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Excerpt: You Did What
in the Ditch?: Folklore of the American Quilter
An edited version of the
by Dr. John L. Oldani, Ph.D. (April 4, 2011)
(Note: Dr. Oldani established a folklore
archive for research with a strong emphasis on the American quilt
and the lore surrounding its history. Dr. Oldani has produced quilt
shows, served as a judge at national shows, and has written and
spoken on the meaning of the American quilt as seen through
folklore. He is the author of Sweetness Preserved: The Story of
the Crown Candy Kitchin and Pass It On: Folklore of St. Louis.)
For years I watched my immigrant grandmother
make quilts without using patterns, relying solely on her sense of
style. She simply cut her fabric from worn clothing—and they had to
be pretty worn and not wearable—and preserved the memory of the
fabric in an artistic, meaningful, functional, and beautiful piece
of folk art. My grandmother had no formal training in design, quilt
making, or needlework. She simply "picked it up" without questioning
It might be far fetched to conclude that my
grandmother, by then a proud American, was following the traditions
of the American quilters from the nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries. These ladies, who were denied the benefits of society
like voting and schooling, were quietly recording a history of their
own. In one sense they had no control over the laws of the men in
the legislature, so they exercised their control over their
piecework. For decades, the American woman quilter produced
I like to believe that my grandmother had an
understanding of that tradition and culture, for she passed on the
skill to my mother who eventually surpassed her in talent and
artistic design. Did they discuss and understand the quilting
tradition they were following? I don’t think so.
But their quilts were created in the same
tradition. They continued to quilt and quilt and quilt for decades.
And I observed.
I earned a PhD in American studies at Saint
Louis University. For my doctoral dissertation I chose to do
research on the role of the American woman as a facet of the
American character. At that time, there was a serious neglect of the
place of women in American history. There was simply no definitive
history and no attempts at remedy. Certainly, I thought, at least
recognition of the void could be addressed through preliminary
Using primary sources -- such as women’s
journals, letters, diaries, institutional declarations, and
interviews housed at Harvard, Vassar, and Smith colleges, among
other depositories --I was determined to research the woman's place
in American history. At first, I discovered what I had expected:
hundreds of documents related to the suffrage movement. This reform
has historical validity and has been documented as the major women's
issue. Of course, women were not granted the right to vote until the
Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1920, more than one
hundred years after the birth of our nation.
Prior to the Nineteenth Amendment, the American
woman had been defined as "weak," "feeble-brained," "small-brained,"
"inferior to men," "inherently domestic," and "must be kept in her
sphere for the success of our civilization." Even though Abigail
Adams, the wife of our second president, John Adams, had warned: "…
in the new code of laws, if particular care and attention are not
paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion and will
not hold ourselves bound to obey the laws in which we have no voice
or representation," the struggle continued for more than a century.
Yet suffrage was not the only objective. The
movement for women's rights in America was filtered through
abolitionism, temperance, prison reform, care for the insane, and
even fashion. The latter was, perhaps, the most dramatic and
concrete symbol of the repressed lives of American women.
For more than fifty years, the corset was an
essential element of women's dress. From pre–Civil War until about
1900, the "wasp waist" or the "illusion waist" was considered an
ideal for all women as a mark of gentility and femininity. Whalebone
provided the means and no method was overlooked in applying such
armor. A favorite technique was for a lady to tie her corset strings
to a bedpost, expel her breath, and walk as far away from the bed as
possible. Sometimes a woman would lie facedown on the floor while
another lady, with one foot on her back, would tighten the cords of
the stays as tightly as possible. The effects on a women's health
But corset making became a major industry, and
as early as 1866, the demand for corsets was estimated at up to
50,000 per day. By 1900, production of the corset in America was
valued at $14 million per year. It is not hard to see why or how
reformers for women’s rights had a concrete hook in the restricting
Godey’s Lady's Book, the most popular
publication of the day, had a serious warning for the American woman
and her corset-wearing addiction: Tight lacing seriously limits,
indeed almost annihilates the respiratory movement of the diaphragm,
for the pinch comes on just that portion of the ribs to which this
great muscle is attached and squeezes them together so as to throw
it almost or altogether out of work. The lungs do not then
appropriate the proper amount of air; the blood is not completely
aerated, and the carbonic acid accumulates. This substance, in
sufficient quantities, is, as everyone is aware, a deadly poison,
and its effect upon the system when thus continuously present, even
though in limited quantities, is extremely injurious.
The editors went on to preach about the
"horrible" effects of the corset on the digestive system, the
bowels, the liver, and even the nervous system. A full-scale reform,
even revolt, was created around the corset. With obvious symbolic
ammunition, women suffragettes decried the literal and figurative
"keeping the American woman in her place."
Ironically, and simultaneously, Godey's
was a leader in printing quilt patterns for its readers. The woman
who was not in the parade or on the stump protesting the secondary
role of the American woman may well have been at home quietly
developing her folk art. No doubt, she was aware of the corset
reform movement and its connection to women’s equality. But she was
reforming in another way.
Through corsets, the "devil alcohol," slavery,
reform of prisons, even "hatchetation," and the "Bloomer," woman’s
place, as secondary to the man, was connected. It seemed that all
parts of the American culture, when combined, would succeed in
achieving equality for women. But, again, paradoxically, it was the
domestic side of the woman, often preached as a reason for
inequality, and exemplified in the quilt, which made a significant
While being preached to and exhorted to rebel
at quilting bees (many believe Susan B. Anthony gave her first
suffrage address at a quilting bee) and other domestic gatherings,
the one reform method the American woman kept current was her quilt
as a primary document. To her and to many after her, the quilt
served as a tangible record of her cultural place. And eventually
she was heard!
