Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Abolitionist Embroidery

Reed in England wrote with a few questions about an embroidered piece:
"I recently inherited this unusual textile from my mother, and I was trying to find some information on it. My mother collected folk art, and was originally American, although we moved to Britain in the 1970's. I thought she bought this in Britain and always thought it was British (slavery was abolished in 1833 in Britain)....

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? I would be very interested in your thoughts on this subject."
That's a lot of questions to answer, specially for a person who is sitting there gape-mouthed in front of her computer screen. Gape-mouthed and envious. How come I never inherit any 19th-century abolitionist embroidery?
This is going to have to be a two-part blog. We'll deal with the symbolism of the details next time.

The symbolism of the human figure is far more important. The kneeling black man with shackled hands and feet was the popular image of the late-18th and 19th-century abolitionist movements in Britain and America. Also in the logo are the words: "Am I not a man and a brother?"

In 1787 English potterJosiah Wedgwood created a medallion with the image and shipped some to anti-slavery sympathizers in the United States. The idea of a durable, small ceramic logo was brilliant publicity. Copies of the kneeling slave (and a female equivalent) are found on all manner of manufactured goods on both sides of the Atlantic.


Printed material

And handmade items, particularly needlework

Needlecase in the Manchester (England) Gallery of Craft and Design

Detail of a patch in a quilt by Deborah Coates, Pennsylvania
She may have cut the image from a silk handkerchief.

Embroidery from the collection of Colonial Williamsburg 

Sarah Sedgewick's embroidered
 sampler made to celebrate her own freedom

Embroidery in the Wilberforce House
at the Hull City Museum in Britain
Among other similarities to Reed's piece, the words in the Wilberforce embroidery are the same
 Biblical reference: "Thou, God, seest me"

Reed's embroidered picture
Reed's has two additional lines at the top:
"The Negros Prayer"
"Jesus who makest the meanest s"

Using Google Books to search for the lines I found "The Negro's Prayer" in an 1818 American periodical, the Evangelical Guardian and Review.* The poem begins
Jesus, who maks't the meanest soul
An object of thy care.
Attend to what my heart would speak,
Hear a poor Negro's prayer.
The American printing is probably not the first printing of "The Negro's Prayer." It may be British and older than 1818.

The embroiderer who did Reed's piece at the top apparently had high hopes of stitching at least the poem's initial verse, but never finished the first line. We can all relate. 

Needleprint, the excellent embroidery blog, offers a free download of a counted stitch image of the chained slave. Click here: http://needleprint.blogspot.com/2009/05/free-download-quaker-slavery-motif.html
It would be perfect for a little needlecase to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, an event that begins in January.

See more about antislavery imagery at the Colonial Williamsburg website. Click here:

* The reference for the poem is the Evangelical Guardian and Review, Volume 2, 1818, New York, page 364. Google Books


  1. Your blog is the best! What great research. I recognize the kneeling negro from the quilt you show, but had not idea that it was such an iconic image. Thanks for this story. Bonnie

  2. What a brilliant article! I can't believe you got all that out of a single piece of embroidery. Thank you for sharing all these pieces of our history.

    Can't wait for the next installment.

  3. What a great piece of detective work!

  4. Thank you Reed and thank you Barbara. What a wonderful history lesson.
    I'm with you Barbara, my mouth was gaping at my computer screen and I had the same thoughts.

    I've seen the Needleprints chart and think your idea is great about the comemorative needlecase. I will have to make one.

  5. I never inherit any 19th century abolitionist embroidery either. What an interesting piece!! There is always something new to learn on your blog. I look forward to part 2.

  6. I never miss any of your blogs and this one is super fascinating! YOU are such an amazing researcher/quilt historian/fabulous person and I love the way you share your knowledge. Thank you!

  7. Stupendous detective work as usual. All that out of a piece of embroidery. I can't wait until the 2nd part to hear about the details of the symbolism. Your blog is always fascinating.

  8. Wonderful history surrounding the pattern and motifs.
    What a treasure she has.
    I need to take a photo of a quilt I have, no idea what it is.


  9. Very interesting..... thanks for sharing.

  10. I too, just soak up what is on this blog. Often if time is short or my brain not working well, I will "save" the posts for later - as today I am reading several of yours.
    Thank you .....