Books about Quilts and the Underground Railroad

The quilting world is a pretty cool place with room enough for lots of talents, ideas and creativity. People write blogs, posts videos and write books. There are books about every sort of quilting and sewing that you can imagine. Among them are books about quilts and the Underground Railroad.  In this chill place that is quilting, there is some controversy about these books. Some quilters/historians reject the idea of these quilts because there is not written documentation. Others embrace them because they accept oral traditions and the fragility of slave quilts.

I happen to fall into the latter category but I understand the yearning for written documentation. I just don't think you will ever find it so the controversy will continue. Taking all of that into consideration, I still enjoyed two books about quilts and the Underground Railroad.

hidden in planin view

This relatively small book has created the controversy in the quilting world. Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard present an interpretation of quilt symbols and blocks different from the traditional view. Although all quilters seem to accept the names and stories behind quilt blocks, some are quite resistant to an interpretation from a slave and African American view.

What I really liked about this book is the amount of background knowledge the authors provide about life for the slaves who were brutally transported from Western Africa to the plantations of the south. These people did not abandon their symbols and ways of seeing the world, they melded it with what they encountered.

Combining an oral tradition with laws prohibiting slaves being able to read and write gives more credence to their thesis. It is like the first time someone unlocked the code of the European Cathedrals for me, I understood the messages meant for a non literate population. This book does the same thing with quilts. symbols

One of my favorite lines in the book was "Patchwork Quilts were readable objects in nineteenth century America." That hit home with me and gave validity to their claims.

I think you accept the meanings of the symbols if you put them in the context of their day. If you take into account oral traditions, African symbols and the laws against a literate slave population.

I thought it was a very interesting book and loved learning more about African arts, history and culture. Quilts by slaves are a hybrid of various cultures and full of meaning. If you read it, I think you will enjoy it.

sweet-claraWhile I was reading about slave quilts and the Underground railroad, I decided to look into some childrens' books as well. Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson. This book was published in 1993, six years before Hidden in Plain View. The narration is not historical but rather for and from a young person.

Int his book, the premise is the same, that quilts helped slaves utilize the underground railroad. The symbols and stitching however, are very personal. There is not a universal code used in Clara's quilt. SB_SweetClara-1

I plan on reading this book to my granddaughter, Zara one day. Even if the historical written documentation does not exist to "prove" these quilts, I want her to know how ordinary men and women used what means they had available to seek freedom.

And I want all Americans to realize the important and significance of all the quilts which have been made in this country.

Quilts helping with freedom, now that's quite a breathtaking thought.

Sew happy!

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This is the fourth post for Black History month. You can check out the first, second and third posts here.

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    Kathy Mathews

    My passions are quilting and sewing. Add to that French, Spanish, books, swimming, travels, new restaurants, yoga and chocolate and you have me. All of these are best shared with family and friends. Except for chocolate, don't touch my chocolate. You can email me at

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