In honor of both Quilting Day and Women's History month I am reprinting an awesome post Julie Silber posted on the Quilt History List this week (with her permission).
Julie is answering a question posed by Catherine Litwinow about a 19th century quilt made by abolitionists, as evidenced by a single inked patch of a slave in chains in a huge silk quilt. Beneath the kneeling male figure holding his chained hands up as if begging to be released, is the phrase "Deliver me from the oppression of man."
The quilt is pictured on pages 70 & 71 in a book co-authored by Julie Silber, Pat Ferrero and Elaine Hedges, "Hearts and Hands, Women, Quilts and American Society," which was published in 1987. It remains one the THE best books on women's history in America in the 19th and early 20th century. The rest of this blog is written by Julie--
Elaine Hedges, Pat Ferrero and I used Deborah Coates' quilt as part of the COVER design of our book, "Hearts and Hands," as well as within the pages...
I must tell you about first seeing the quilt.
When Pat and I first saw the quilt (about 1987, at Jonathan and Gail Holstein's home in Cazenovia, N.Y.), it was in two pieces, having years before been cut directly down the middle.
Each of the two "new" edges (on each half) had then been bound, years before, probably whenever the quilt was cut.
The inked piece (a small triangle) had been right in the center of the full quilt -- and so it was cut in half! The tiny inked image of the bound slave (and the words) -- now on two halves -- had been almost entirely covered over by the new bindings.
It was Pat ("Eagle Eye") Ferrero who first noticed the mere wisps of ink on the two halves of the split triangle. The owner of the quilt (a descendant) gave us permission, right on the spot, to carefully remove a few stitches holding the binding in place. No one had ever noticed those little marks before...
It was then that the family saw evidence, for the first time, that their ancestor, the quilt maker, Deborah Coates, had indeed been firmly committed to the abolitionist cause.
Her husband was a well known activist, fully dedicated to the cause of Abolition. His name appears frequently in a "public"
way -- in newspaper articles on the abolitionist cause, and frequently in the minutes of abolitionist meetings. These "documents" remain, and are part of the official "historical record."
But his wife ... how was anyone to know where she "stood"?
Until that amazing moment in 1987, when a few snips of a scissors revealed what she had added in ink, the family had not known, with any certainty, where Deborah's heart was. What a moment!
The family then took the ball and ran ... and soon discovered another fact previously unknown to them: The Coates' home in Cazenovia had been a stop on the Underground Railroad!
A lesson about how fragile and elusive women's history (in
textiles) can be -- and how respect, careful observation, and an understanding of historical context can benefit and enrich us all.
(The book, Hearts and Hands is now long out-of-print but we have a few "new" copies at Quilt Complex that we bought from the publisher. Now signed).
***Julie will be my featured guest interview on Women On Quilts, June 15th interview. Join us!***