Album Quilt (1857-1862)

History of Quilting: Civil War Era

There were several references during the lectures and at QuiltCon that nudged my interest in researching and understanding more about quilt history. As Daisy @Ants to Sugar recounts, Mary Fons referenced her interest in the history of quilt making in the Maker to Making a Living Lecture. Listening to the testimonials of the Gee’s Bend Quilters also got me thinking about quilting history. In particular, I have been interested in learning more about civil war era quilts, so I figured I might as well scratch that itch! 🙂

Quilts were made and used to raise money and keep soldiers warm on both sides of the war, but I especially am proud that quilts were used by abolitionists to work towards ending slavery. Quilts were made to be shown and sold at fairs to raise awareness and money for the abolitionist cause [1]. That much seems certain and agreed upon.

What peaked my interest recently about Civil War era quilts are several conversations in the past year I had with friends who are teachers about the use of quilts in the Underground Railroad. Based solely on the conversations I had with these friends, it appeared to me that new research had been done to show that quilts were also used to either mark safe houses along the Underground Railroad or even went so far as to contain “code” to help give directions for the next leg of the journey. However, this is where things get a bit more murky when I look into it.

There are no exact numbers for the number of slaves who were able to escape slavery between 1800 and 1865, but estimates put the number as high as 100,000. Many of those escaping from the south did not even flee north.

Escape from slavery was not easy. Most slaves were uneducated and ill prepared for a long journey. Escapes were generally not planned; they were spur-of-the moment decisions made to take advantage of a favorable circumstance. Few took advantage of the Underground Railroad from Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas. In fact, […], less than 1% fled north. Most melted into local black communities passing themselves off as free men or headed south to the parts of Florida and Mexico which had been settled by the Spanish to pass as having Spanish ancestry. Slaves that did travel north found themselves facing professional slave catchers patrolling the borders between slave states and free states. [2]

Addressing the romantic notion head on that quilts were made that had specific symbols – or codes – that helped slaves escape, another source states:

Sometimes these quilts had symbols in them, but they were not secret codes that helped runaway slaves. The story of the Secret Quilt Code began with a book called Hidden in Plain View published in 1999. Before then, there was no talk about a Secret Quilt Code. In all the interviews with freed slaves done in the 1930s, no one mentioned the Code, and since 1999, many historians have disputed the truth to the story. It is also unrealistic to expect that slaves could gather the material and make a quilt fast enough to help escaping slaves. Escaping slaves certainly did not carry quilts with them in their escape to freedom – they were just too heavy. [3]

What concerns me about all of this is how widely the false idea might be spreading through the US. And as a Wikipedia entry on the topic so baldly points out, this myth might be a way of avoiding the more difficult conversations about the reality of the era.

These theories have been adopted widely for use in classrooms in the United States as a more palatable and fun way to share “history” instead of talking about the harsh and brutal realities as well as challenges of slave escapes. [4]

Obviously, I quickly found a fair amount of articles and publications to point out the fact that the use of quilts as code for the Underground Railroad is a myth, so some steps are being taken to make sure that correct knowledge is recorded. As I mentioned, I have had several conversations with friends who are teachers, and I plan to go back and re-open those conversations now that I have had the opportunity to learn more about the topic.

So, what details are known about quilts made during this era of American history?

[Q]uilts were generally made with basic fabrics and very simple block patterns. Time was always an issue, so the faster the quilts could be made the better.

As time went on, women would often cut up two existing bed quilts and re-sew them into three or four cot quilts!

Men’s clothing, old blackets, feed and fertilizer sacks, wool weave, old uniforms, suits, coats, twill flannel, sleeves, pocket-flaps and pants legs were all used to make quilts!

Sometimes they used the wardrobes of the men who had died fighting in the war to make blankets for other soldiers. Many of the quilts did not have batting as it was scarce and often could not be found. The backing was generally made out of old fertiliser or feed sacks.

These types of quilts were often very roughly put together, with large chick track stitching. Their purpose was solely practical and functional with the aim to keep someone warm, and there is no beauty or skill in the finished masterpiece.

Many soldiers were buried in their quilts and as a result very few original civil war quilts have survived. As most of the quilts were made hastily and were poorly constructed, many did not survive the war. By the time the war ended it is estimated that over 250,000 quilts had been made for the union soldiers. [5]

By searching for quilts that have been authenticated to be made in this era by museums, I was able to fine a few images of quilts from the Civil War time frame.

Album Quilt (1857-1862)

Album Quilt (1857-1862)

Log Cabin Quilt ca. 1865

Log Cabin Quilt ca. 1865

Is there a specific era in quilting history that draws your interest or imagination?


  1. History of Quilting – Wikipedia
  2. Underground Railroad Quilts – Quilt History
  3. Myths of the Underground Railroad – Scholastic
  4. Quilts of the Underground Railroad – Wikipedia
  5. Civil War Quilts – Quilting 101

17 thoughts on “History of Quilting: Civil War Era

  1. I still hear people speak about the symbols in the quilts. It is a hard myth to get rid off.
    esthersipatchandquilt at yahoo dot com

  2. Interesting post, Yvonne. I had heard about the idea of secret code quilts too, and had also heard that there was no proof of it.

