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LeeAnne Neilson

Folklore
November 24, 2014
Embedded in the Quilt

I love the story about a fictitious character named Sam Johnson. One day Sam asks to
join his wifes quilting club. His request is denied by the arrogant females who tell him to take
up more manly pursuits like checkers. The women are making a quilt to enter into the county
fair and believe that Sams imperfect stitches would mar their quilt. Not to be deterred, Sam
recruits some male friends and neighbors and together they make their own quilt for the fair and
win a prize (see Marna M. Holland, Using Quilts and Quilt Picture Books to Celebrate
Diversity with Young Children [Academic Search Premier, Web 30 Oct. 2014], 247).
This story illustrates someone breaking the stereotype of quilt making being merely a
womans hobby. In real life, some men enjoy quilting like Edmund Anthony who takes part in
local quilting groups and wins ribbons at quilt shows. In 1990, he won the Better Homes and
Gardens Books Blue Ribbon Quilt Award for appliqu at the . . . Tennessee State Fair. His
inspiration for becoming a quilt maker came after he saw the quilts his daughters mother-in-law
made. He does a little quilting every day; he finds it a relaxing way to wind down from the
stress of his job as a psychology technician at a veterans hospital (Gwen Marston, Mary
Schafer, American Quilt Maker, [University of Michigan Press, 2004], 272).
Quilts are a type of material culture [identified] as folklore (Martha C. Sims and
Martine Stephens, Living Folklore: An Introduction to the Study of People and Their Traditions,
2nd ed. [Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2011], 13). Quilting is an art form in which
the creator tries to translate something familiar into a form which evokes, but does not literally
describe, the experience (Mara Witzling, Quilt Language: Towards a Poetics of Quilting.
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[Womens History Review Academic Search Premier. Web 30 Oct. 2014], 621). For example,
there is this charming story about a Philadelphia belle seated at dinner next to the Marquis de
Lafayette when he visited America in 1824. According to the tale, the marquis peeled an orange
for the girl, who took the quartered rind home and copied the shapes in a quilt pattern, which she
named for the general and today it is known as the Lafayette Orange Peel (Gwen Marston, 17).
Quilt making is a model of creativity: a way of seeing, a way of being in the world, a
way of creating the world (Mara Witzling, 628). This creative outlet can allow women who are
illiterate to tell about their lives through a unique medium. One should never underestimate the
value of any quilt because the underlining desire of the quilt maker was to be remembered. A
quilt provide[s] important clues in the study of womens history, especially when the goal is to
explain the significance of the activities and values of ordinary women in their daily lives
(Mary Bywater Cross, Quilts & Women of the Mormon Migrations: Treasures of Transition,
[Nashville, Tennessee: Rutledge Hill Press, 1996], 197).
Mary Schafer has done extensive folklore research about quilts and believes that the
stitches that held the quilt world together were supplied by women consumed not with the
promise of fame or fortune but with a passion for their own history and an insatiable appetite for
all things quilt (Gwen Marston, Mary Schafer, American Quilt Maker, [University of Michigan
Press, 2004], 3).
Quilts are functional objects in daily life [and] are appropriate for exploring culture
(Marna M. Holland, 244). Roland Freeman postulates that the quilts made by his family
members are a medium through which people communicate with the spirit world. His family
would put newborn infants on quilts to put them in touch with [their] ancestors and receive the
old ones blessings and protection. As an eighteen year old, he personally had the spirits of the

