Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The stuff of legends, part 6: The Underground Railroad Quilt Code Hoax

The presence of quilts, or lack thereof, is the ultimate
quilt mythology lie detector test.
Setting the record straight: the biggest hoax in the history of American quilts is the Underground Railroad Quilt Code. It started with a 1999 book, "Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad" by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard. According to the story, slaves created quilts with secret codes to advise those fleeing captivity, guiding them safely along the Underground Railroad. Unfortunately, the story was heavily promoted before it was vetted. 

OK, so maybe it's a little insensitive to call it a hoax. That's a word I chose to bring attention to it, and attention is needed. The story surfaced almost 20 years ago, and people still believe it! Passing time does not lessen the sense of urgency among historians to set the record straight. The International Quilt Study Center & Museum presented a brief overview of the topic in its World Quilts section of the web site. "A folk story from an individual family" was a more tactful way to characterize it.

Where are the quilts?

The story is based on recollections from Ozella McDaniel Williams, a Los Angeles teacher who learned quiltmaking in South Carolina and once sold a quilt to Tobin. Williams shared the family's oral history about the quilt codes with Tobin, who asked Dobard to assist with a book on the subject. The year before the book was released, Dobard appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show, promoting the family story as fact. 

The nagging question for supporters of the historically-implausible story continues to be, "Where are the quilts?" I was curious, so I did a quick search of the Quilt Index, an online database with more than 50,000 records such as state documentation project findings and museum collections. The search, using the keyword "slave" produced 110 results, and roughly 30 of those were from the appropriate, pre-abolition period.

None of the quilts fit the descriptions from the book, and only one had a block referenced in the book - a Shoo Fly quilt from North Carolina. The quilt was said to be buried by slaves during the Civil War, and although the makers were listed, the quilt was not identified as slave made. Examples attributed to slaves were predominately elegant quilts, the kind used by slave owners, such as an 1826 "Broderie Perse" documented in North Carolina. That quilt was "possibly" quilted by slaves, according to the record.

From a quilt history perspective, several of the block designs did not exist before abolition, and barely existed before 1900. Very few Double Wedding Ring quilts made before 1900 have ever surfaced, for example. Log Cabin quilts did not appear much before 1870. The naming of quilt patterns did not really take place until the advent of mass media and publication of quilt designs in newspapers and magazines. That was around the turn of the century. There was one publication during the pre-abolition period that published patchwork designs - Godey's Lady's Book - but the publication did not assign any names to patterns. The naming of patterns was also part of the trend toward romanticism, springing out of the Colonial Revival.

The story of the Underground Railroad Quilt Code left historians, who do not have major network television talk shows, scrambling for ways to communicate the truth. And the truth was, there were no quilts to support the story. The presence of quilts, or lack thereof, is the ultimate quilt mythology lie detector test. Today, almost two decades after the story first surfaced, millions of Americans still believe in the story. Quilt historians, who already have a hard time reaching the mainstream with their research, face an uphill battle.


"I remember that my initial response was a mixture of surprise and optimism," said Laurel Horton in a 2006 lecture she gave at the International Quilt Study Center & Museum at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. "The more I heard about the book, however, the more I realized that many of the details did not correspond to what I knew about either quiltmaking or the realities of slavery."

The lecture was based on a paper she wrote, and I wanted to include the video here because she deserves credit for doing such good homework. If more people take the time to listen to what she had to say, they might realize the Underground Railroad Quilt Code is the stuff of legends.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The stuff of legends, part 5: constructing mythologies

The search for deeper meaning is at the heart of the inclination
to construct mythologies about quilts.
"What does it all mean?" I wondered, looking at a remarkable pictorial hexagon quilt made around 1900. I got the quilt from an auction house in the Lancaster area of Pennsylvania, but there was no information with it. The iconography seemed to refer to secular Christianity, and although it was hard to say anything more specific about the quilt's meaning, there were plenty of theories.

Curious...very curious! 

The search for deeper meaning is at the heart of the inclination to construct mythologies about quilts. In the pictorial hexagon quilt, the iconography inventory included: two buildings, a central cross, nine chalices, four keys, two candles, two anchors, a roof-shaped rainbow, 49 flowers, and two objects at the bottom that look like bones. Curious...very curious! 

Considering the amount of labor involved and the specificity of the imagery, there had to be special reasons for the creation of this quilt. The thing is, unless some form of documentation appears, we do not know. We can only guess, and it's OK to do that, but it would always be a guess.

It is important to understand what we can say about a quilt, 
and also what we cannot say.

