Secrets (real ones) in Civil War quilts  


Frank Moore's 1862 Rebellion Record is a "news digest" which includes a news article from the Missouri Republican describing a Union Army report of the search for a large Confederate flag.  Hearing that locals in Manchester, Missouri boasted the flag would be displayed again, on November 15, 1861 a contingent of fifteen Union Soldiers from Camp Hebron, Missouri raided the home of  "Squire B," its suspected keeper.  

After a thorough but fruitless search of her house, dryly notes the report, Mrs. B. "thanked the officer for the gentlemanly manner in which the search had been conducted" and said she presumed they were satisfied.  Unconvinced, the officer told her that since she did not turn over the flag voluntarily, he had no choice but to place her under arrest along with her husband.  After about an hour she was reassured that their only interest in her involved retrieving the flag, and over her husband's protests Mrs. B. said that for a time she had hidden it in a box in the garden, but concerned that the dampness would damage it, she had sent it far away to friends whose name she refused to divulge.  When Mr. B. was removed to face his fate, however, she promptly revealed it was Mrs. S, only a mile and a half away.   So the soldiers made their way to Mrs. S's house, where they conducted another fruitless search.

Described in the report as "being surrounded by a very interesting family," Mrs. S. at first flatly denied any knowledge of the flag and demanded to know who had named her.   But after being assured that neither she nor her family would face any trouble if she surrendered the flag, Mrs. S. admitted Mr. B. had turned it over to her in "sacred trust" - now, apparently broken by Mrs. B. having sent Union soldiers her way.   

"Recollect," said Mrs. S. "that you did not find it yourself, and when you wish detectives you had better employ ladies."  "She then went to a bed that had been fruitlessly searched, took from it a quilt, and with the aid of her daughters proceeded to open the edges of the quilt and cut the stitches through the body of it, and pulled off the top, when behold! there lay the mammoth flag next to the cotton, being carefully stretched twice and nearly a half across the quilt. When taken out and spread, it proved to be a magnificent flag over 21 feet in length and nearly nine in width, with fifteen stars to represent the prospective Southern Confederacy.  The flag is now in possession of Col. Vandever, who remarked that it excelled any of the rebel flags that he saw at the battle of Bull Run or Manassas."


Salem, Massachusetts sea captain William Driver would probably have been famous even without his connection to the Stars and Stripes.  By the time he left the sea at age 34, he had circumnavigated the globe. Just three years earlier, Driver's ship - flying a huge American flag that was a birthday gift from his mother and "the girls of Salem" - traveled 1,400 miles off course to rescue descendants of the Bounty mutineers stranded on Tahiti and return them to their home on Pitcairn Island.  

Driver retired in 1837, joining his brothers in Nashville, where he proudly displayed his flag every holiday until Tennessee seceded in July 1861.   A staunch Unionist and supporter of abolition, he was dismayed that three of his sons fought for the Confederacy.  Driver was naturally concerned the flag would be confiscated, and he had it concealed inside a quilt. When Union forces regained control of Nashville in February 1862,  Driver removed the flag from its hiding place.  Under Union escort he brought it to the statehouse, where it flew overnight, closely guarded by Driver himself.  

William Driver monument in Nashville, TNAs new states were added to the Union, Driver added more stars to his precious flag.  A prolific correspondent, in 1876 he wrote his sons, "This flag has ever since been my staunch companion and protector.  Savages and heathen, lowly and oppressed hailed and welcomed it at the far ends of the world. Then, why should it not be called Old Glory?"  The name stuck, and Driver is credited with having originated it.

Driver died in 1886.  His Nashville grave is one of only a handful of places authorized by act of Congress where the US flag may be flown 24 hours a day. 

The flag was inherited by his daughter, who in 1922 gave it to President William Harding, who turned it over to the Smithsonian Institution.  But "Old Glory" was considered too fragile to display. Sixty years later, it was finally restored and in 1982 it became part of the museum's permanent exhibit.

The 10- by 17-foot flag went on display at the Smithsonian in Washington in 1982, 60 years after its donation. 