cloth speak to him. As he slept under his beloved foster mothers ancestral quilt . . . the spirit
of the deceased woman appeared by the bed, told him not to worry and be strong and that she
and the others would protect him (Roland Freeman, When the Spirits Speak, [International
Review of African American Art, 1999, vol. 15, issue 4], 46).
Every quilt . . . is more than fabric. It is the preservation of a womans voice (Mara
Witzling, 628). The choice of fabric and the amount of stitched detail [also] reflect[s] the lives
of the women who made the quilts . . . An extensive amount of stitches indicates an increased
amount of discretionary time (Mary Bywater Cross, 194), or a woman who is very skilled and
enjoys this aspect of quilt making. Appliqud quilts by nature are very time-consuming and in
the 20 years preceding the Civil War . . . became the hallmark of a lady of leisure . . . . To own
an appliqud quilt was a statement of great affluence and prestige (Gwen Marston, 34). In the
1880s, or Victorian Era, crazy quilts were all the rage and became the perfect pastime for ladies
who felt it was their solemn duty to make their homes attractive as a way of beautifying the
soul. They were made with delicate and fragile fabrics, ribbons, lace, and any form of
embellishments, and although nearly useless as quilts, they served as elegant ornaments in the
jumble of the Victorian home (Gwen Marston, 129).
Elaine Showalter feels that pieced quilts reflect the fragmentation of womens time, the
scrappiness and uncertainty of womens creative or solitary moments [and were made out of]
necessity for those whose time comes in small squares (Mara Witzling, 629). Such a woman
was Angeline Hinckley who had the responsibility of feeding many travelers who passed through
her home. The Hinckley family was living in Cove Fort, Utah Territory, and relationships
between white men and Indians was frightening. Angeline, however, developed a kind attitude
toward her neighboring Indians and would ask the Indian women to cook with her. She pieced

quilts and used two of them to teach her children a valuable lesson about the worth of individuals
in the early 1870s. One day she placed quilts on two of the childrens beds. One quilt was
beautiful and the pattern perfectly aligned. The other quilt lacked appeal because it had a large
spot in which an odd-shaped piece of fabric had been inserted. She then asked her children,
Which quilt is going to be the warmest one for you? They both pointed to the beautiful quilt.
Angeline then taught them that both quilts were equally warm, and they should remember to treat
the Indians that came to the fort with the same kindness and respect they would give to any other
traveler. (Story told by an LDS missionary at Cove Fort.)
Lifestyles also influence quilt making. The Amish lifestyle is governed by plainness in
dress and manner and translates into their quilt designs. The Ordnung, or code of behavior for
all aspects of daily life for the Amish, forbids striped or flowered clothing made according to
the fashions of the world and thus their quilts are usually made from sober colors with plain
designs in an attempt to help prevent pride from surfacing in their lives (Gwen Marston, 149).
They also used quilting as a means from being idle. All their quilts served a functional purpose,
but contained beauty too. Bright colors and fanciful stitching are evidence that quilting meant
more to the Amish than just workthey enjoyed being creative (Gwen Marston, 152).
During the great westward movement in the 1840s and early 1850s, the friendship quilt
was at its height of popularity. Friends desiring to stay connected to each other [would
exchange] bits of fabric, whether new or recycled . . . sending pieces of new fabric to beloved
female friends and relatives as a form of remembrance (Mara Witzling, 623).
Barbara Brackman, a quilt historian, said that names for pink calico are similar to ethnic
jokes, with the butt of the joke changing from community to community in a mirror of regional
prejudices. The term Norwegian pink came from the Swedish who had a feud with the

