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New Pathways into Quilt History written by Kimberly Wulfert, www.antiquequiltdating.com

Book Review by Kimberly Wulfert, PhD

Unraveling the History of

THE new book by Barbara Brackman

Most quilters know Barbara Brackman is a foremost authority on quilts related to the Civil War and antebellum social causes. A quilt historian and researcher, she began the study of quilts made during and on behalf of the Civil War by women in America. She wrote two books about the quilts, women, and the War, in 1997 and 2000 respectively: "Quilts from the Civil War," and "Civil War Women." She has lectured nationally and has written numerous articles on this topic. Previous to this, she researched block patterns; she compiled over 4,000 pieced block patterns and hundreds of appliquéd block patterns, and then documented, illustrated, and dated them, where possible. In 1993, two one-volume encyclopedias resulted, which have become the source for block pattern identification used by quilt historians everywhere.

Barbara’s book is written in an open, friendly, easy-to-understand manner. She begins by explaining the title of her book. She defines facts as historians use them, the limitations inherent in interpreting sources of information, and therefore the importance of finding multiple sources of information which state that indeed something occurred in a particular way. ‘Fabrications’ she defines as the personal interpretation one puts on their own work, in this case, symbolism in quilts.

She takes the first few pages to talk about other historically inaccurate stories that have been taught as facts in history classes through the years. She uses the Betsy Ross making the first flag and George Washington’s cherry tree stories to illustrate her main point of the book, that if we don’t nip the current “secret code” quilt myth* in the bud, it too will continue to be taught as historical fact for years to come, when in truth it has not been substantiated or confirmed in any way. For it to be taught as fact is inaccurate, but for it to be told as a family’s story is their fabrication, and from that point of view, it isn’t a conflict to quilt historians.

In this book, Barbara is sharing her fabrication of the symbolism she has attached to a series of 20 quilt blocks, associating them with slavery in the period of interest, mostly the late 18th to late 19th centuries. A timeline on page 10 highlights the important events in African-American slave history from 1619 to 1964.

To know Barbara is to know she has a great sense of humor, which she brings into lectures and workshops. So with a tongue-in-cheek tone, she offers the reader a certificate of "Poetic License," which gives the quilt maker the right to add layers of symbolism to the elements in her own contemporary quilt in whatever ways she desires, as she makes it. Barbara encourages the maker to write this on a label for future generations to benefit from, and she gives two examples of when labels gave the quilt meaning no one could have accurately interpreted by simply looking at it.

From here on, the book presents eight quilt projects and 20 quilt patterns, which are accompanied by historical facts about slavery, taken from first-person narrative quotes from former slaves and from materials written at the time. Fabrication is indicated when Barbara writes that a particular block pattern ‘recalls’ the name she gives to the block, for example, “Aunt Dinah, a block to recall Americanization.” She fabricates the symbolism of this design, based on the facts she discovered about how African people brought here were forced to give up their birth name, first and last. The captives believed that being forced to live under an American name symbolized to the Africans and their offspring that they were no longer free. Many of them had to take the last name of their master and pass that name on to their children. Older black people were called Aunt or Uncle in lieu of Mr. or Mrs. or other titles that show respect. Barbara chose Aunt Dinah to represent this aspect of a slave’s experience because quilt patterns alluding to slavery are rare, but about 25 pieced patterns ‘echo the old naming traditions.” (p. 56) The name Aunt Dinah became an African-American stereotype through a song.

Each of the 20 blocks has this type of detail written about it, facts and her fabrication, along with quotes, period photos, engraved illustrations, and antique quilts scattered about. This is an effective and interesting way to teach about life during the time of slavery and what slaves were forced to endure. Their thoughts and their accounts are recorded in this book of quilt blocks. The reader learns of what they endured and how brave they were. We also learn about what they wore and sewed, how they spent their days and nights, and even how they celebrated Christmas. Frederick Douglas and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) recordings are frequently quoted, as are many formerly unknown people. The timeline about slavery and freedom and the 105 footnotes references will be useful to future researchers, teachers and students.

The reader is not left wanting for photos of the contemporary quilts and blocks this book gives instructions for. Some quilts are made with African fabrics; others are made with plaids and checks, and others with contemporary or reproduction fabrics. There is not a push toward making the quilts look like they date to the early 19th century or the Civil War era. Diagrams and instructions for cutting and various setting options accompany the blocks. The blocks are pieced except for one which also has appliqué. For the quilt projects, she has included some appliqué blocks. Appliqué templates are provided for a Union Shield and roses and a flower and leafed stem. 

The book ends with children in mind. Discussion questions and answers designed to be used with the book in the classroom or home school are offered. There is an easy doll quilt pattern, and there are suggestions for adapting the easier block patterns given in the book to fit certain skill levels.

This friendly book, whose time to be available has definitely come, is written by an expert researcher on the subject of quilts made in the antebellum and Civil War periods. She is also a quilt maker, and so the book gives the reader block patterns and quilt ideas, along with historical facts about slaves and their lives. Facts & Fabrications: Unraveling the History of Quilts & SlaverY: : 9 Projects, 20 Blocks, First-person Accounts, by Barbara Brackman (C&T Pub. 2006) is an easy-to-digest book, but a painful time to read about, and so it often goes otherwise unread. Myths, folklore and legends can form when facts and knowledge are missing.

* In 1998, the book Hidden in Plain View came on the market, suggesting that quilts were made to be used as maps with codes only known to slaves in the South needing assistance in running away from their enslavement to the free states in the North. This was a few months after the death of the only person who talked to the authors about this “secret code” and the only support for the idea that they could point to. The authors interviewed her about five years earlier than the book was published, which is unfortunate, as she could not be interviewed by others wanting to gather more information from her. The fabric code signified directions or guidelines through colors, block patterns, and knots, telling slaves such mundane things as how to dress so not to be obvious, that they should not walk in a straight line but should zigzag as they ran, and to follow the North Star for the direction to flee. In fact, all of the information conveyed seems unnecessary to tell to an adult who likely takes an unexpected opportunity to run, on the spur of the moment, when he sees a chance to get away from his master. Freedom, when it made itself available, was essential, where as preparation was an unlikely luxury. And if they ran at night, how did they see the quilts? If a house hung a quilt outside, this supposedly signified it was filled with individuals sympathetic to ending slavery, who were willing to risk getting caught themselves to help the salves reach freedom. If this “fabric sign” concept was true, how long would it be before word got around that it was the mark of an abolitionist’s home? Wouldn’t it also be recognized as such by those trying to prevent slaves from getting away? As one can imagine, the code story has stirred up quite a controversy, because no factual or historical information can be found to support it, and no quilts exist to prove it materially; they are not referenced in any written materials or in the WPA’s slave narratives (see also here.) In fact, many of the block patterns were not known to exist in the antebellum and Civil War periods. Some of the designs did not appear on quilts or as patterns until late 19th century and the 20th century. For more information, there are in-depth articles on my website and links to others, click on UGRR in the menu.

Copyright © 2006 Kimberly Wulfert, PhD for www.antiquequiltdating.com This review may be reprinted in full, including this paragraph, for non-commercial use by guild newsletters, students, teachers, and those spreading the word about Barbara’s book. For commercial uses, or quotes from this review, all rights are reserved without permission, please contact me.


* The Myths of Quilts on the Underground Railroad

© 2006 - 2016 Kimberly Wulfert, PhD. Absolutely no copies, reprints, use of photos or text are permitted for commercial or online use. One personal copy for study purposes is permitted.

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