Monday, 15 June 2015

Underground Railroad - Red Sky at Night Quilt

When I first embarked on this year long quilt block history project, this is one of the blocks I especially had in mind. I'd heard stories over the years about quilts being used in the Underground Railroad to help free slaves. Incredible! Imagine if I could find similar kinds of stories about other traditional quilt blocks!
Those of you who have been following this quilt along know the road hasn't been so straight forward.  Many quilt blocks were made because they were pretty or interesting or inspired by nature or everyday household items or Bible stories. The interesting history has not come with the individual blocks, but with the way quilt patterns were shared, first published in farm journals, then later in books. Before the 1890s, women would know a collection of patterns that were handed down from their mothers or shared with neighbours. Newspapers brought about an explosion in quilting, quilt block design, and shared patterns, and quilt names. The names and symbols we know so well in traditional quilt blocks only became important with the advent of published journals. Even though quilt making has been common in America since the 1800s, I've been surprised to learn that much of quilt block history comes from the twentieth century, not the Civil War period, as I imagined.

Underground Railroad was published under the name Jacob's Ladder, in the first known quilt book Quilts: Their Story and How to Make Them, by Marie Webster in 1915. Ruth Finley, another quilt book author, named it the Underground Railroad in 1930, and claimed the block to be 'pre-revolutionary', though there is no evidence that the block was made at all before 1900. Other names include "Road to California", "Off to Chicago", and "Under the Covered Wagon".

In 1987, the first mention of a 'quilt code' appeared briefly in an unsubstantiated comment in a feminist film. It asserted that quilts were made specifically for the underground railroad which helped slaves escape north to freedom. Later, the story developed that ten different blocks, like the churn dash, and log cabin, held special meaning, communicating secretly to slaves the location of a safe house, or to 'carry tools,' 'prepare food,' or wait for a ride north. An explosion in slave quilt myths, tourism and business, and historical study followed. I even found educational literature for primary schools! It's a great story. But unfortunately, it has no historical basis. According to Betty Ross, over 300 first hand accounts of slave escapes along the Underground Railroad have been preserved, yet not one mention of quilts or quilt blocks! Sigh. I would have enjoyed telling my kids that one.

If you'd like to read more, check out The Underground Railroad Quilt Code by Betty Ross, or Facts and Fabrications by Barbara Brackman.


You will need:

Red: Two 5" squares cut in half diagonally, ten 2.5" squares.

White: Two 5" squares cut in half diagonally, ten 2.5" squares.

1. Sew all the red 2.5" squares to the white ones.

2. Sew the red triangles to the white triangles. Press seams open and trim to 4.5"

3. Lay out your block as pictured below. Interestingly, this block is exactly half white, half red. So you can flip the blocks to make it look 'red on white' rather than 'white on red.'

4. Sew the blocks together in rows, and then those rows together.

Our quilt blocks tell stories, but not in the way I expected. We like things to be old. I like to think of women stitching the same quilts as me on the Oregon Trail or the Underground Railroad. I like to read Laura Ingalls Wilder to the kids before bed and wonder which patterns they used. But most of these blocks don't come from these women telling their stories. They come from their daughters and granddaughters telling these stories. American quilt block history is not the story of pioneer women shaping a nation. It's the story of telling stories. They are about connecting across borders, making friends, sharing ideas, being inspired, and reminding themselves of who they are, what they believe, and where they come from, all in the context of the wars and depression of the early 1900s. It's a wonderful history. And I hope we don't feel it needs adding to.


  1. I am so looking forward to seeing the finished quilt! xx

  2. Thought it looked Jacob's Ladderish. Thanks for the history. I have just finished reading a good novel about the underground railway : The Mapmaker's Children by Sarah McCoy.

    1. That sounds interesting Julie is it a children's or adult book?

    2. It is an adult's novel. Good story though.

    3. Oooo will have to check it out :)


I so love your comments! I read all of them and reply when I can. If you don't hear back, I'm lost under a mound of scraps or outside jumping on the trampoline with the kids. Jodi. xx