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Excerpt: You Did What in the Ditch?: Folklore of the American Quilter

An edited version of the author's preface.

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 why.

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 historical artifacts.

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 research.

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 were obvious.

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 corset.

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 difference.

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.)



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