Until recent years, pictorial quilts were few and far between. They were often one-of-a-kind originals, such as the 1930s quilt from Ohio with a log cabin and an American Flag. There could be many reasons why it was created, but it's important to understand what we can say about the quilt, and also what we cannot say.

We can provide a detailed physical description, with dimensions, colors, fabrics, methods, skill level and an inventory of pictorial elements. We can also discuss what each pictorial element represents. Certain aspects are educated guesses, such as circa date. When makers' information is not known, I try to avoid statements about their identities, but the clues can be tantalizing. 

The pictorial hexagon quilt is an object with tantilizing clues. Although the combination of elements seems to refer to secular Christianity, the denomination is unclear. The purpose behind the quilt is also unclear. Could it be an expression of Catholicism? Is it based on period sampler designs? Could it be a wedding quilt, depicting two families uniting through a marriage? We simply do not know, but that doesn't stop us from going down the path of constructed mythology and romanticism.

Ask, and if you're lucky, you'll receive.

I hope to someday learn more about the pictorial hexagon quilt, which is why I post photos of it from time to time. It is such a specific quilt, I have a hard time believing nobody out there knows something about it. Ironically, I've gotten some flack from critics who are quick to say asking for information reveals how little I know. In fact, it reveals the unlimited potential to learn. Ask, and if you're lucky, you'll receive. Until then, it will be entertaining to discuss ideas about the quilt, even though the ideas would not qualify as part of its history.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The stuff of legends, part 4: the "Slave Quilt" on Antiques Roadshow

Couldn't anyone see the quilt wasn't made in the 1830s? 

Things that make you go hmmm: the "Slave Quilt" segment on Antiques Roadshow. The memorable segment first aired in 2003 and also appeared on episodes in 2013 and 2016. It is infamous among quilt historians and anyone with basic knowledge of textile history. The information about the quilt is clearly incorrect, and it raises questions.

Why didn't any of the Antiques Roadshow experts see the red flags? Couldn't anyone see the quilt wasn't made in the 1830s? Fourteen years after the segment first aired, why hasn't the Antiques Roadshow corrected it, or at least pulled it from the line-up?

(If you haven't seen the appraisal, click here to view it.)

The quilt was supposed to be made in the 1830s, according to the owner. Looking at the images in the video, especially the details, the quilt was clearly not that old. It appeared to be from the last quarter of the 19th century, 1875-1900 period. Slavery was abolished in 1865.

So...let's consider the physical characteristics:
  • solids rather than prints
  • strong reds from synthetic dyes
  • unstable/unmatched greens*
  • fugitive dyes gone tan
  • complex geometric patchwork
  • elbow/Baptist fan quilting, medium/sparse density
  • machine-applied binding, approx. 1/2" wide
*Note: in the video, the owner referred to blue fabric. The fabric appears to be green in the video.

click to enlarge - look closely at the machine-applied binding
Other than being made of cotton, the physical characteristics do not in any way correlate with quilts made in the 1830s. What would we expect to see in the 1830s?
  • imported copperplate printed fabrics
  • finely woven fabrics
  • Turkey red print fabric, often with condition flaws
  • basic geometric patchwork; also wholecloth and appliqué 
  • refined, elegant design
  • fine finishing details, narrow bindings
  • mostly hand work including piecing

...it is also important to consider the bogus provenance...

All signs pointing to the 1870s or later would ordinarily end the discussion, but it is also important to consider the bogus provenance. According to the owner, the quilt was supposed to be one of the quilts listed in a Polk estate record from 1864. The record did not include specific information about the quilts or who made them.

The pattern was supposed to be an African design, and that's plausible. However, the design also relates strongly to trends in patchwork quilting at the time, the last quarter of the 19th century. Several four-pointed sawtooth star designs, beginning with "Philippines" by Ladies Art Company in 1901, appear in Barbara Brackman's Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns.

Complicating the issue, the quilt was included in exhibitions and was featured on the cover of the exhibition catalogue for "Jubilee, The Emergence of African-American Culture" from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a research library of the New York Public Library. When the quilt appeared on the Antiques Roadshow, the error was immediately and embarrassingly apparent. The object and its provenance were simply not well-vetted.

Things that make you go hmmm...

Antiques Roadshow is a television show. The producers call the shots, but they need to take much greater care with quilts. The "Slave Quilt" debacle is only one example. I have gone to four Antiques Roadshow "On Tour" events, and each time it was clear the appraisers assigned to evaluate quilts had some knowledge of quilts, but they were clearly not quilt experts.

Her first question really should've been, 
"Bill, what are you doing here?"