The role of the American quilt in the
Underground Railroad is well documented in the excellent research by
Tobin and Dobard, Hidden in Plain View. Interestingly, when
the feminist movement was very topical in the late 1960s and 1970s
and beyond, and some women were channeling their foremothers in
groups like WITCH (Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from
Hell) and SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men), quilters were
unconsciously planting another seed in their own reform. While
militant feminist groups were hexing the Stock Market and burning
bras, they were also blaming the growing "domestic" art of quilt
making for keeping women from achieving completeness.
Quilting and such work was, it was argued, not
helping women reach true equality. Working on quilts defined
second-class citizenship. But quilters, among other "domestic"
artists, while continuing to elevate the art of the quilt to
incredible standards, did not sit in silence.
In a safe but defiant way, "needlework women"
made it clear they chose to preserve history through the art of the
quilt. It was a choice screamed loudly and spoken in their true
works of art. Godey’s would not recognize the real art that
is manifested in the American quilt today. The battle cry is also
evident in the current lore documented in this research. Note the
pride, the passion, the dedication, and even the defiance connoted
in the examples. There is historical precedence here, and it
continues to develop with purpose. Quilts are displayed in museums
as testimony to an "under-the-radar" historical reform movement,
spearheaded by the domesticity of women.
There is history in the quilt, and memories,
and tradition, but there is much more. Through her medium of fabric,
the American woman remained in control. She may not have had the
equality so many were agitating for. She knew it would come
eventually. So patiently, she harnessed her honed skills to make a
difference. Her fabric, thread, needles, frame, and patterns all
belonged to her, and even though they were not headline grabbing,
they were used to foment the rebellion. Again, quilting, although
mentioned in many primary sources of the time, was not given the
significance it really had.
The "lore" of the quilt is as integral as its
history. Using the oral tradition, quilt patterns were shared and
developed to reflect some meaning. A vocabulary grew within the art.
The rites of passage -- birth, marriage, and death -- serving as the
domain of women, were stitched into the quilt. Folk beliefs were
initiated and followed and changed and combined in and through the
quilt. Legends and superstitions grew up around the quilt both
regionally and nationally. Folk customs, social gatherings, even
ritual ceremonies evolved. In all this lore, the woman was in
control throughout. It was her innovative domain and the quilt her
symbol. The folklore of the quilt in America was rooted and
continues to grow.
The lore had to be collected before it was lost
forever. As a professor of American studies and folklore at a major
university and a visiting professor at several universities, I had
an opportunity to collect and preserve this quilters' lore. I
established a folklore archive where scholars could research all
facets of our lore. A special collection related to the American
quilt highlighted the thousands of documents.
There was, of course, the folklore of the oral
tradition relating to the quilt, which grew exponentially over the
years. And there were collections of quilt patterns from as far back
as Godey’s Lady’s Book and the Kansas City Star, among
others, documenting folk naming and history as a corollary.
Eventually, actual quilt blocks of the
historically significant patterns were made and catalogued. And as
in the Field of Dreams, they came! The documented lore of the
quilter, already around for decades, was being collected as a
function of fieldwork and catalogued. Simultaneously, the art of the
quilt was taking on a new life, giving overdue recognition to its
place in the history of the American woman.
What follows is in no way, and with no
intention, a history of American quilting. That has been done very
well through the excellent research of pioneers like Ruth Finley and
historians like Myron and Patsy Orlofsky, Barbara Brackman, the late
Cuesta Benberry, Jacqueline Tobin, Dr. Raymond Dobard, and
Uncoverings, among many others. They have made it easy for me to
learn the basic history. What I hope I have presented is the
folklore of the quilt using "lore" as defined in the accepted field
of study. This lore, too, is dynamic and growing; so this work is
not exhaustive. I hope that it will create more interest in the need
to collect this lore before it is lost forever.
The early sections of the book are necessary to
define what is meant by folklore and how it is studied in academia.
There is a science to fieldwork, and knowing a small part of it will
enhance the appreciation of what the quilter is trying to do.
Folk art as a "non-verbal" example is
introduced to show how the folk, who might be uneducated or not
classically trained in any medium, produce valuable and truly
artistic work reflective of the culture. I use the Kuna Indians of
the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama who produce blouses,
called molas, as a perfect example of this folk quality.
And the connection to the American quilt will
be more evident. Each chapter describes examples of lore related to
quilters as a folk group: speech patterns, vocabulary, naming, folk
beliefs, "graffiti," proverbs, poems, and even "down-home"
philosophy. The reader, no doubt, will recognize many of the
examples I have collected from quilters. It is hard to define a
regional approach since quilting has taken on such national
significance. But your example of lore may be slightly different
from what I have recorded. That makes it even more valuable as a
cultural example and valid research text.
Just remember: what is done "in the ditch"
stays in the ditch!
(Note: You Did What in the
Ditch?: Folklore of the American Quilter is published by Reedy
Press and is available at all major bookstores, major e-commerce
bookstores, and at
www.reedypress.com. ISBN: 9781935806011. $14.99.)