Much of the too-convenient plot turns in the popular writing on the Moon sisters may be based on the memoirs of the flamboyant younger sister, Virginia Bethel ("Ginnie"). Among the unsubstantiated claims found on various websites (in nearly identical language): the women smuggled correspondence across the border by hiding them in quilts they assembled under the noses of Union soldiers;  disguised as an Englishwoman, spy Cynthia Charlotte ("Lottie") rode in an unwitting Abraham Lincoln's carriage; she left future general Ambrose burnside at the altar, only to have him spare her life years later; Ginnie was engaged 16 or 26 times, voted in Memphis before women's suffrage, and in her 70s appeared in films starring Pola Negri and Douglas Fairbanks.

What is known is that Lottie (born 1829) and Ginnie (born 1844) Moon grew up just north of Cincinnatti, Ohio, the daughters of Virginia-born physician Robert Moon and his wife Cynthia.  In 1849 Lottie married James Clarke, who became a Butler County (Ohio) judge and an outspoken Southern sympathizer. When  Dr. Moon died, his widow left Ginnie in Ohio and moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where Ginny joined her after war broke out.  

Because of their connections in both the North and South, the two young women, sometimes accompanied by their mother, were able to smuggle documents across the Mason-Dixon line and provide information on Union troop movements.  Their activities ended on April 3, 1863 when Ginnie and her mother were arrested as they were about to return to Memphis from Cincinnati.  

A Chicago Tribune article from April 7, 1863 reports that after boarding a Mississippi River steamboat the two women were stopped on suspicion of possessing contraband goods and correspondence. They vehemently denied this, blaming the accusation on their relationship to Judge Clark.  In later years Ginnie is supposed to have written that 

there was a list in my skirt, and in my petticoat I had a Colt revolver. I put it in my hand and took it out, backed to the door and leveled it at him. 'If you make a move to touch me, I will kill you, so help me God.'" 

Intimidated by her ferocity, Ginny says, the Customs officer left to get help, and in his absence she ate the incriminating list.  

But the Tribune article suggests the teenaged Ginny was something less intrepid than the heroine she describes: when threatened with a strip-search, she promptly "collapsed, and delivered her precious charge."  

What Ginny was carrying, however, is undisputed:  several dozen letters to various Confederate officers (possibly inside a quilted petticoat or quilt) and "a huge bustle, or sack, attached to her person" containing 40 bottles of morphine, seven pounds of opium and "a quantity of camphor", all of which would have been used to care for wounded Confederate troops.  

That the latter version is probably closer to the truth - and that the women's earlier exploits may have been something less than Ginny claimed - is suggested by their treatment:  after being briefly held in custody, they were released and warned not to cross Union lines again.  

After the war, Charlotte joined Ginny in Memphis and became a novelist, publishing under the pseudonym Charles M. Clay (books here and here); she died in 1895. For awhile Ginny ran a boardinghouse, adopted a child, then became a boarder herself. She was "a familiar sight on Memphis streets," when it was rumored she carried a revolver hidden in her umbrella.  In 1920 she was renting a room in Santa Barbara, California, but census records indicate she was unemployed.  Eventually she made her way to New York City, where she died in 1925. 


The B.O. quilt

Buying on ebay is always an adventure; unless you know the seller, it's always a surprise to see how much relation an item has (or doesn't) to its description.  In December 2009 I bought a Churn Dash quilt described as 1880s, Mennonite, and from Dundas, Ontario. The photos were unhelpful but at $9.99, even with Canada's stratospheric postage rates, I couldn't resist; if it turned out to be junk, it'd be fun to study.  

Finally the quilt arrived - along with oh my God an eye-blistering aroma of spoiled cottage cheese. The quilt was frail - dared I risk washing it, and would anything get rid of that stink?  What if its wool-like fabrics were Aralac, that WWII-era cloth made from milk protein that smelled like vomit whenever it got damp? Ecch.  Worse, like the valet's B.O. in the Seinfeld episode "The Smelly Car," the smell clung to everything. I gingerly toted it outside, draped it over the clothesline, and changed my contaminated clothes, hoping that after a night in the chill air, some of the gaah would be gone. 

Unfortunately I neglected to account for our new puppy. Let out to pee just before bedtime, Mr. Helpful decided to bring inside what I had left outside.  Thanks, good doggy.  Now not only was the quilt smelly; a strip about a foot wide on one edge was mangled beyond recognition.  I had nightmares.

The next morning I decided to salvage what I could by cutting off the shredded portion, finishing the edge by folding the front to the back, and washing it using my own instructions (here).  

