "true"....especially if they learned it from someone they have an emotional connection to.  Nor to people like to be told they are "wrong".  And of course there are still folks who think that just because it got published in a book, it must be true. Those are facts of life in dealing with human nature.

The secret quilt code is a modern legend that went "viral" very quickly. 

Personally, I think what this story DOES offer is the opportunity to pique people's curiosity so that they ask more questions about this particular historical era!

Also, if you have never thought much about the cultural heritage that Africans may have brought with them, maybe this book will encourage you to start asking yourself some new questions. But be forewarned, you will need to read beyond this book to get your answers. 

In my opinion, "Hidden In Plain View" is an attempt at loosely weaving together oral history, textile history, material culture, and comparative mythology, to name just a few of the fields of research that inform this issue. 

My hope, if you do read this book (keeping in mind that there are a number of historical inaccuracies in it), that you will want to know more about at least one aspect of the various questions and historical events the authors raise and that you will then go looking for answers!

It is a fascinating subject from so many different perspectives! 

Quilts matter! They are carriers of community and family history. People are deeply attached to them! 

To Life!

Karen at Quilt History Reports

PS: here are two EXCELLENT websites to explore on the matter:

1) Betsy Ross redux: the Underground Railroad "Quilt Code"
    researched and written by Leigh Fellner

2) The Underground Railroad and the Use of Quilts as Messengers for Fleeing Slaves
    researched and written by Kimberly Wulfert, PhD

And one more item:

The following was posted to my Facebook page October 9, 2012 and sent to Charleston Daily Mail.

To the Editors of Charleston Daily Mail,

I am a West Virginian by birth with roots that go way back and include Native American ancestors. I began studying quilt history in 1981 when the American Quilt Study Group was first formed in Mill Valley, California. AQSG was the first effort in our nation to offer formalized quilt history research to a membership that contained both academics and independent quilt historians. We are over 1,000 strong today.

I would like to respectfully challenge the veracity of the myth that quilts were used as codes in the Underground Railroad among escaping slaves that you write about in your newspaper. It is well documented among quilt historians that the code is a myth based on oral history passed down by one family in South Carolina and has no basis in documented factual history. In fact, the family members don’t even agree about the details of the myth that has been passed down. Prominent Underground Railroad historian Dr. Giles Wright (an African American scholar, I might add) has also published a pamphlet debunking the quilt code.

It is a very unfortunate situation that an oral myth from one family has been given so much prominence and factual acceptance in American school curriculums and is now widely "believed as fact" overseas as well. The book on which the Quilt Code Myth is based--Hidden in Plain View--was first published in 1999 and then widely misinterpreted. I have met one of the authors twice and have talked with him and corresponded with him.

There are so many documentable reasons why quilts could not have been used along the Underground Railroad as some in this one family claim. Did one family member carry a quilt with them as they fled slavery? Possibly. But were quilts used as secret codes, no. Here is a link to the definitive facts and the in-depth research that has been done by Leigh Fellner about the highly misunderstood and misinterpreted UGRR Quilt Code

See also the new 9-part video series called "Why Quilts Matter: History, Art & Politics" created by Shelly Zegart, another prominent quilt historian. In this series Zegart interviews Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi, an African American scholar from Cincinnati, Ohio. Like Dr. Wright mentioned above, Dr. Mazloomi states unequivocally that she finds no factual merit in the UGRR Quilt Code myth either. I recently interviewed Zegart about the making of this series while in Lincoln, NE for a research conference. I strongly encourage you to consider offering this new series at West Virginia State University to stimulate open discussion about why quilts really matter in our culture. The series offers a free downloadable PDF Study Guide to go with it. You can learn more here

As an aside, a book on the history of the quilts of West Virginia----West Virginia Quilts and Quiltmakers: Echoes From The Hills by Fawn Valentine----was published in 2000 and contains a wealth of well-researched history about West Virginia quilts.

I have enjoyed browsing your website this afternoon. Both of my parents grew up in WVA and I have many happy memories of the beautiful mountains and valleys.

Best wishes for continued success in offering the public well documented stories and information.


Karen Alexander
Independent Quilt Historian

Still reading?

Here is another quote I stumbled upon in my eclectic research related to slavery and textiles of the South.


University of Nebraska - Lincoln DigitalCommons@University of Nebraska - Lincoln
Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings Textile Society of America
Susan Falls
Savannah College of Art and Design,

Jessica Smith

Fibers Professor at the SCAD,

"An enticing narrative linking African American (slave) material culture to African life became popular in the 1970’s, was reinforced in the 1980’s, and critically debated in the 1990’s until today. The idea that Africans brought weaving knowledge across the Atlantic was frequently reiterated on tours through slave quarters. To be fair, we cannot blame guides, or even in some cases staff, for this claim since it is well-documented lore in academic publications (Joyner, 1999; Vlach, 1991). 

But scholars have examined whether archaeological records support this connection. Samford, for instance, supports some of the religious/ritual artifact links, but shows that that this linkage is supported by comparisons to contemporary West African culture or to subjective European observations published at the time that are unchecked against archeological research, of which there has been a dearth (Samford, 1996). More recently, Stahl and Cruz analyzed archeological evidence about the Banda of Ghana and European travel dairies, finding that prior to the early 19th century, weaving was a highly specialized craft, production was limited and for the very elite. Only after increased contact with European traders in the 19th century did home production of cotton cloth become commonplace (Stahl, 2002). And if domestic weaving became widespread only after the 1808 Congressional ban on slave imports, it is improbable that many slaves came in with weaving experience."


Online source:

Just released and available to download - Shelly Zegart's groundbreaking article unpicks African American Quilt Scholarship, published in January 08-Selvedge , an international textile magazine. This article is a benchmark in understanding the problems with myth and methodology in this highly charged arena beginning in the late 1970's.

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First published in Selvedge, an international textile magazine. London, England: Issue 21, Jan/Feb 2008.