Underground Railroad Quilts: Myth & Codes?

The Underground Railroad was a series of safe houses that were run for African-American slaves. Quilts would be hung out on fences to indicate the house was safe to approach and act as a map / set of instructions for passersby. Quilting elements would indicate information i.e. a bow tie patchwork indicates one should travel in disguise.

It appears that the focus of knowledge on this subject comes from one families source, while not untrue, a number of academics are not sure of the validity of this.  Myth and Legend or Truth?

Given that majority of history is written by white males and these quilts are done by females and often those of colour – again adds to the is it or isnt it idea.

Alleged codes of the Underground Railroad Quilts.

Image and info from: https://trc-leiden.nl/trc-needles/regional-traditions/europe-and-north-america/patchwork-and-quilting/underground-railroad-quilts

Further discussion from: http://content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1606271,00.html


Luke Haynes

Tricky one, not keen on the work itself but interested in the process and direct illustrative references as a possible exploration in my own practice for the next phase of the PhD along with the engagement with a textiles materiality.

Haynes is a quilter who is interested in the history of place. He uses cloth that is of / synonymous with a location.

Luke Haynes. Fabric Figures. 2013

Ref: http://www.accuquilt.com/shop/tours/past-exhibitions/fabric-figures

Study of ‘Hobbiest’ Craft Materials

I have realised that I need to develop a greater understanding of some of the materials that I associate with amateur craft makers who particularly rely on shops such as Hobby Craft or Magazines available in local newsagents. I am trying to engage with making as an amateur [which I believe I am] BUT, I operate professionally [in my job] within a design and craft arena in which I have access and a breadth of knowledge of textiles. As a weave tutor, I teach about professional applications of design and as such this requires a high level of engagement with contemporary yarns, dyes, equipment and methods.

I believe that switching and using those materials that we may choose to not use within a design studio but will find in abundance in a local craft’ing’ shop will expand my visual vocabulary.

I have started to tentatively explore this through stitch and am looking forward to the next phase of this research in which i will fully submerge myself in this world of wonderful materials: pom poms, scoobies, hama beads, sequins, ‘fuzzy’ felt sheets and pipe cleaners.

Quilted [small] Banner, exploring hobby craft materials. [Perren, 2016]
Detail of Hobby Craft Banner. [Perren, 2016]
Study with Pom Pom’s [Perren, 2016]
Detail of Pom Poms. [Perren, 2016]

Going Big

I feel it is time to explore the possibilities of scale in quilting. I am keen to begin to understand a more physically laboured experience of making as an amateur but I suspect that this may be a job that I will have to pick up as and when I have the time. I am about to go into a phase of this research which will require more time to be spent reading and the practice element may need to be paused a little.

Large quilt front – prior to full piecing together. [Perren, 2015]

MQB Development

When the case study came to an end, a few people asked if we could continue to make quilts and meet up. Although it would not run as a case study, I was keen to keep a level of engagement with communal making and, I had really enjoyed doing it. The women who wished to continue had so many interesting things to talk about and so we have continued to meet every other Monday evening. instead of paying for the village hall, we meet and work in each others houses which has bought further intimacy and friendship to the making of quilts.

We approached it a little differently in that we did decide as a group on a design and the fabric we would use. I had purchased a book called Modern Bee and we have taken inspiration from one of the designs in their, we could have followed the instructions word for word but as a group we preferred a more relaxed approach and used it as a guide.

Everyone bought in samples and leftovers we already had in our stashes and I provided a lovely length of vintage liberties fabric that had been donated by a local person when they saw my posters for the original MQB.

We worked with all that we had with the only ‘interference’ being that we dyed up a batch of fabric in a grey to pull it all together a little more.

Despite not officially documenting this particular adventure with the MQB, I have got a few photos of work in progress. In the future, we do have some thoughts of perhaps collaborating on a piece specifically for this research – but it is early days at the moment.

Laying out the pieces on a member of MQB’s bed. [Perren, 2015]

Ref: Conner, L. Modern Bee. 2013. Lafayette, Stash Books.

Quilt Development from Painted Study

I decided it was time that I took one of my earlier painting studies of a Gee’s Bend quilt and have a go at translating it into a quilt top.

Tim Ingold talks about ‘know for yourself’ in his book Making. In order to truly understand something, from the inside out you need to be actively engaged in it i.e. just looking at pictures of the Gee’s Bend quilts will only bring a certain amount [and type] of understanding.  My thoughts are that by drawing them, painting them and making work that explores similar aspects [not copying] will bring more of the true knowing that Ingold talks of.

Sally Bennett Jones 1944-1988 Centre medallion of triangles, surrounded by multiple borders. 1966. Cotton. 86 x 77 “

Sally Bennett Jones Study [Perren 2015]
Design plan for Sally Bennett Jones Study [Perren, 2015]
Piece layout for quilt top, Sally Bennett Jones Study [Perren, 2015]
Ref: Ingold, T. (2013). Making. Oxon: Routledge.

ummm, not sure about this

I have used the quilt top / sandwich to develop some ideas with sequins. Think in this case it has not worked, not sure why but it feels like it is two separate things forced together. I am going to keep going with this though but it will need more thought. Once I get a little more time I would like to work on a piece a lot more heavily, at the moment it seems too polite.  Need to take it to extremes.

Applied Sequins onto a Quilted Top. Cotton, sequins. 70 x 40 cm [Perren, 2015]
I need to gain more control of the straight line, particularly the machine sewn ones. I am ok with the mix of machine and hand sewn lines but it just needs a lot more of a lot more things?

Quilting Skill Development

I decided it was time to start and develop a few further quilting skills and explore possibilities of composition. Although I am not sure if quilting will be the best direction to go in terms of practice, my gut feeling suggests keep going with it. Not sure why I am a little nervous about it, I suspect it is because of its loaded nature but I believe that is exactly why I should be pursuing it further.

This is a quilt top that I actually made from a plan as opposed to ‘lets see what happens’. If this work is going to develop as image, then I will need to gain a lot more control and understanding of the technicalities of quilting. If the direction becomes more about the act of making then this may be less of an issue.

Quilt Top [development]. Cotton: plain and printed. 70 x 40 cm [Perren, 2015]
Quilting leftovers are becoming more of a point of reference. Keep more scraps!

Finished [almost] Quilts.

So the first quilt is finished [evening group] but the evening one has to have the binding added still. We spent almost twice as long as had been intended but there was a great sense of accomplishment about what we had done. One member took the quilt home once it was off the frame and added a ‘monogrammed’ logo. Each member included their initials somewhere on the quilt which will be donated to a local women’s refuge [as chosen by the group].

Front side of the evening quilt
Meltham Quilting bee, July 2015
Reverse of the evening quilt
Daytime Quilt