And in the process I found out something interesting:  the quilt's present palette - olive and gold Churn Dashes on a field of pale beige with black sashing - is very different from what it was originally. The seam allowances and back sides of the fabrics showed that the the dark olive started out as black, the gold was dark olive, and the warm beige, slate gray, while the tan plaid backing was a soft amethyst. 

So when the quilt was new, it was more somber, with much less contrast;  what today looked like a hinky combination of olive and gold in some blocks would've been almost unnoticeable.  I'd like to think that close observation would've revealed this to me, but my dog disaster helped make it certain.


Above, the quilt's colors today....below, what they originally looked like.

Burn tests and microscopic evaluation showed that the black and gray fabrics were wool, the plaid backing (once a soft lilac, now a pale tan) was cotton, and the olive a rayon crepe.  Rayon wasn't on the market before 1910 at the earliest, so unless the maker were a time-traveler, this couldn't be an 1880s quilt. And was "Martha Swellow," the maker, really Mennonite? The unusual name sounded English, not German, and I found no Canadian Swellows in the ancestry.com database. However, a few Swallows do appear in the 1891 census for Hamilton, Ontario (of which Dundas is a suburb) - one named Martha, born in 1873. It seems possible the oral history attached to this quilt confused the maker's birthdate with the date the quilt was made.  Perhaps the quilt's simple design and palette caused the previous owner to assume the maker was Mennonite.


Book review:  Kyra Hicks on Harriet Powers 

Kyra Hicks. This I Accomplish: Harriet Powers' Bible Quilt and Other Pieces. Black Threads, July 2009. 182pp: illustations, notes, bibliography. $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0982479650

A sensation from the moment it was first exhibited, since 1886 the Bible Quilt and its reprise, the Pictorial Quilt, made by Georgia native and former slave Harriet Powers has been featured in more than 150 news articles, books, poems and plays. It is thus both remarkable and embarrassing that not until Kyra Hicks's latest work has anyone bothered to verify the received wisdom about the woman who is arguably the world's best-known quilter.

Hicks's easy, conversational and very personal tone belies the painstaking care of her research. What apparently began as an annotated bibliography snowballed into an astonishingly detailed provenance which both documents the lives of key figures in the quilts' history and refutes commonly held, if perennially evolving, assumptions about Powers.

It soon becomes clear to the reader that from the first, everyone who saw Powers's Bible Quilt regarded it as not only unique, but a work of art - high praise given its abstract design, the status of quilts as homely craft, and the tenuous role of black women in turn-of-the-century rural Georgia. Among the visitors of both races crowding to see it at the 1886 Northeast Georgia Fair was Jennie Smith, a white art teacher at an Athens girls' school. Smith was so captivated she tracked down Powers and offered to buy the quilt. After three meetings in four years, she convinced Powers to sell, agreeing to supply the avid quilter with fabric scraps and granting her what can best be described as visitation rights to the quilt. Smith carefully recorded Powers's description of the quilt's subjects, and exhibited it at least once thereafter, identifying Powers as the maker. In 1969 Smith's executor donated the quilt to the Smithsonian, and again it became a sensation.  

Other Powers admirers purchased or commissioned a variation now known as the Pictorial Quilt, presented to Charles Cuthbert Hall in 1898 probably when he became Union Theological Seminary's new president. For years Hall displayed it on the wall of his summer house, and even as a child, Hall's great-grandson knew the quilt was "a living thing, not meant to be on a bed, but meant to  be art." Like the Bible Quilt, the Pictorial Quilt long remained in appreciative private hands; then in 1961, art collector Maxim Karolik acquired it on behalf of Boston's Museum of Fine Art, where it has been on display since 1975. (It is currently in storage while the MFA undergoes renovation.)

Hicks's tenacious pursuit of primary sources uncovered crucial details about Powers's life which future researchers cannot ignore. She also confirms suspicions that these were not Powers's only quilts. In fact, Powers appears to have been something of a competitor, winning at least one prize for another 1880s quilt. Powers herself describes a fourth quilt's distinctive appearance; is it still hidden, unidentified, in some collection?

It is hard for any diligent researcher to resist sharing every tidbit we unearth; too often, every toy is our favorite. But this can distract rather than illuminate. The reader feels ungrateful complaining that Hicks sometimes provides *too much* information about peripheral characters; nevertheless it is hard not to wish that, for example, the thirteen pages on Karolik's life had instead been devoted to Powers's early years (rarely discussed in other sources) and careful descriptions of the quilts' materials and techniques, both of which Hicks seems to have omitted. But this is praising with faint damns. Hicks's main fault is modesty: she seems to view her book as supplemental when it should be the axis on which any reading on Powers revolves.