The last two times I attended, in 2016 and 2017, the appraiser at the "Textiles and Rugs" table was a perfectly lovely lady from Louisiana who was a textile conservator. I felt bad for her, because she was flying by the seat of her pants with quilts, trying to appear authoritative but falling way short in the information department. Oddly, she had the same opening question both times, and it was almost an assumption-- "was the quilt passed down through the family?" Her first question really should've been, "Bill, what are you doing here?"

At this point I am not sure what to do about the "Slave Quilt" on the Antiques Roadshow, or the larger problem-- the producers' apparent problem with quilts. I suppose I could write a letter to them, but I honestly don't think they care what I think. Friends have told me to become one of their appraisers, but I think I can say "no thanks" to that. It's not a paying gig, I'm not looking for a job, and I can think of many other ways I want to spend my summers. Sadly, all I can really do is say, "that sucks" and move on, but I hope readers will understand not everything they see on the Antiques Roadshow is true.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The stuff of legends, part 3 - "Perfection!"

"Perfection" and "precision" are not interchangeable terms

This morning, I read a blog post by Karlee Porter of Karlee Porter Design. It was the story of her run-in with the quilt police, but it was essentially about perfection. In quiltmaking and other creative practices, perfection is a lofty goal. It is also the stuff of legends.

1860s quilt from Kentucky, precise but not perfect
Look at old quilts. The most magnificent examples of sewing skill are hardly precise. If you look for flaws you will find them. However, you don't have to think of them as flaws. Quilts can lack technical precision and still be perfect. They are perfectly imperfect.

a masterpiece 1850s quilt from Kentucky, perfectly imperfect
Some of the most exciting quilts are perfectly imperfect. A lack of precision does not lead to the conclusion that the quilt is not perfect. It is intriguing to see the human choices, the places where makers faced challenges and made things work.

mismatched colors in an 1880s quilt
Maybe they ran out of fabric and couldn't find a precise match. Perhaps the fabrics were more closely matched when the quilt was made, and fading revealed the differences in dye lots.

asymmetry in an 1870s quilt
A lack of symmetry may have worked best for the bed. Did it really need a fourth border if the bed was going to be pushed against a wall? Would it be the right size? Leaving off a border could've been the perfect solution!

an 1860s quilt in poor condition
Do people stop caring about quilts when they are not in perfect condition? Quite the contrary! Quilts in poor condition are fascinating. A quilt may start out in perfect condition but end up raggedy. The condition is a perfect expression of the life it lived.
1880s quilt with tan fabric faded from its original color
Perfection is the stuff of legends because it is so often confused with precision. Perfection is faultless, free of flaws, and too much precision can be a flaw. With works of art, perfection is a sense of clarity about the many creative choices and how they work together. It is about balance, all the stars aligning, when everything is just right. Precision is more like a sign of practice and technique, exactness. Of course, abandoning precision is one of the available creative choices. Sometimes it is the perfect choice.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The stuff of legends, part 2: "Hawaiian" quilts

Hawaiian quiltmaking, particularly the promotion and commodification of a singular, regional style, is the stuff of legends. 

If you pick up most any book about Hawaiian quiltmaking, there will be lots of quilts made in a similar manner. They are applique quilts, predominately solid fabrics, two-color, with large, symmetrical paper cut botanical snowflake designs and echo quilting.

Hawaiian quiltmaking, particularly the promotion and commodification of a singular, regional style, is the stuff of legends. If it sounds vaguely familiar, think back to "part 1" - the promotion and commodification of a singular style, improvisation, as the "African-American" style of quiltmaking. To read more on that topic, click here.
Miller family quilt, c. 1930, Kailua, Hawaii
If you travel to Hawaii, you will see appliqué quilts and pillows for sale in gift shops. A lot of those objects are made outside of Hawaii, in places such as the Philippines, and are made with the sole intent of satisfying the tourist market. In that regard, a lot of "Hawaiian" quilts are not even Hawaiian anymore.

"Hawaiian" style quilt made in the Philippines
The symmetrical, botanical designs are directly related to scherenschnitte patchwork found in Pennsylvania and surrounding areas around the time missionaries were present in Hawaii.

block from an 1850s quilt made in West Virginia
In light of the general acceptance of the idea that "Hawaiian" quilts are echo-quilted applique quilts, it is intriguing to discover a separate tradition of purely Hawaiian quilts-- Hawaiian scrap quilts.

Hawaiian scrap quilt, c. 1960
Scrap quilts cleverly make use of cutaway scraps from the Hawaiian garment industry, also the source of aloha shirts and muumuus.

Hawaiian scrap quilt, c. 1960

The quilts represent more than a spin-off on mainland trends. Consistently, cloth foundation piecing such as string piecing appears in the tops. A large number of the scrap quilts are backed but have no batting. Most are not tied or quilted.