Norwegians and thus made fun of their bright and flamboyant clothing. Another derogatory term
is Portguese pink, which was aimed at new immigrants, minorities, and the poor whose culture
preferred brighter wardrobes (Barbara Brackman, Making History Quilts & Fabric From 18901970, [Lafayette California: C&T Publishing Inc., 2008], 35).
Folklore stories also exist concerning the use of quilts in the Underground Railroad.
Because it was a common practice to let quilts dry on fences, some people believe that quilts
were laid in such a manner to give runaway slaves a cryptic message. For example, the log cabin
design meant that safe shelter would be provided. However, we have no historical evidence that
this is true, and we hold on to this myth because it is a story of black heroes risking their lives
for freedom and white heroes risking their liberty to shelter escaping slaves [and] has [a]
resounding appeal to us (Barbara Brackman, Facts & Fabrications Unraveling the History of
Quilts & Slavery, [Lafayette California: C&T Publishing Inc., 2006], 8).
Barbara Brackman has done much research concerning facts and fabrications regarding
slaves and quilts. She has documented how we know that slaves actually made quilts from
diaries and letters written by plantation-owning families [that] support the evidence of surviving
quilts [and] written memories [mentioning] quilts in slave life. L.J. Coppin who was born into
slavery in the year 1848 wrote that his mother would rise early and work till late. She made
the clothing for the family, knit the stockings, made and quilted the bedspreads of which there
was always a plenty on hand. Public records also provide evidence of slaves making quilts
(Barbara Brackman, Facts & Fabrications, 13-14).
A historical exhibit of quilts from Gees Bend gives us further insight into quilts made
by black women who were descendants of slaves and lived in Gees Bend, a small rural black
community in Alabama with a population of about seven hundred. The quilts from Gees Bend

speak to this invisible past. The quilts are products of the brilliant originality that lived through
the dark eras of slavery and Reconstruction. . . . Their masterworks are the products of both
tradition and innovation. . . . Working with useless bits of cloth, these artists seem to follow
linear patterns--a classical path to beauty (William Arnett, et al., eds., The Quilts of Gees Bend,
[Atlanta, Georgia: Tinwood Books, 2002], 6-8).
When I first laid my eyes on these quilts I perceived them as UGLY. However, when I
read the stories behind each quilt, I gained a greater appreciation for the creators talents and saw
amazing beauty in them. One such story was of Missouri Pettway. She wrote, It was when
Daddy died. I was about seventeen, eighteen. He stayed sick about eight months and passed on.
Momma say, I going to take his work clothes, shape them into a quilt to remember him, and
cover up under it for love. She take his old pants legs and shirttails, take all the clothes he had,
just enough to make that quilt, and I helped her tore them up. Bottom of the pants is narrow, top
is wide, and she had me to cutting the top part out and to shape them up in even strips (William
Arnett, 67). Lucy T. Pettway of Gees Bend wrote, I love to quilt. I love to piece on them. I
love to wash them. I love to look at pretty quilts. I got to make me another one (William
Arnett, 150).
It has been said that quilts express our joy . . . so every aspect of our lives shows up in a
quilt at different times [and] its important to use a quilt as that expression. They speak of
warmth, closeness, intimacy, contact, and [a] union between persons (Mara Witzling, 631-32),
and represent an emblem of human connectedness (Mara Witzling, 624).

Bibliography
Arnett, William, et al., eds. The Quilts of Gees Bend. Atlanta, Georgia: Tinwood Books,
2002.
Brackman, Barbara. Facts & Fabrications Unraveling the History of Quilts & Slavery.
Lafayette, California: C&T Publishing Inc., 2006.
------. Making History Quitls & Fabric From 1890-1970. Lafayette, California: C&T Publishing
Inc., 2008.
Cross, Mary Bywater. Quilts & Women of the Mormon Migrations: Treasures of Transition.
Nashville, Tennessee: Rutledge Hill Press, 1996.
Freeman, Roland. When the Spirits Speak. Academic Search Premier, Web 30 Oct. 2014.
Holland, Marna M. Using Quilts and Quilt Picture Books to Celebrate Diversity with Young
Children. Academic Search Premier, Web 30 Oct. 2014.
Marston, Gwen. Mary Schafer, American Quilt Maker. University of Michigan Press, 2004.
Sims, Martha C. and Martine Stephens. Living Folklore: An Introduction to the Study of People
and Their Traditions, 2nd ed. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2011.
Wilens, Patricia, ed. Better Homes and Gardens Americas Heritage Quilts. Des Moines, Iowa:
Meredith Corporations, 1991.
Witzling, Mara. Quilt Language: Towards a Poetics of Quilting. Womens History Review.
Academic Search Premier. Web 30 Oct. 2014.