Hicks does yeoman's work viewing her subjects in historical context. A self-identified Christian familiar with Biblical iconography, she avoids the common pitfall of treating Powers's imagery as inscrutable and exotic, and she refrains from Rorschach-test psychologizing. While frankly confronting the patronizing racism of another era, she is also heroically "slow to wrath" (although the reader is baffled by her observation that "no African-American made quilts [were] included" in the ground- breaking 1971 Whitney quilt exhibition, as none of those quilts' makers appear to have been identified.)

Hicks might be amused that white vaudevillian and "Negro mimic" Lucine Finch, fabricator in 1914 of a grotesquely stereotyped "interview" with Powers (who had died four years before), appears to have been no respecter of persons regardless of race - even when she knew them personally. One review quipped that as Mother Goose in her friend's operetta, Finch "unfortunately trusted to her own capacity for making up things on the spur of the moment in preference to adhering to the lines of the part." Hicks's careful work marks a break with this kind of artistic license, and our appreciation of Powers is better for it.

14th century European patchwork 

Quilt historian Lisa Evans, whose specialty is medieval and pre-Colonial quilting, points out this remarkable patchwork textile which was found covered with mud at the bottom of a castle well in Budapest, Hungary. 

The silk textile is worked in both patchwork and applique, and features on-point blocks about a foot square, alternating setting squares pieced of red and white with appliqued blocks with the (Hungarian) Árpád and (Neapolitan) Angevin heraldic devices (referring to King Charles Robert, whose father was king of Naples and Duke of Anjou, France).

The Budapest Museum notes that a similar textile covers the back of King Charles Robert's throne.   For more information  and images, visit the Budapest History Museum site.


"Looking black":  collectors, attribution, 

and the Ora Phillips quilt 

When the quilt pictured at left appeared in a 2003 exhibit of African- American quilts at Abilene, Texas's Grace Museum, its descriptive label included a typical discussion of African-American quilt style:

Improvisation is a tradition highly recognized in African American quilts that quilt historians believe stem back to the ancient traditions of many African tribes.  African textile traditions often featured bright colors, asymmetry and large shapes.  Additionally a belief among many tribes was the importance of the ability to recreate and change old patterns.  A break in pattern could symbolize a rebirth in the ancestral power of the creator or wearer, or even potentially keep evil spirits away.  A traditional belief about evil traveling in straight lines encouraged the use of irregular patterns.  Many people believed that a break in pattern or line confuses the spirit and slows them down.

The museum identified the quilt as having been made c.1995 by Ora Phillips, and said it was on loan from its owners, Joe and Sandy Todaro.   Sandy Todaro was co-curator of the 2003 exhibit A Piece of My Soul: Quilts by Black Arkansans, and also played a major role in assembling the African-American quilt collection at the Arkansas Old State House Museum.   In the late 1980s she co-directed the Louisiana Quilt Documentation Project with Judy Godfrey, who in 2003 was the Grace Museum's director.  Godfrey had asked Todaro to provide many of the quilts in the current exhibit.

A highlight of the exhibit was a lecture by Caroline Streeter, Ph.D., of UCLA's English Department and Center for African-American Studies. Discussing "The Movements of Spirit in Everyday Life:  African-American Quilters and the Creative Impulse," Streeter relied on Tobin and Dobard's Hidden in Plain View to use the quilt as an example of the "Underground Railroad quilt code" and of "the power of color, which Tobin and Dobard identify as part of West African heritage." 

But Ora Phillips's quilt bears an uncanny resemblance to one made more than a century ago which appeared on the cover of Kentucky Quilts (1982), in the Spring 1983 issue of Lady's Circle Patchwork and Quilting magazine, and in Terri Zegart's 1994 Quilts:  An American Heritage, and also toured nationwide in a Smithsonian exhibit.

That quilt was made of homespun "linseys" (cotton warp, wool filling) in the mid-1890s by a young white girl, Nancy Miller Grider of Russell County, Kentucky, whose parents were of English, Scots and French ancestry. (Recent genealogical research by Grider's great-granddaughter indicates that family lore of Cherokee ancestry had no factual basis.)   

