So how did the underground railroad quilt code end up on a statue of Frederick Douglass? Column by Leigh Fellner Noted quilter, lecturer, writer and researcher Leigh Fellner presents an overview of a controversy which has evolved in the past eight years involving assertions that coded quilts were used to help escaping African-American slaves prior to the Civil War. For those not familiar with the myth or who want to know more, here are the facts and you can decide. Meme [‘mem] An idea, behavior, style or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture. Ask anyone you know about quilts in American history, and odds are you will hear that in the first half of the 19th century, encoded quilts were used to help African-Americans escape north from slavery to freedom. You might be told no concrete evidence of an Underground Railroad Quilt Code has ever been found. But you are unlikely to hear that all the evidence argues against even the theory such a system either did exist, or needed to. The Quilt Code includes patterns known to have originated in the 20th century. It contains messages that either have nothing to do with escaping, tells fugitives to do things that would put them in danger, or are so obvious as to be insulting. Most fugitives headed south, not north; most traveled alone; few planned their escapes; and even fewer were assisted by the Underground Railroad. And neither quilts nor the circuitous route the Code describes appear in any first-person fugitive or Underground Railroad account, or indeed anywhere at all until the late 20th century. The Code is so ahistorical that for years after the 1999 publication of Hidden in Plain View, much of the academic community dismissed it as harmless nonsense to which a scholarly response would only lend a sort of legitimacy. In the quilt world, some worried that doubting the story’s veracity or the authors’ scholarship would distress its proponents, who were often described as pleasant and well-meaning. One white quilter likely spoke for many when, mistakenly presuming both a widespread embrace of the Code by blacks and a dearth of recorded African-American history, she wrote me that “maybe they just need something to cling to”. (In fact, most of those promoting the Code – and profiting from it – are white; Quilt Code Museum owner Teresa Kemp has complained that few of her visitors are African-American.) Virtually uncontested, within a year of HIPV’s publication the Quilt Code had become a common…
By the time this is in print, a Warren MA landmark will have been shuttered, no longer a favorite gathering place for lovers of Wrights notions to be smothered in aisles of laces, trims, ribbons and other sundry items. The Wright’s mill outlet store, founded in the early 1930s is now a victim of the high cost of overhead, taxes, overseas production and waning interest in sewing. It has been my good fortune to meet Harry S. Wright, 92, the last surviving grandson of William Wright who founded William E. Wright & Sons which continues to give this country some of the finest notions ever made. Harry, family and company historian, retired in 1962 and in 1991 wrote a book about the company during its 50 years in Warren MA. This book – The Wright Family’s Company 50 Years in Warren 1934-1984 – serves as the basis for this column which highlights the company’s inventive and somewhat turbulent history. With seven children to support, William Enos Wright had several jobs, one being a drummer or traveling salesman for a drygoods wholesaler traveling throughout Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma in the 1890s. And most likely gave him an insight into the cloth business. To earn more money, he went to New York where he served as a resident buyer for a syndicate of far western stores. By now he was ready to ask a friend and deskmate, William Nagle, to help him finance a business making and selling packaged folded bias tapes for the home sewer. In 1897 the partners formed Wm E. Wright Co in downtown NYC producing W & N brand bias tapes — it turns itself on every label — and related products. Nagle died shortly afterwards and Wright bought his partner’s shares from the widow. In 1905 the first two of five sons joined the prospering firm and the name was changed to Wm E. Wright & Sons, Co. As more family members came aboard, ads featured Wright, all five sons and five grandsons in company ads. Sons in law were hired as sales reps; nieces promoted products through home ec classroom demonstrations. During the WWI years, the company made bandages for the armed forces while continuing to develop new products. After the war, Wright was able to obtain fast color dyes from Germany and expand its color line; each label carried the guarantee fast color and should it be faulty in any way spoiling the article on which it is applied, we will reimburse you…
Most quilts contain a multitude of prints, the smaller designs more often called callicoes. Quilters find that one of the joys of owning a quilt is trying to date its fabrics as well as learn which mill or company might have produced them. Shown here are a selection of Rondo prints, a house name for fabrics offered by J.C. Penny. They appear chronologically from 1942-60 but unfortunately are not year specific. As Rondo was advertised as early as 1930, it’s possible some of the prints featured here might have been in production earlier than 1942 or later than 1960; Rondo was still in production in 1980. Looking at them one can visualize aprons, school clothes and housedresses asking to be made. Rondo is a plain weave [with the exception of the green and white fine twill in photo 1] top-of -the line 140 count muslin, often referred to as standard cloth. It feels and handles like today’s craft broadcloths. Our thanks to Shirley McElderry for use of her collection. Part II: E&W’s Quaker Chintz Prints and Peerless 80 sq. percalesPart III: Any Powder Puffs or DayLee in Your Quilts? The arbitrary cut-off date for this Vintage Fabric column is 1960. To stay within the scope of this timeframe, reference materials published up to that date are the prime source of information to more accurately capture actual thoughts of the time. Joan Kiplinger is an antique doll costumer and vintage fabric addict who learned to sew on her grandmother’s treadle and has been peddling fabrications ever since.