Hawaiian scrap quilt, c. 1970

Some are bedspreads, with an edge finish but no backing. All of them are time capsules of the Hawaiian garment industry, beautifully presenting and preserving the scrap fabrics. They are vibrant, and combine an unlimited number of hot colors in a delightfully carefree way.

Hawaiian scrap quilt top, c. 1970
Geometric motifs appear and reappear, such as alternating, string-pieced blocks forming squares on point, or diamonds. The narrow strips of fabric required to create these designs are exactly the type of scraps the garment industry would produce as a byproduct. The repeating geometric motifs are reminiscent of those seen on a much smaller scale in kapa cloth.
Hawaiian scrap quilt top, c. 1970
Crazy patchwork and crazy blocks frequently surface, as well. The process of making these quilts offers a reasonable way to use irregular scraps to create lively but cohesive designs.

Hawaiian scrap quilt, c. 1970
Hawaiian scrap quilt, c. 1970
Hawaiian scrap quilts are rooted in Hawaiian history, perhaps to a greater degree than the applique quilts. In addition to the geometric repeats and their relationship with kapa cloth, the crazy, cloth foundation pieced patchwork is connected to a royal object called The Queen's Quilt.

Cooke Family Quilt, c. 1890, Hawaii
The Queen's Quilt was started in 1895 by Queen Liliuokalani and her attendants while she was imprisoned at Iolani Palace during the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. This quilt, also the stuff of legends, disappeared for many years following Liliuokalani's death in 1917, but its story was passed down through the generations.

It is unclear where Liliuokalani got her inspiration to make a crazy quilt, but recently another Victorian era crazy quilt surfaced, and it belonged to the Cooke Family, the educators of young Liliuokalani at the Chiefs' Children's School. The Cooke Family Quilt raises questions and could possibly provide answers regarding where Liliuokalani could have learned about crazy quilts.
Hawaiian scrap quilt, c. 1970
The discovery of Hawaiian scrap quilts, both as distinct regional tradition and as an oeuvre of collectible, leads to a greater understanding of Hawaiian quilting heritage and Hawaiian culture. Tourism was certainly a big factor, and the repeating geometric elements seen in kapa cloth, foundation-pieced crazy patchwork seen in The Queen's Quilt and fabrics seen in the garments show the strong connection to Hawaiian history.

Monday, September 4, 2017

The stuff of legends, part 1: "African-American" style

why is it so problematic to assign labels to quilts?
Future quilt historians will have their work cut out for them, and it has everything to do with both benevolent and unfavorable efforts of their predecessors. If I could say one thing to future generations of quilt detectives it would be, "Ask a lot of questions about the quality of the information."

"Ask a lot of questions about the quality of the information."

The "stacked bars" quilt (pictured at top) is in my second book, "Modern Roots, Today's Quilts from Yesterday's Inspiration" (2016, C&T/Stash Books). In the book, I compare the quilt to one made by Jessie Pettway of Gee's Bend, Alabama. Pettway's quilt famously appeared on U.S. Postal Service stamps in 2006.

Given the stylistic similarities between the two quilts, it would be tempting to link them in other ways. The seller of my quilt called it African-American despite having no information about the maker. I bought the quilt, but not the story.

the real deal: a quilt made by Lucy Mingo, Gee's Bend, Alabama, 1979
Descriptions of quilts can be the stuff of legends, and that's the crux of the issue with provenance. Is the information available, or not? And if information is available, is it true? What is the source? 

In 2002, "The Quilts of Gee's Bend" caused a sensation at the Whitney Museum of American Art, when New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman called the quilts "some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced." That's when the sellers started getting dollar signs in their eyes. 

"You can't judge a book by its cover."

It was a perfect storm for growing misconceptions about quiltmakers of color in America. The most common misconception was that all African-American quilts looked like the quilts of Gee's Bend. In other words, improvisational, abstract quilts. The impicit message was the quilts represented a certain level of sewing skill among African-Americans. Very far from the truth, but others latched on to the misconception.

Prominent collectors published and exhibited vintage quilts with no provenance and attributed them as African-American, falsely identifying improvisational style as purely African-American. I saw an exhibition of quilts from the collection of Corrine Riley at the Bellevue Museum of Art in 2014, and can recall only one quilt in the exhibition of approximately 50 objects with maker's information. Problematic, to say the least. 

Improvisational style in American quilts did not originate in Gee's Bend, even though the quiltmakers of Gee's Bend had tremendous success with it. The rise of improvisational quiltmaking was more closely connected to the development of the textile and garment industries in America. I wrote about it in an article in QuiltCon Magazine in 2015. 