Anglo-French Kentuckian Nancy Miller Grider's mid-1890s quilt. Click for details

Not only does Ora Phillips's quilt imitate Grider's overall design and proportions; it also has four blue-green segments arranged in a cross, other segments which from a distance look like red and black plaid, and a center disk whose hemispheres are red and orange.

In March 2007 Ora Phillips's quilt - described as having been made by "an elderly African-American woman near Little Rock" - sold on ebay for $1,575.  Few quilts listed on the online auction site reach $500.  

Months after the auction ended, I discussed the quilts with Shelly Zegart, founder of the Kentucky Quilt Project and editor of Kentucky Quilts. Zegart suspected Ora Phillips's quilt had a more distant origin than Arkansas.

Thanks to ephemera dealer Debra Spencer of Suit Yourself International, I was able to confirm Zegart's recollection.  The quilt exhibited at the Grace Museum was identical to an illustration of a mass-produced, Chinese knockoff of the Grider quilt in the November 1998 J.Peterman catalog, whose twin size sold for $225.  A Peterman representative said the quilt was one of several reproductions they bought from the inventory of an unidentified importer no longer in business (perhaps Arch Quilts of Elmsford, New York, known for its high-end Chinese-made quilts?). 

All together now - Clockwise from above:  The J.Peterman catalog illustration, the "Ora Phillips" quilt, and the original - the Nancy Miller Grider quilt.  Peterman catalog courtesy Suit Yourself International.

When the maker or origin of a quilt constitutes part of its value, provenance (the documented chain of ownership back to its creator) is important.  The "Ora Phillips" quilt was legitimized (and its value enhanced to more than $1,500) by appearing in the museum exhibit with Todaro and her husband identified as its owner. Lecturer Streeter naturally assumed the curators and Todaro had verified the quilt was indeed an African-American original.  Mark French, the ebay seller, says he trusted what he was told when he bought the quilt from Ohio dealer Michael Council, who got the quilter's name and race and the museum flyer from Todaro herself when she sold him the quilt.   But Todaro says the museum and Council were mistaken, and she was just the go-between.  In reality, she said, the unused, unwashed quilt - "one of the most graphic" she has seen - belonged to a now-dead, unnamed friend, who bought the quilt directly from Ora Phillips.  Todaro said she had simply brought the quilt to the museum, and later, when her friend became ill, sold it to Council on her behalf. She had no valid contact information for her friend's family.  

I was able to locate only two Arkansas women, living or dead, named Ora Phillips born before 1960. Both are white.

Later, after being shown pictures of the Peterman and Grider quilts, Todaro said did not "have enough knowledge to inject an opinion" but that her friend "would not have knowingly reported false data". She said her friend had bought the quilt for $350 at a craft or flea market near Little Rock from an African-American woman named Ora Phillips, and that when her friend had asked Phillips about the inspiration for her design,  Phillips replied that "she’d seen something similar that inspired her in a catalog or book" whose name she could not recall.  

But the Phillips quilt is not merely "similar" to the Peterman illustration.  It is virtually identical, right down to the fabrics.   Either Phillips's quilt was inspired by Grider's and became the prototype for the Peterman quilt (but was never revealed as such); or Phillips somehow forgot she had made a line-for-line copy of the Peterman quilt; or a mass-produced knockoff of a 19th century white Kentucky girl's well-known original quilt was successfully passed off as the recent, unique handiwork of an elderly black Arkansan.   

Whichever the case, the "Ora Phillips" quilt cannot be described as an example of African-American "improvisation," African-inspired color and design, or "Quilt Code" symbolism.  Instead, as Streeter observed when she learned of the quilt's true origin, it stands as an object lesson in "how historical inaccuracies, errors and nonfactual information take root and become perpetuated, whether it is a matter of incomplete research, the failure to verify sources, taking information on faith, getting carried away by imagination, etc. etc., and it is far from unique."

Whether French ever informed the high bidder of this quilt's recent origin is unknown. 

Mississippi quilter Beatrice Davis Franks

Thanks to misleading exhibits like the one discussed above, when asked to describe a "typical" African-American quilt many people will use words like "improvisational," "strip-pieced", "multiple patterns," "brightly colored" and "rhythmic", all of which are described as "Africanisms."  But those features are also traditional in a number of white communities, from the Midwestern Amish to Euro-Australians.  The style is ubiquitous in the American South, but quilt historians have found that it's a product of economics, not race, used by both blacks and whites to quickly make warm quilts out of whatever is on hand. 

