Skip to main content

When I was about eight, I learned to embroider from a kit.

This may not sound like much; lots of young girls receive "Teach Your Child to Sew" kits or similar crafts-in-a-box projects as gifts, and most make one or two items before moving on to other hobbies.  Horses and riding are so much more interesting, you know, and then there's makeup and clothes and books and jewelry and having fun with your friends -

And then there are the ones like me. The ones who open that box with a stamped design, a plastic hoop, a wooden knitting doll, and a ball of yarn, and find something that makes their heart sing.  Something they can do and enjoy for the rest of their lives, that allows them to produce objects both attractive and useful, art for their homes using the methods that their foremothers have used for uncounted generations.

There's something primal in taking a piece of cloth, or a skein of yarn, and seeing a design come to life because you did it.  Seeing a woolen flower blossom in a hoop, a gossamer shawl spiral outward from a set of circular needles, a silken phoenix catch fire in your hands - there's no feeling quite like it.  The punch of needle through cloth, the click of bamboo or aluminum or plastic, the soft snik of scissors cutting off a strand of two of floss, are the sounds of beauty being created.

Of all the crafts my little kit taught me, the one that I loved best was embroidery.  Soon my parents were buying crewel work kits, for the late 1960s were the heyday of needlework designer Erica Wilson and her tireless efforts to revive the ancient craft of wool embroidery on linen.  I loved crewel work so much that my parents finally had to forbid me from embroidering except during school vacations because I'd do nothing but embroider and read, often at the same time, to the exclusion of my schoolwork.  

So every vacation became a time to do the handwork I loved.  I made pictures for all my relatives (a winter scene for Oscar that hung on the wall of his Gateway Center office; an afghan of summer flowers for Betty that she treasured so much she almost never used it), embellished my bathrobe with a Jacobean tulip on the pocket, and did countless Trees of Life for pillows and wallhangings.  Of course I learned to sew in Home Economics (and still do, since it's hard to find affordable medieval garb off the rack, let me tell you), but embroidery was my first great love.

Then, when I was 22 and had just graduated from college, I discovered quilts.

The late 1970s and early 1980s were the beginning of the modern quilting revival.  Spurred by the American Bicentennial in 1976, women across the United States found themselves wanting to make their own "genuine Colonial quilts" despite the near-total lack of appropriate fabrics, batting, or instructors.  Somehow, some way, American women like Beth Gutcheon and the late, great Jean Ray Laury reclaimed quilting as art and craft from the dustbin of history, and by the time I picked up a remaindered copy of Let's Make A Patchwork Quilt in 1982, quilting was becoming respectable again.

I was part of that revival.  I made my first quilt of scraps, including some polyester knits that gave the finished product a curiously lopsided effect, but soon enough I was buying the new, exciting 100% cotton calicoes from Cranston Printworks and Peter Pan Fabrics and carefully cutting and piecing wedding quilts for my friends.  I started studying quilt history, especially after I picked up a copy of Averil Colby's masterpiece, Quilting.  This book, still the only comprehensive history of quilting from origins to the 20th century, opened my eyes to the possibility that quilts predated the United States, and that quilting was one of the oldest of the needle arts.

The rest, as they say, is history.  I spent nearly a decade researching quilting and teaching what I'd learned to other medieval re-enactors and recreationists, and by the early 2000's I'd started making my first tentative steps into becoming a real live girl quilt historian.  I've given workshops at Historic Deerfield and the American Quilt Study Group's annual Seminar, taught at Pennsic and before non-SCA quilt guilds, presented papers at the Kalamazoo Medieval Studies Congress, and had two papers accepted for publication by legendary costume historian Robin Netherton for her annual journal Medieval Clothing and Textiles.  It may sound like boasting, but I'm probably one of the two or three most knowledgeable people in the world on the subject of pre-1600 quilts, and though I haven't made much money, I've gained the great satisfaction of knowing that I'm doing my part to preserve quilting history.

I'm not the only quilter to be bitten by the history bug.  Although most quilt historians specialize in much more recent quilts, the odds are that, like me, they began as amateurs who fell in love with quilting, started researching their favorite type of quilt, and soon found that they knew more than anyone else.  The early quilt historians, led by Sally Garouette, banded together to form the American Quilt Study Group as a way to promote good scholarship and increase general knowledge about quilting, patchwork, and related needlework.  AQSG members have done some extraordinary work that has led to great improvements in the quality of writing about quilts, both as history and as technique.  The difference is obvious to anyone who picks up a copy of an early quilt history book like The Romance of the Patchwork Quilt in America and compares it with a recent book like Massachusetts Quilts:  Our Common Wealth.  There are now quilt museums, scholarly books, a state of the art study center and museum in Nebraska, even a master's program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

And then there is Hidden in Plain View.

Curtis D. MacDougall, author of the authoritative book Hoaxes, devoted the last chapter of his book to what he called "hoaxes on the wing." These were hoaxes that were either exposed or admitted to be false almost immediately, yet still were repeated as fact despite multiple efforts to debunk them.  He was particularly thinking of H.L. Mencken's Great Bathtub Hoax, which started as a joke article about Millard Fillmore installing the first bathtub in the White House and is still believed today, but the term could apply to any hoax that gets out of hand and becomes myth.

