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Quilts and the Underground Railroad

Quilts and the Underground Railroad

Most people know that the underground railroad was a secret network that allowed enslaved African Americans to flee slavery–fewer people know that quilts were thought to have been used for sending secret messages. To mark safehouses without alerting authorities, homeowners would hang specific quilts on their clotheslines. Certain motifs could even warn refugees about incoming danger. 

Quilts are made for comfort and to be passed down as an heirloom. Some of the earliest quilts (defined as stitching together layers of padding and fabric) are dated to have been made in the 3000’s. They were initially layers of padding worn under armor then evolved into garments that displayed fine and decorative needlework. The patch-work look exists because early looms were not wide enough to create the full blanket, so multiple pieces of fabric had to be stitched together. People came up with unique designs to make this look more purposeful. They had a decorative quilt top, a filling such as cotton, and a backing holding it all together. 

The Met Museum: Colonial Quilts

Quilts were such a normal necessity of life that no one really paid much attention to them, until cotton fabric became more inexpensive and people could experiment with them. Once quality textiles were accessible to everyone, it became more of an art. Artistic pieces took years to make, thus making them important family heirlooms–and eventually–tools. 

It is a theory that the underground railroad quilts were used to display messages.  A bow tie meant “dress in disguise”, a bear paw meant “follow an animal trail for water and food”, and a log cabin indicated that the house was safe to shelter in. This remains myth rather than fact because there is no proper documentation due to its illegal nature. In addition to being intended for comfort, quilts are made to communicate between generations. Coded messages and symbolism weren’t characteristic of just the railroad quilts–many would utilize the medium as a form of expression and documentation (source). 

See Also

Smithsonian: Reoccurring quilt symbols
Smithsonian: Sample quilt of symbols

Today, quilts can be made much more quickly and with more impressive materials. Due to sewing machines that can be programmed to follow a certain path, a quilt can be left alone and created in record time. That doesn’t mean people aren’t still challenging themselves–artists are still pushing the boundaries and creating incredibly challenging designs, altering the definition of expression.

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