Ely & Walker was a dry goods merchant and distributor of many fine lines of fabrics including cotton, wool, silk, rayon, and silk and knitted goods. Started in 1870 the firm was acquired by Burlington Industries and listed as E&W Division from 1960-80s when production ceased. Two of its most well-known lines were Quadriga Cloth and Quaker Chintz prints acquired in 1911 from the Quadriga Cloth Co. Note that chintz is not glazed but refers to the original Asian-Indian name chint [pl. chintes] given to fabrics with a type of calico or floral design and later on known as English chintz. Shown here are two selections from the Quaker and the Peerless 80 square [160 thread count] percale lines. Estimated dates are 1940s for Quaker prints and 1950s for Peerless. As E&W was noted for the longevity of its designs, these prints could have been in production earlier and/or later than this time range. Notice the similarities of some of the Quaker prints to the Rondo prints in Part 1. For comparisons of E&W’s earlier and later reproductions of its print line plus other E&W prints and company information, click on http://www.hartcottagequilts.com/his4a Our thanks to Leigh Fellner for permission to link to her site. Peerless 80 square percales Quaker Chintz Prints The arbitrary cut-off date for this Vintage Fabric column is 1960. To stay within the scope of this timeframe, reference materials published up to that date are the prime source of information to more accurately capture actual thoughts of the time. Joan Kiplinger is an antique doll costumer and vintage fabric addict who learned to sew on her grandmother’s treadle and has been peddling fabrications ever since.
From the Marshall Field 1937 collection here are a selection of prints made from top quality, highest-count muslins which are lightweight yet suitable for quilts Powder Puff Muslin Dumari Textile Co. was noted for its starchless Powder Puff muslin, popular during the 1930s-50s. The advent of starchless processes during the 1930s replaced starch to give fabrics a soft crisp to crisp finish. Usually these finishes, produced under many brand names, were permanent. Bellmanized, a top quality starchless process made by the Bellman Brooke Bleaching Co, was the soft crisp finish used by Dumari and was guaranteed permanent; it advertised Powder Puff muslin as “lintless, wiltless, sagless and colorfast. Needs no starch; just dampen and iron”. Powder Puff has a lovely feel. If you have ever felt the smoothness and silkiness of Liberty of London’s lawns, this will give you an idea of the quality of Powder Puff fabric. Chic frocks from a 1933 Montgomery Ward catalog. Fabric was described as chalky. 1936 ad 1936 Good Housekeeping ad Marshall Field 1937 swatch envelope 1937 Powder Puff prints 1937 Powder Puff prints 1950s Powder Puff print. Selvage wording has been darkened to be readable. Kaycraft Day-Lee Chintz It is probable that Kaycraft was a Marshall Field house brand. The chintz prints featured here are unglazed and of the same quality cotton muslin as Powder Puff muslin, smooth finish and lightweight, yet suitable for quilting. As noted on the swatch envelope below, Day-Lee was Sanforized and guaranteed colorfast. 1937 swatch envelope Day-Lee prints Day-Lee prints Day-Lee prints Part I: Any Rondo Prints in Your Quilt? Part II: E&W’s Quaker Chintz Prints and Peerless 80 sq. percales. The arbitrary cut-off date for this Vintage Fabric column is 1960. To stay within the scope of this timeframe, reference materials published up to that date are the prime source of information to more accurately capture actual thoughts of the time. Joan Kiplinger is an antique doll costumer and vintage fabric addict who learned to sew on her grandmother’s treadle and has been peddling fabrications ever since.