  3. Patricia C says:

    Thanks for sharing this. You might like this site: An index of quilt patterns from the 1800’s and forward.

  4. Kate Yates says:

    Hi Yvonne! Thanks for sharing, I love those tiny log cabins. I find quilting history to be very interesting. It is interesting that the myth of underground railroad quilts spread so far…I never learned that in school, but I do remember reading something similar about barn quilts last year. I’ll have to go back and investigate now 🙂 I have a library book I’ve been flipping through about Amish quilts, it is fun to see how so many different types of quilts have an influence on what people are making now.

    1. Peggy says:

      I have my great great grandmother’s 3 quilts made during the civil war in the Shenandoah valley of Virginia. Our family were mennonite

  5. Kristen says:

    Very interesting post – I teach a unit on quilting to my ESL students but have never incorporated the Underground Railroad stories – now am glad I didn’t :). I do tell them about how quilting bees were important in the womens suffrage movement- they were a time for women to meet and talk about issues involving them – I have heard that quilting groups old wrote letters to Susan B Anthony requesting fabric from her dress to include in their quilts – quits were

    1. Kristen says:

      Quilts were often raffled to raise money for the suffrage movement

  6. Shauna says:

    I once took a history class where the teacher required us to read a fictional novel, then he tore it apart because of the way it romanticize history. He said we wouldn’t learn from history if we didn’t really know what it was. Ever since then I try and look for “fact” vs. “fiction” in history, but it is very hard to do sometimes.

  7. Renee says:

    It sounds like yet another american myth started by someone that wanted attention for a story rather than anything based on fact. I think in the era of easily and immediately available information, mythbunking is much easier than in pre-internet times (1999 included). Most of American history has been romanticized and down plays the harshness of the white settlers and suppressors. What we find in school history books is a cherry picked, and often rewritten version of history. I think the true message should be if you hear something interesting, go research it further before making a judgement on whether or not it was true. Unfortunately that isn’t how most people operate. Back to the quilts–my favorite line was how the soldiers were buried in their quilts. If people desperately needed quilts to keep warm, and were repurposing nearly every fabric they could find to make quilts (including clothing from deceased soldiers), why would a good quilt be buried with someone instead of passed to someone in need? On the other hand a quilt I made for a friend that died I do wish had been buried (actually cremated) with her, rather than her mom claiming ownership (as those she was entitled to that quilt, no thought of the father, boy friend or maker was given) of it after her death.

  8. Jasmine says:

    Fascinating. My mom had told me about the Underground Railroad quilt, but thinking about it makes it seem hard to carry a quilt around while escaping.

  9. knitnkwilt says:

    I read your post this morning; this evening this post appeared in my feed:
    Sorry–I don’t know how to make a hot link. thanks Patricia for the Am Legacy link.

  10. Judy says:

    I had never done the research regarding the code in the quilts but I always wondered how exactly it was accomplished. . . thanks for taking the time, this was a great post! I’m guessing there are several more things being taught in history classes that are not exactly what happened. . . What’s the old saying? The victor gets to write the history books.

  11. This was a great post, Yvonne! It was really informative, and I hope that you continue to share what you learn about the history of quilt making with us here! I appreciate all the work that went into writing this. Great job!

  12. Emily says:

    Hey, this was an interesting post!

  13. sally says:

    This was really interesting, I’d heard about the codes being sewn into quilts but never looked into it before to realise it wasn’t historically accurate. I love the history of quilting, the whole essence of reusing every scrap of fabric available obviously appeals to me hugely, but I think old quilts and stories behind them give you such a feel for women’s social history.

  14. This was a fab post! The historian in me really wants to know if there was maybe just ONE story of a quilt showing a way, and that it got passed down secretly or something, and now it’s a bit romanticized. Who knows. If I teach the Civil War again in schools, I’ll be sure to examine both sides thoroughly with my students. There’s a history lesson in action!

  15. Thanks for this. I’ll admit I was afraid you would tell of your friends’ using the “quilt code” in their teaching, and then move on without more discussion. Whew! When you examine the facts, there are so many reasons to disbelieve the story. (While it *could* have happened, there is no real evidence to support the notion, especially that it was widespread.) You mention the use of any fabric available during the Civil War to create utility quilts. Prior to the war, slaves had little to no access to fabrics of any type for making quilts, unless it was for their masters. Woven rough blankets were much less expensive than yardage of smooth cottons, woolens, or linsey-woolseys that would have been used for decorative quilts, so blankets are what slaves received for their own use. Slaves’ clothing provisions were meager, with typically only two outfits issued per year. With use and washing, the fabrics would be pretty fully used up by the time new clothes were issued. Slaves didn’t have a luxury of time. Hand-stitching the block patterns described in the book would be a very slow process. I could go on, as you can guess. In fact, I have. Here is my blog post on the code and the evidence:

I really appreciate the time and thought you take to comment, and I look forward to conversing with you. :)