The work of Columbus, Missippi quilter Beatrice Davis Franks is a good example.  Born in 1884 to Samuel and Mary Davis, Beatrice was the granddaughter of South Carolina natives Hugh and Priscilla Davis, who settled in Mississippi sometime before 1850. All were white.  Like her mother and grandmother, Beatrice was a farmer's daughter; she spent her earliest years on her father's farm in the tiny community of Lebanon. In 1907 she married Charlie Franks (who also was white), the son of South Carolina natives Gabriel and Elizabeth Way Franks, and began farming on property down the road from Charlie's parents in Mount Vernon.  After the births of five of their seven children, Beatrice and Charlie bought another farm near Columbus. By 1930 Charlie had sold the farm, moved his family to a rented house in Columbus, and was working as a timber salesman. During World War II, Beatrice's son Charles Watts Franks moved to Pensacola, the site of the Navy's airbase, and married Ernestine Ketler, where the couple remained until Charles's death in 2002.  They had several children, including Charles W. Jr. and Douglas Lewis Franks. 

According to Ernestine Ketler Franks (from whom I acquired the quilts pictured below), Beatrice was always quilting, and until her death in 1978 regularly sent far more large, heavy quilts to her son Charles than the couple could ever use.  Like other makers of "plain" quilts, Beatrice preferred simple patterns which did not waste much fabric in seam allowances, pieced and quilted her tops quickly, often by hand, used a thick commercial batting to ensure warmth, and finished the edges of her quilt frugally by simply folding over the backing onto the front.  Living out the motto "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without," she used whatever fabrics were on hand - heavy flannels for the c.1950 Housetop quilt, and polyester doubleknits for the 1970s Britcher Leg quilts. (Click on images to enlarge.)


After uploading Beatrice's genealogy and images of the quilts to www.ancestry.com in early April 2008, I listed all three quilts on ebay, giving Beatrice's biography and pointing out that quilts made by white rural Southern women such as Beatrice's are often misattributed to African-Americans.  All three quilts sold to Waco, Texas collector Jan Cook (ebay ID myquiltcollection), to whom I sent a provenance brochure for each quilt, documenting Beatrice's genealogy and including color photos of the quilts and census records which among other things indicated she was white. 

On December 17, 2008 seller dixideltaquilts (apparently Cook's selling ID) listed the Housetop quilt for about twice what she paid for it, describing it as "African American" and even speculating about the "traditional African" meaning of its colors. (Adding "African-American" to a quilt's description exponentially increases its marketability.)  

Could this seller have been misled, as she claimed when I contacted her?  The photo of the quilt in her auction was the one I included in my provenance brochure, and shortly after I emailed her, she replaced her original "African-American" description with text taken verbatim from my original April 2008 auction. 


Diaspora-era African textile history online

The erroneous stereotype of "African-American" quilt style is so widespread that some, such as folklorist John Michael Vlach, have even claimed that African-Amerian quilts that lack these attributes "reflect a lesson well-learned rather than a heritage well-remembered," and that "the only thing African or Afro-American about" such quilts is their makers' race.  Black quilters who use subdued colors and regular patterns are, according to this view, acting white.

Vlach, Wahlman, Dobard and others trace these Africanisms to contemporary African textiles, many of which do indeed share those attributes. 

But would these fabrics have been familiar to the people brought here as slaves in the 18th and early 19th centuries?  Are those "textile memories" reflected in African-American quilts such as those made in Gee's Bend?  How accurate are conventional ideas about Africanisms in African-American quilts?  

I have been investigating this subject for the past three years, and the answers are surprising. 

Because of its length, I am publishing my research in serial form. The first several parts can be found here, and you can request notice of later installments by clicking here.

At the end of the series, I hope to be able to provide some ideas for quilt designs that recall the textiles America's African-born slaves would have known and used. 


Chainstitch sewing machines

The earliest sewing machines - for example, the Wilcox & Gibbs machines first manufactured in the 1850s - didn't use two threads (top and bobbin). Instead, they used just one thread to produce a chainstitch.  If you've ever dismantled a vintage feedsack or had to pull that little string to open a bag of grass seed, you've seen chainstitching.  But for dressmaking, the stitches were really small - in the sample below, 20 per inch!  The seam is incredibly strong and, as you'll see below, rather pretty too.  Read more about chainstitch machines here.

One side of machine chainstitching (fabrics c.1875)...

...and the other.

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