Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Guild Meetings Resume

 My local guild, the Heritage Quilters of Huntsville, have handled the pandemic as most guilds  have. Some meetings by ZOOM, some in person with limited attendance, based on the requirements of the meeting space. 

I recently attended my first in-person meeting since February 2020. 

Selfie with Elida and Denise--so happy to see our people again

I take terrible selfies--Kari got in on this one

Gifts ready for giveaway--and get your nametag ticket here

Comfy quilts, the guild charity project, is receiving lots of donations

Fewer chairs, more spread apart, still good to be with our Tribe again

I was dismayed that the program, given by a member, was about the Underground Railroad and the MYTH of the "quilt code". The speaker did say this might be "folklore" and some don't believe it, but she presented it as it "might" be true. 

Quilt historians continue to fight the perpetuation of this complete and utter myth, but still it lives on. 

Recently, Barbara Brackman, one of the most esteemed quilt historians ever, debunked this myth with facts and logic. Many of the blocks supposedly in the quilts said to have to been used to "guide" escaping slaves, were not even published until many years after 1865. The oddest one is the Sailboat--first published in 1931 and often seen in children's quilts. 

This myth first appeared in a book published in 1998 which told of one African-American family's history, quoting relatives no longer alive. There  has been no written history from "contemporary" sources, meaning people who were alive during the time of the Underground Railroad, that substantiates this story. 

FACT: The Underground Railroad did exist and there is much  historical information about how it operated. Information gathered from those who lived it. No one who studies Abolitionist history, Civil War history or the history of slavery in this country has ever found documented information that quilts were used as "codes". 

It makes a good story. Quilters love to think our beloved quilt patterns were used in this way. It makes us feel good. But it's just NOT TRUE. 

Quilt Historians can't prove it, though they have really tried. African-American Historians can't prove it, though they have tried. The errors in the myth, blocks that didn't exist until much later, for example, can't seem to persuade quilters this is a myth. 

If this myth was true, there would be some factual information available from historians and true researchers of this history, well before 1998. And if only ONE family knew about this "code", how could it have helped hundreds escape? 

I consider this myth part of the "internet generation problem"--if you read it online, it must be true. Sadly, that's not true for lots of things you read online. 

As a quilter, it saddens me to see this myth presented as truth for others to believe and pass along.  Nice story, not true. 

One historian was asked how she responded whenever someone wanted to be sure she "knew" the story of quilts used as codes on the Underground Railroad. First, she assured the person this is myth, not truth. And then she said it was also disrespectful to those who did escape the brutality of slavery, as if they needed quilts to tell them to go north, or avoid traveling in the day time, or any of the other odd things the quilts supposedly told them. 

Google is your friend. There are many articles about this topic. I encourage you to do your own research. Take such myths with a grain of salt and don't believe everything you hear or read.

Now, let's quilt.



  1. Great comments, Barbara, about the myth of quilt codes. Makes for good story, doesn't it? I even bought the Eleanor Burns book on the Underground Railroad Sampler (2003). Seeing her dressed in country garb is pretty funny. The blocks used in the Sampler are pretty basic, so the book really wasn't worth the price. This is a hard myth to dispel because it is so "feel good" about a difficult time in our nation's history.

  2. Excellent post, Barbara!
    And it was so fun to see Denise's smiling face along with yours in your photos!

  3. People don't like it when their cherished versions of history have the inaccuracies and omissions pointed out. As you say - underground quilts are a nice story, or fable. At at time quilts were so valued, who would have left their quilts hanging out in the weather, except to air them out while cleaning or laundering? I'd be far more apt to believe bits of cloth tied to bushes to guide the way morphed into quilts on the porch. Besides, if the code was known to runaway slaves and the underground supporters, wouldn't at least some of the slave hunters have figured it out also?

    I should check if the local guild has restarted meetings. I was too tired for evening meetings while working, then I retired and thought "plenty of time to join", and then virus crap hit. Everyone looks super happy your guild is meeting again!

    1. So many reasons this myth isn’t true.
      I got very used to being in my home, going out had to be really important for me to leave at night now. Thinking hard about cutting back on traveling to teach in the future.

  4. Wow, I didn't even realize it was a myth! Thank you so much for this information. I've recently started to recreate the quilts of my great-great-grandmothers and I've wondered about the history of their quilts, what their stories were.