"Listen to the quilt! It will tell you all there is to know."

Sarah Nixon's quilt, c. 1935
Another quilt in my "Modern Roots" book is a blue and white "Indiana Puzzle" made by Sarah Nixon of Verona, New Jersey around 1935. Nixon, an African-American woman who was a housekeeper, made the quilt for the cute little girl who lived in the neighborhood, my Mom. It is worthy of note but almost goes without saying, Nixon's quilt is not improvisational.

Carolyn Mazloomi's quilt
Narrative, storytelling quilts seem to represent a bigger piece of the pie when it comes to African-American quiltmaking today. There is currently only one example in my collection, and that is "Spirit of Forgiveness" by Carolyn Mazloomi. Recently, Carolyn donated a large group of African-American quilts she collected to the Michigan State University Museum. A majority of the quilts were pictorial and told stories. Further enhancing their tremendous cultural value, the quilts also documented African-American history, information not found in U.S. History curriculum.

improvisational quilt, unknown maker, c. 1920-1940
Considering the number of loosely attributed, "African-American" quilts, historians could face an uphill battle. I hope there will be others like myself who come along and ask, "Is that true?" Our practice, and the burgeoning field of quilt history can embody all the available information without having it become the stuff of legends. As I like to say, "Listen to the quilt! It will tell you all there is to know."

Sunday, September 3, 2017

quilts deserve to be called masterpieces

The Tilton Family Quilt, c. 1840, Burlington County, New Jersey
"Masterpiece" is a word I sometimes use when speaking about the quilts in my collection. The first person I remember saying a quilt was a masterpiece was Shelly Zegart. Her book, "American Quilt Collections: Antique Quilt Masterpieces" was the first quilt book I ever saw.

I love how Shelly talks about quilts the way others might discuss paintings or sculptures, the objects canonized by art history tomes. Back in 1984, when I entered Rhode Island School of Design as a freshman, we were required to take art history as one of the five courses in the Freshman Foundation. The other courses were drawing, two-dimensional design, three-dimensional design and English composition and literature.

my first antique quilt: unknown maker, Kentucky, c. 1850
By 1989, the year I met Shelly in New York and bought my first quilt from her, I fully understood what a masterpiece was. Although I never heard the term used to describe a quilt, I knew exactly what she meant. Along with this new-to-me concept came a sad realization. Quilts were not part of the conversation in art history curriculum.

c. 1800 quilt from Rhode Island
Wouldn't it be marvelous to attend a top school such as Rhode Island School of Design and have quilts, such as this early star quilt from Rhode Island be included in the conversation about the history of art?

A masterpiece is a work of outstanding artistry, skill, or workmanship. In some cases it is also representative of an artist's or craftsperson's best work. The latter definition could be problematic with quilts made by unknown makers, but when you see a lot of quilts the masterpieces tend to jump out.

an 1840s masterpiece from New England
For me, a masterpiece can also be an outstanding example of originality or creativity, even if it does not represent a high level of skill or refined workmanship. I love quilts that are one-of-a-kind originals, regardless of the level of skill involved.

one-of-a-kind original: unknown maker, New York, c. 1920
Perfection may have been the goal. It was far from the end-result a lot of the time, but the flaws always revealed the people behind the work. Quilts were handmade objects, and if they involved machines, you could still see the hand of the persons operating the machines.

another one-of-a-kind original: unknown maker, Ohio, c. 1930
On the other side of the coin, a masterpiece can also be made from a known or published pattern, such as the Giant Dahlia Quilt, a Hubert ver Mehren design. The maker of the quilt in my collection is unknown, and perhaps there was more than one maker.

Giant Dahlia Quilt, c. 1930
It was no small feat to make this quilt. The level of workmanship is clear, and the maker(s) followed the rules, creating exactly what the pattern specified, all the way down to the quilting design. If ver Mehren had made one of these quilts rather than simply drafting the design, his Giant Dahlia Quilt would look exactly like this one.

a masterpiece quilt in poor condition
We often think of masterpieces as well-preserved objects, but that is not always the case. Many years ago, when I found a pieced quilt of the "New York Beauty" motif and it had two large chunks missing, I realized it was still a masterpiece. It was simply a masterpiece quilt in poor condition.

Owls, unknown maker, Ohio, c. 1975
Quilts deserve to be called masterpieces. Quilts deserve to be included in art history curriculum and every major museum. The presence of quilts would aptly address the sharp, patriarchal vantage points in those arenas. Quiltmaking tradition represents a long, unbroken thread of predominately women's creative expression. Referring to quilts as masterpieces is a good place to start.