Do You Ever Wonder Why?

Sitting here this morning, curiously wondering how some quilt blocks got their names.  Occasionally, the name suits the block and other times the name makes no sense whatever.  Ohio Cluster is the name of this block – the cluster part I get.  But Ohio?

According to folklore, the Ohio Cluster block was used by abolitionists as an indicator pointing north towards freedom on the Underground Railroad.  Note my use of the word, folklore.  Although there was certainly a network of routes and safe houses in place during the 19th century, many quilt historians and scholars of antebellum America have questioned whether quilt codes were fact or fiction.

Ohio Cluster Stitching Witches QAL FlickrWhat else am I working on besides the Stitching Witches QAL?  Later this week I plan on a run down to Houston for the International Quilt Festival.  In anticipation of being completely stoked about all things quilt related, I’m pre-cutting fabrics for a take along project.  I wanted something interesting, yet small-ish, so I decided to pick from my ‘gosh-I-really-need-to-do-this’ list; a semi-vintage pattern that was last published in the Kansas City Star in 1977.

Why semi-vintage?  Because I was around in 1977 – coincidentally, I was in Kansas City in 1977 – and if I dropped the ‘semi’ part, that would be conceding that I’m vintage, too.  As if.

Democratic Donkey

A Donkey pattern similar to this was published in the Kansas City Star newspaper in 1931. The pattern was published in response to requests for a pattern representative of the Democratic party, due to the upcoming 1932 presidential election. “Giddap, A Very Democratic Donkey” was designed by the Ladies’ Aid Society at the Sedalia, Missouri, Congregational Church. Kansas City Star patterns were syndicated in many other states, making the Donkey pattern available to many people. — Great Lakes Quilt Center, Michigan State University Museum

And in case you haven’t seen what we have lurking in our pasture… here are Pepper and Donkey Hotie (pronounced Don Quixote), the inspirations for my version of the “Giddap” quilt.


13 thoughts on “Do You Ever Wonder Why?

      1. Katell, Quilteuse Forever

        In T. Chevalier’s book, there is no reference of a possible special meaning in quilts. It is rather about inner convictions, especially for Quakers. I must say that I was afraid that she would take this story about quilt codes for granted!!
        As for quilts helping runaways, you can find this here for instance : Underground Railroad Sampler by Eleanor Burns
        So far, no evidence of such hidden signs in quilts, states Barbara Brackman.
        Oral history or invention, who knows ?


        1. Jo Post author

          Ah yes, Eleanor Burns’ Underground Railroad Sampler. I’ve seen both the full-size and the miniature version (both instructions are included in the book) at a Quilt In A Day trunk show, and in my humble opinion, the mini quilt stole the show. Fun commentary as in all of Eleanor’s books.


  1. wombatquilts

    I have always loved the idea that quilts were used to tell runaway slaves where was safe. I am not going to let go of that idea until I absolutely have to…that is until there is definitive proof that it did not happen.


    1. Jo Post author

      I know, I agree – quilts conjure up so many words for me: home, warmth, comfort, safety, shelter. So why would they not use quilts to signal the same concept on the Underground Railroad?


  2. mosaicthinking

    As it happens, I’ve been reading a book called “Bound for Canaan” for the last few months. It’s slow going, though interesting and all about the underground railroad. There’s no mention of quilts. One interesting element is how deeply engrained racism was, even among the abolitionists. Also fascinating is how economic influences such as the gold rush changed the landscape for slavery. Writing this comment has made me realise I haven’t been paying close enough attention. I may have to re-read it as soon as I’m through reading it the first time. Oh dear.

    Ohio cluster – lots of Ohio stars, methinks….A whole cluster of them, in fact.

    Please post about Houston. I’d love to visit Texas one day.


    1. Jo Post author

      Small world! I was ready to start a new book yesterday evening. Next up in the to read pile was… Bound For Canaan. Second up was The Searchers: The Making Of An American Legend by Glenn Frankel. I opted for The Searchers, but maybe I should reconsider and stick to the original order as long as I’m in the mood. Another book that I finished recently was, Behind The Scenes by Elizabeth Keckley, Or, Thirty Years A Slave, And Four Years In The White House – the memoirs of Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker. Through Keckley’s writings, I came to understand how deeply ingrained the concept of bondage ran.

      Will definitely post about the quilt festival and Houston and Texas!
      [ETA: Donkey Hotie and a Texas 2-Step Little Quilt]


  3. Donnell

    I see a mini quilt that looks a lot like one that I have started and is still hanging on my design wall.

    I like it.


  4. neame

    “Money can’t buy you love, but it can buy you a big pink cadillac so you can drive around and look for it.” –Lou Reed

    Thanks for the nod to a real ‘walk on the wild side’ favorite.


  5. dustin

    just finished a donkey block i started 6 months ago for a swap. been quiet around my sewing table… hopefully not much longer. can’t wait to see yours… I ADORE the donkey block.


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