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Quilt in a Day
Underground Railroad Sampler

By Eleanor Burns and Sue Bouchard
2003 Quilt in a Day
Paperbound, 168 pages
Suggested Retail: $24.95 

Reviewed by Addy Harkavy

See also Addy's review of the Flying Geese Ruler, featured in this book.

As its title suggests, Underground Railroad Sampler presents a collection of blocks that, taken together, commemorate a means by which slaves reportedly fled from lives of servitude in the south to freedom in the north. Individually, the blocks represent a treasure trove of traditional blocks with complete and fool-proof directions for getting great results the very first time you make each of them.

Please bear with me for the next few paragraphs while I give a little background about this review. The book is everything (and more) that you expect from Quilt in a Day (QIAD) books, but it also touches on a controversial area of American history.

The Underground Railroad Sampler appears to be based on the notion that quilts were used as communications tools between slaves and those who could help them flee, as popularized in the book, Hidden in Plain View, by J. Robin and R. Dobard, PhD (1998). Since its publication, many have questioned whether the premise behind Hidden in Plain View, oral history as recounted by one no-longer-living individual (and apparently not corroborated), is valid.

In 2001, Giles R, Wright, a respected authority on the underground railroad who refers to himself as a black American, stated to the Camden County [NJ] Historical society that Hidden in Plain View is “sheer conjecture and speculation that greatly misrepresents black history…”

Such is the controversy.

Before writing this review, I contacted Quilt in a Day books to ask about the publisher’s premise behind Underground Railroad Sampler. QIAD assured me that their goal in publishing Underground Railroad Sampler was to make accessible to quilters some of the many quilt blocks that were current during the mid 19th century and not necessarily to represent that quilts featuring these blocks were used extensively as communications tools or to rewrite black American history.

And now to review the book.

Simply put, Underground Railroad Sampler is nothing less than one would expect from QIAD books. Ms. Burns and Ms. Bouchard have covered all the bases. Each of the fifteen blocks is broken down into individual steps; each step includes clear directions in which explanatory copy supports helpful illustrations.

The authors suggest fabrics for use in the blocks and give specific yardage requirements for 6- and 12-inch blocks. Directions for fabric selection (should you choose to use other fabrics) are explicit and helpful, whether you choose to work with reproduction fabrics or (ulp!) produce these blocks in batiks. The supplies list is complete, and enables new and experienced quilters to gather required supplies before starting.

Experienced quilters may want to skip the section that covers the cutting of strips, but beginners will find that it, like very other instruction in the book, helps to inspire confidence and the sense that you can get it right the first time. Many of the tips and techniques can be generalized to other projects and quilts, including instructions for squaring up triangle-pieced squares and other blocks, making dark star points, making accurate flying geese (she even tells you when your seams are not supposed to lock).

Then on to the blocks. Each of the fifteen blocks is accompanied by a description, a story about its possible significance in the comings and goings of the underground railroad, and fool-proof assembly instructions. Blocks are rated by skill level, and required tools for each block are listed before you get to the assembly details.

The blocks include many traditional favorites that work perfectly in this nicely balanced sampler. These same blocks can be made up in other fabrics and used in other single-block, multiple-block, and sampler quilts with and without sashing. In order of appearance, the blocks include: monkey wrench, wagon wheel, carpenter’s wheel, bear’s paw, basket, crossroads, log cabin, shoo-fly, bow tie, flying geese, birds in the air, drunkard’s path, sail boat, and north star. Directions for a story block (the controversial story of the quilt blocks as a guide to the underground railroad) and quilt label are included, as are complete finishing and binding instructions.

Finally, the resources list includes a variety of books about the underground railroad and Civil War period, including Gladys-Marie Fry’s classic, Stitched from the Soul, Slave Quilts from the Ante-bellum South. (Dutton, 1990).

This book gets my 4 bookworms rating for its clean, reader-friendly layout; step-by-step directions; clearly written copy; and retention value as a resource.

Reviewer Addy Harkavy lives and writes in Maine with her husband and dogs. She is a quilter and former partner in Pinetree Quiltworks. She can be e-mailed at addy@TheExperimentalQuilter.com

(c) Copyright 2003 by Addy Harkavy. All rights reserved




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