Underground Railroad Quilt Code

Some interesting history about quilts and slavery in the U.S.

Catbird Quilt Studio

Did quilts help guide escaped slaves to safety? Did different quilt blocks have specific meanings to slaves, perhaps based on their African past? Was the pattern of stitches and knots informative about routes to take, perhaps creating a topographical map?

The most famous telling of a quilt code says that indeed, quilts were a vital part of the Underground Railroad, and their history with it was unwritten until very recently.

One of the blocks in the quilt code is the Bear’s Paw, shown here.

This pattern consists of several squares, rectangles, and right triangles. When different scraps of fabric are used, the pattern takes on the complexity of a map that is remarkably similar in design to the African Hausa embroidered map of a village …Just as the Hausa design defines the perimeter of the village and identifies major landmarks, the Bear’s Paw pattern could be used to identify…

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6 thoughts on “Underground Railroad Quilt Code

        1. Melanie in IA Post author

          I haven’t seen it, of course. I looked for a synopsis of it, which didn’t talk about the role of quilts in the plot. I do hope she doesn’t present quilts as having been used in escapes, as there is no evidence of that.

          Thanks, Steve. Good to see you.

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        2. Steve Morris

          Oh, the quilts aren’t used in escapes, but the heroine is a quilter (a Quaker from England) and there is a lot of discussion about English vs American quilting styles.

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        3. Melanie in IA Post author

          Ah, yes. Thanks for clarifying! Yes, at that point there was a pretty big difference in how styles were evolving. In the 1830s the block-format style was just starting in the US, and becoming fairly important in the 1840s. I believe the medallion, whole-cloth, and some strip quilts were still more prevalent in England.

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