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Quilting a path to freedom

  • Above and left, Susan Paul
    Above and left, Susan Paul talks to a filled room at the Tamaqua Public Library about the theory that slaves and members of the Underground Railroad used codes and patterns in quilts as ways of passing messages.
Published December 16. 2011 05:00PM

"Slaves used secret codes and messages in quilts to help each other find the way to freedom," said Susan E. Paul of Minersville, during her informative lecture held recently at the Tamaqua Public Library called "Quilting a Path to Freedom."

Paul, a graduate of Tamaqua High School and teacher by profession, talked about how slaves and members of the Underground Railroad would utilize sewing methods, hidden compartments and messages in quilts, which would communicate coded messages to slaves and helpers concerning what to do on the trip, what to wear and even where to go.

"A secret code was sometimes assigned a meaning to each quilt block," said Paul, who is also a member of the Schuylkill County Quilters Guild.

For example, if there are four square knots on the quilt every three inches apart, that meant they escaped on the fourth knot and went to a "coded" area, such as Ontario, Canada.

Another example would be a quilt depicting a monkey wrench (shifting spanner) telling the wagon wheel to turn toward Canada on a bear's paw trail to the crossroads. These images or codes might appear normal on a quilt, but to a knowledgeable quilt code reader, it means much more. For example the words or even images of a "bear's paw" could refer to leaving large tracks or even spend a large amount of time near water, as water was very important on these long journeys.

Although these ideas and theories involving the use of quilts to assist slaves in escaping is not proven, it still reminds everyone of the harsh challenges and consequences escaping slaves encountered.

The quilt code and theories have also been discussed in various books, articles, and even on television. This theory has become a rising part of American culture, as many quilters and historians look more closely at quilts of the past.

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