Tonight I bring you a single book about quilts.  You may have read it, or heard about it, or be familiar with the story it tells.  What you are about to read may distress you, especially if you've made a quilt based on this story or had your child come home from school burbling merrily about it.  I'll do my best not to upset you too much, but this is a story that must be told, about a Book So Bad It's Influential:

Hidden in Plain View:  A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad, by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard, Ph.D. - Back in 1993, a woman's studies professor named Jacqueline Tobin was browsing in an antiques mall in Charleston, South Carolina.  She happened upon a display of lovely antique quilts and fell to talking with the owner, an elderly African-American woman named Ozella Williams.  After a few minutes, Ozella lowered her voice and told Tobin that she had been waiting for just the right person to come along so she could finally share a great secret, one she hadn't even shared with her own children.  

"Write this down," said Ozella Williams, and over the next three years, Jacqueline Tobin did as she was told.  What she heard was so remarkable that it had to be shared with the world, and after much research, both alone and in concert with art historian Raymond Dobard, Tobin published Ozella's story for everyone to read.

"There are five square knots on the quilt every two inches apart. They escaped on the fifth knot on the tenth pattern and went to Ontario, Canada. The monkey wrench turns the wagon wheel toward Canada on a bear's paw trail to the crossroads ..."

begins the tale, and what a tale it is!  Ozella's story is nothing less than a complete, hitherto unknown, symbol code stitched by slaves into their quilts.  Familiar patterns such as Bear's Paw, Double Wedding Ring, Bow Tie, Log Cabin, and Monkey Wrench were actually signals to fellow slaves to get ready for an escape, take their tools, and then put on bow ties and double wedding rings so they could legally marry when they crossed the Ohio River into free territory.  

Along the way, readers learn of the relationship between the symbols of the Underground Railroad Quilt Code and African textiles, Prince Hall Masonry, and the rich and extensive African-American tradition of oral history and storytelling.  It's a grand and glorious tale, illustrated with quilts Dr. Dobard made using the Code blocks, and the average reader will come away believing that she has just learned something significant about African-American history.

There's just one problem.

It's not true.

That's right.  This wonderful story, so similar to the classic children's book Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, isn't true.  

Oh, Jacqueline Tobin did know a woman named Ozella Williams, but far from being the sweet old thing of the book, Williams was actually a Howard University alumna who had worked as a school administrator and was selling quilts to make a little extra money in her retirement.  Other dealers at the antiques mall have confirmed that she was well known for embellishing the story of her quilts to impress the tourists, especially naive white girls who didn't know a thing about quilts.  

It gets worse.  HIPV, which is well written and actually rather charming, has a bibliography heavy on art history and African-American culture, and shockingly light on textiles and recent quilt scholarship.  Quilt historians who've written to Jacqueline Tobin about this have either received a form letter retelling the story of Ozella Williams and the antique mall, been told that the author is too busy with a book tour to respond, or gotten no reply at all (I should know, since I asked Tobin several questions about her research in 1999 and have yet to receive more than the form letter).  And quilt historians who've researched the sort of fabrics that slaves actually would have received as part of their yearly allotment have found that the sort of extra yards of printed cotton, batting, and thread necessary to make a patchwork quilt simply weren't given to slaves. Those were reserved for the quilts used by the white family in the Big House, not the slaves in their cabins.  Some female slaves were trained as seamstresses and worked on quilts for their mistresses, but they worked on patterns chosen by the mistress and scarcely would have been in a position to work a "code block" into a quilt for the owner or her family.

There's more.  An extensive search of WPA interviews with former slaves, abolitionist memoirs, books by escaped slaves like Harriet Jacobs, and comprehensive histories of the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, and Reconstruction has yet to find a single reference to a quilt code of any sort, whether the one described by Ozella Williams or another.  Historian Giles Wright went so far as to charge that HIPV was

"nonsense and a perfect example of what those of us who are attempting to do serious underground railroad research are up against"

while Fergus Bordewich's history of the Underground Railroad doesn't even bother to mention HIPV at all.

Worst of all, some of the blocks Tobin and Dobard claimed were part of the Code didn't exist prior to the Civil War.  Double Wedding Ring in particular is a 20th century pattern that first appeared sometime in the 1920s, seventy years after the latest possible date of the Code, while Log Cabin, another Code block, originated sometime during the Civil War, not before it.  

None of this, or the research of historians like Leigh Fellner, Patricia Turner, and Pat Cummings, has prevented HIPV's story of a secret African-American quilt code from becoming received wisdom to much of the public.  Children are told the tale during Black History Month and make their own little "code quilts" out of construction paper...Ozella Williams' heirs travel the country telling the "family quilt code story"...the CIA has an exhibit on the Code at its museum...a monument to Frederick Douglass features the Code blocks, including the ones that didn't exist during his lifetime....

It goes on and on and on, with no end in sight no matter what quilt historians do.  Members of the AQSG have signed petitions, designed classroom materials on actual African-American quilt traditions and quilters, written articles and book length monographs, and still HIPV is regarded as fact while the debunkers are called jealous and accused of being bigots who want to deprive African-American women of a clever triumph over their owners.  The actual stories of African-American quilters like Harriet Powers, Elizabeth Keckley, Faith Ringgold, Michael Cunningham, and the women of Gee's Bend are shunted aside in favor of a nice little story that almost certainly began as a way to get a tourist to buy a quilt.

It's enough to make a quilter weep into her calico stash.

%%%%%

So, gentle readers - what baseless myths have made their way onto your bookshelves?  Do you own a copy of HIPV, or a kit to make your very own Code quilt?  Have you heard a pretty but unsupported story at your local historical society?  Come join the quilting bee and share....

6:48 PM PT: I'm on the rec list?  Good heavens!  Thanks so much!  This quilt historian can rest easy tonight!

EMAIL TO A FRIEND X
Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags

?

More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site