Friday, November 26, 2010

Abolitionist Embroidery 2

The last post discussed the imagery in Reed's 19th-century embroidered picture, primarily in the kneeling figure. She also asked about the stars and moon at the top of the piece.
"It occurred to me yesterday that the stars are actually a very common quilt pattern, which I discovered is the 'Ohio Star' pattern, I have since gone on to read about the underground railway quilts, which appears to be widely discredited. I was curious to know if the 'Ohio Star' pattern was commonly used as a symbol of freedom, if these stars do represent the 'Ohio Star' it would at least place this textiles origin in the US. The backwards moon is a mystery and if the stars do represent the 'Ohio Star', then why are there three?"

Eight-pointed stars ARE common quilt patterns, one of the oldest and most popular designs. We see them in quilts from the 1770s and in quilts on design walls today. But rather than the quilt patterns influencing the anonymous embroiderer, we have to assume quilters and embroiderers obtained their imagery from the same traditions.

Eighteenth-century rug

Eight-pointed stars are geometric shorthand that can represent the stars in the skies, flowers, and all manner of natural imagery. They can also represent nothing more than pleasing design. We see them in embroidery, rugs and mosaics going back centuries.

Black work embroidery design

German family record

Embroidery from the U.S.

The North Star did have meaning to the abolitionist movement in the U.S. Fredrick Douglass's newspaper The North Star began publishing in 1847.

The North Star masthead
The artwork in the center pictures a man running towards a bright star in the sky. The symbolism of the name was often discussed in print. Escaping slaves were advised to head for the North Star and freedom in the free states.

The stars in Reed's embroidery may have meant something to the artist, but we should be careful about projecting meaning. Stars are just too common and too universal an idea. The angels with their golden trumpets, on the other hand, remain an easy-to-read symbol.

Pennsylvania German painted tinware

Why three stars? We can imagine that Christian artists considered three a sacred number, relevant to the Trinity. But three is also a balanced composition. Artists throughout history have known how to arrange three objects for effect.

Victorian miniature furniture with three strawberries

Back to the quilt pattern: I looked up the stars in my Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns, an index to pattern names and when they were first published. Both star patterns above were published as Ohio Star by Carrie Hall in her 1935 book The Romance of the Patchwork Quilt. I have found no earlier sources than this mid-20th century reference. I have to conclude that 19th-century quiltmakers did not call these stars Ohio Star, so looking for some connection to the underground railroad mythology in Ohio is rather far-fetched.

And what about the moon?
Is it backwards?
UPDATE: See the comments for mention that this is a waning moon. Perhaps a hope that slavery is a waning institution?

Thanks to Reed for sharing the pictures of her treasure. She says she also inherited several American quilts. 


  1. Isn't that the orientation of a waxing crescent moon? (as opposed to waning?)

  2. Yes, anonymous- that is a waxing crescent moon; the waning crescent has the opposite orientation.

  3. Reed sends a note: Hello, I tried to thank you on your comments box a couple of times, but something appears to be up with my google account and it wouldn't let me publish it. It was just to thank you and tell you how much my
    family and I enjoyed reading your blog entries on the sampler, you found out far more than I could ever hoped to. It was especially interesting to read the full prayer, and the similarities between mine and the Wilberforce House one, I have since written to them and
    theirs is dated 1836.
    PS one of my mother's peculiarities besides collecting folk art was that she gave us rather ambiguous names and I am actually a 'she'. A mistake everyone makes!