More questions raised with quilt symbols

Roseanne McKee
Mysterious quilt is on exhibit at the Nowata County Historical Society Museum. Submitted

A few months ago while at the Nowata County Historical Society Museum, this reporter noticed an exhibit about a mystery quilt. Dated Dec. 18, 1915, the quilt’s mystery lies in the cryptic symbols on each square. As the photo shows some quilt squares contain letters and numbers, while others contain flowers, stars and even a cube. Could the symbols be brands? I’d love to hear from anyone who recognizes a brand. Could they be Native American orthography? I shared the photo with a number of quilters, but no one was sure what the symbols might mean.

“The quilt appears to be a random group of squares and rectangles, fabric could be from military uniforms, olive green navy, black, brown and a tweed strip. It was found in a dog pen in the city of Delaware, by the family of J. J. Adams,” said Nowata Historical Society President Carroll Craun.

This column has already appeared in the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise and some have suggested the symbols are hobo symbols or that they might be Cherokee orthography. If any of the readers have an idea, please email me at

Although I don’t possess the requisite patience, or skill, to make a quilt, I do appreciate quilts for the warmth they provide and their artistic beauty. Recently I had the flu and was grateful for my quilt, heated by my husband in the dryer, to warm me when I had the chills. The quilt’s weight provides its own comfort.

I love the moments when my teen son joins me on the sofa with quilt covering us to watch tv or the cat decides to perch on me while I’m on the sofa under the quilt. Before Stormy, the cat, settles, he has to knead the quilt a bit with his paws and circle around. It’s his little ritual.

Quilts have provided much more than comfort in the past. Quilts may have deeper meanings.

“Quilts served many purposes during the Civil War. From acting as a medium for patriotic statements to serving as a way to keep soldiers warm in the field, these historic textiles had an important place in the conflict between North and South,” according to the website

Two historians claim slaves used a quilt code to navigate the Underground Railroad. The book “Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad” suggests that quiltmakers would display the quilts letting slaves know when to prepare for and make their escape. A wrench patterned quilt indicated that they should gather tools for the escape. The wagon wheel pattern meant slaves should pack what they planned to take with them.

In doing my research for this column, I learned the names of popular quilt patterns. Here are a few of them — the log cabin, pinwheel, nine patch, double wedding ring, churn dash, eight-pointed star, friendship star, grandmother’s garden, corn and beans, liberty wheel, God’s eye and drunkard’s path.

Each quilt pattern had meaning and purpose. For example, the log cabin symbolized home, warmth, love and security to pioneers. The center square of log cabin quilts are red to representing the hearth, the focal point of life in a cabin or home. The name, Log Cabin, comes from the narrow strips of fabric, or “logs” arranged around the center square, according to the website.

The nine patch quilt served as an introduction to quilting in pioneer days. It is one of the simplest and quickest quilts to sew and was a way to use up every small scrap of fabric available. On the prairie, sewing was an essential skill. Girls learned to sew blocks before they learned to read. At an early age, often as young as three or four, girls were taught to piece simple blocks. Many were very skilled at piecing a block by age five. Edith White, who grew up in the mid-1800s remembered, ‘Before I was five years old, I had pieced one side of a quilt, setting at my mother‟s knee half an hour a day.’ This training was called ‘fireside training.’”

As pioneers traveled West quilts were used as burial shrouds. Information from the website for states, “wood was often scarce for coffins, so families used what was available and appropriate. Wrapping a loved one in a quilt was a way of not only preparing the body for burial, but of giving reassurance to the living that the decreased person was still linked to his or her family.”

More recently Quilts of Valor has sought to honor veterans by giving them quilts.

According to their website, the first QOV was awarded by founder Catherine Roberts in November 2003 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) to a young soldier from Minnesota who had lost his leg in Iraq. The Quilts of Valor movement spread from Catherine Robert’s home in Seaford, Del., across the country. The organization’s original mission statement was “to cover all those service members and veterans wounded physically or psychologically with comforting and healing Quilts of Valor.” Quilts of Valor has given 200,000 quilts to veterans in all 50 states.