Selah's map

I had an interesting email regarding Selah Voyager’s plot line in Lake in the Clouds from Melissa, who is a handweaver, a compulsive knitter and an embellisher (in part):

I was fascinated by the runaway slave woman’s skirt/map in Lake in the Clouds.  Can you tell me anything about the source of this idea?  Have you ever seen one, or seen photos, or was it an idea, a likely thing to have existed? 

I wondered when somebody might ask me about this. The idea for Selah’s skirt/map came from a controversy in quilting history. The original theory, put forth in a book called Hidden in Plain View : A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad (Raymond G. Dobard & Jacqueline L. Tobin) claims (in brief) that runaway slaves exchanged information about the routes north by means of codes in quilt blocks. Recent research into this seems to indicate that there’s little basis in fact, and that the quilt code might best be thought of as a folk story. Hart Cottage Quilts has a good essay about the whole topic here.

Textile history is something that has always interested me (Martha Ballard’s diary is a treasure trove of such information), and I am very active myself in mixed media textile art and (to a lesser extent) quilting. I do write regularly for Quilting Arts Magazine. A little known fact: the detail from a crazy quilt seen on the cover of the Premiere issue (about to be reissued, by the way) is my work.