Quilter, and ex-slave, Gracie Mitchell was interviewed by Bernice Bowden as part of the WPA’s Federal Writers Project. During her interview Ms. Mitchell showed 30 quilts to Ms. Bowden, “She showed me twenty-two finished quilt tops, each of a different design and several of the same design, or about thirty quilts in all”. This page maps those 22 patterns and their geographical occurrences during the 19th century using surviving quilts, found in the International Quilt Study Center and Museum [IQSCM] searchable online database.
Toggle the map view to consider pattern occurrence according to terrain or (present) political boundaries.
One constraint of the map is that only 5 of the quilt patterns have been mapped thus far; there are 17 distinct patterns that will be mapped in the next few months. Right now most of the occurrences are concentrated in the Northerneastern U.S.; new patterns may emerge in different parts of the country as more designs are mapped. Another limitation is that the layers of the aggregate map are categorized hierarchically by pattern. A filterable map or the addition of a timeline would help to identify the original geographical occurrences, as well as to visualize the pattern’s dissemination throughout space and time.
Most of the quilts represented at present come from the Ardis and Robert James Collection. The 1085 quilts they donated in 1997 are the IQSCM’s founding repository, and the collection “was designated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as an official project of the Save America’s Treasures program, in the company of other American treasures including the Star Spangled Banner“. Another significant collector represented in the quilts that are mapped on this page is Jonathan Holstein. His 1971 exhibition “Abstract Design in American Quilts” at the Whitney, “is regarded by most quilt scholars as instrumental in igniting the quilt renaissance of the 20th and 21st centuries”.
1. Broken Dishes: These are the 19C occurrences of the pattern that Gracie Mitchell identifies as the “Breakfast Dish” design. The earliest example of this design is from New England, circa 1860-1880.
2. Sawtooth: This is the second pattern design listed in the 1938 interview record. There is 1 early quilt (circa 1830-1850) that was produced in Alabama. However, most of the pattern occurrences (including the earliest, circa 1820-1840) are in modern day Pennsylvania; 19th century quilters were likely inspired by the rugged terrain of the Appalachian Mountains. An interesting quilt design is that of Elisabeth C. Jones with one, central white star. The quilt’s geographic origin is Pennsylvania; could this quilter be the same Elisabeth C. Jones who published Fugitive Poems in 1828 with a Providence, RI publisher?
3. Tulip Applique: Gracie Mitchell referred to applique as “laid work”. This design made it to Indiana by 1860.
4. Cactus: Because Gracie Mitchell called the design she completed “Prickle Pear”, it is possible that she appliqued the design. However, the interviewer did not list “applique” or “laid work” as she did for other pieces that used that method.
5. Little Boys Breeches: The IQSCM does not have a 19th century quilt in their online catalog that matches this specific design mentioned by Gracie Mitchell, however, an example of a quilt with the Overall Sam design from 1900 is available in the Quilt Index.
6. Birds in Air: This pattern is has a strong affiliation with the quilt code myth. Ms. Bowden lists it as “Birds All Over the Elements” in the interview transcript. One of Elisabeth C. Jones’ Fugitive Poems was titled, “On Releasing a Favourite Bird from its Confinement”, where she writes “Go spread on air thy jetty wing / Thy liberty regain” (32). Also, one of the WPA slave narratives describes a quilting party where a runaway slave escapes a trap set for him by patrollers, yelling “Bird in de air!” into the night as makes his getaway.
TO BE CONTINUED…