Traditions are powerful carriers of heritage. They pass culture, memory and identity from one generation to the next. This upcoming weekend, the traditional craft of quilting will be celebrated and shared at Wave Hill. The famed Freedom Quilting Bee from Gee’s Bend, Alabama will lead a Family Art Project from 10AM-1PM both Saturday and Sunday.
Quilting holds an important place in African-Amercian heritage and history. Quilting patterns were used by the Underground Railroad to communicate secret messages that helped runaway slaves navigate their way to freedom. In Gee’s Bend, Alabama, a small rural community surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River, the rich tradition of quilting gained national attention and even a visit from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1966. This weekend, the Freedom Quilting Bee will share their craft with families and each visitor will get to make their own quilt composition.
Learning about this special event led me on a quilt-themed book hunt and I discovered that there are quite a few! First off, there is Stitchin’ and Pullin’: A Gee’s Bend Quilt by Patricia McKissack. The story of one little girl growing up in Gee’s Bend is told in poems and illustrated with beautiful, warm patches of color. You learn about her own history and that of Gee’s Bend itself as she grows from a baby, crawling beneath the quilting bee, busily stitching above her to a young girl ready to make a quilt of her own. Each fabric, color and shape has meaning as she designs her first quilt to represent the town of Gee’s Bend itself.
These next two books share about the history of quilts as a form of communication for the Underground Railroad. The Secret to Freedom tells the story of Lucy and her older brother, whose parents are sold to another plantation. Lucy’s big brother Albert teaches her about the secret code embedded in the quilts they hang out for air every few days.
Each pattern means something different, telling runaway slaves traveling by the Underground Railroad messages to help them on their journey–when to run, when to lay low, when there is a safe place to stay for the night. Albert runs and for years Lucy wonders if he made it, until one day, years after emancipation, a frayed but familiar patch of quilt arrives in the mail. Lucy and Albert are reunited and the patch stays pinned to her wall as a reminder of the long journey and help given and received along the way.
The Patchwork Path similarly tells a story of a young girl and father who flee slavery with the guidance of the family quilt. As they travel through harsh and frightening conditions, Hannah turns to the quilt for comfort. She and her father make it to safety in Canada and the quilt serves as a symbol of those who helped them make it.
Lastly, The Quilt by Ann Jonas is a lovely and simple story of a little girl enjoying her own special quilt, made of fabrics from different parts of her past–old clothes, her baby blanket. As she falls asleep beneath the quilt, it seems to come to life, forming a whole world spread out across her bed. Hannah searches for her stuffed animal through the colorful, wild world of her quilt, eventually finding him and discovering that she is still snuggled up safe and sound at home.
If you’re able to make the journey to Wave Hill this weekend to join the Gee’s Bend quilters, it is sure to be a very special experience. If not, there are plenty of ways to get crafty and quilty at home. Here are some resources:
- Descriptions of the secret messages conveyed by quilts for the Underground Railroad, including coloring pages for each pattern
- Make a “Snowflake Quilt” by layering intricately cut paper over contrasting colors
- Make a “No-Sew T-shirt Blanket” to preserve memories held by clothes your child has outgrown