Cover of Silver Moon sample book which J.C. Penney distributed to its store buyers for spring selections. Sales pitch on last page of sample book. This was intended for store managers to send to their buyers. J.C Penney described its Silver Moon line as a superlative fabric of true excellence when it introduced it to its 1,200 store buyers in the fall of 1939. The range was impressive from 100 smart small to large prints in 80 sq percales [160 thread count], broadcloths and heavy slubbed poplins aka cotton shantung or Himalayan cloth. New to the line were pigment prints, often called shadow or over-print and usually found in higher priced fabrics. Silver Moon prints used a white on white, barely visible and which do not show up in the following photos. In addition, Penney extolled the advanced finishing method of a special mercerization technique which brightened colors and “made them easier to launder without the need for starch.” Fabrics were 39″ wide, shrinking to 36″ after washing and sold for 19¢, It was noted that other similar fabrics sold for 29¢. Shown here are swatches from the Penney’s spring sample book which would have been suitable for quilters, namely the smaller prints in percale and broadcloth. Poplin with its textured slubbing would not be friendly to the needle nor would the larger prints intended more for household items such as curtains. To see actual size of fabric and colorways, click on photos. 80 square percale: Broadcloth: The arbitrary cut-off date for this Vintage Fabric column is 1960. To stay within the scope of this timeframe, reference materials published up to that date are the prime source of information to more accurately capture actual thoughts of the time. Joan Kiplinger is an antique doll costumer and vintage fabric addict who learned to sew on her grandmother’s treadle and has been peddling fabrications ever since.
This is the evolution of our Vintage Fabric Expert. Joan Carol Reed Kiplinger was a 1955 graduate of Kent State University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism and history. She first worked in corporate communications with Blue Cross of Northeast Ohio then was the office manager for the Lake County Soil and Water Conservation District, retiring in 1998. But above all, Joan loved fabrics and research. As her own bio states on her Vintage Fabric column, “Joan Kiplinger is an antique doll costumer and vintage fabric addict who learned to sew on her grandmother’s treadle and has been peddling fabrications ever since.” She was a collector and professional costumer of antique dolls and helped develop a national doll newsletter, NOMAD, by mail for persons who had no access to local doll guide. Joan first contacted our Ask Andy columnist, Andy Weinstock, in September of 1999 with the following question: Is there a fabric reference book available which describes all or most of the following: names of and dates when various fabrics appeared; which fabrics are no longer being made and what would they have most closely resembled to today’s fabrics; what fabrics are known by a different name today; charts of the various fabric family trees– i.e. muslin is the parent of voile, batiste, lawn, organdy, nainsnook; a list of trademarks and did they denote a single fabric or a collection of fabrics–i.e., quadriga cloth, cloth of gold, Indian Head, Trevira; which fabrics dominated each decade; illustrations of various fabric weaves. I have a small collection of fabric books which don’t begin to answer these questions and have searched the internet without success. Perhaps a college textbook(s) may furnish the answers. Would appreciate any help you can give me. Joan Andy’s reply: Dear Joan: I don’t have a lot of experience with books. I will call some of my friends in the fabric business that are more into books than I to see if they can recommend something to me. When I’m at the fabric show in New York in October, there is a magazine/book seller that always exhibits there. Will show him your request. If what you are looking for doesn’t exist, you might want to think about writing the book yourself. Will keep you advised. Andy Judith’s answer on Fabrics.net: Hi Joan, There are several books that I would recommend; one in particular is “Fairchild’s Dictionary of Textiles”. However, the type of book that you are looking for in a “fabric tree”, I haven’t seen….