Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Westering Women: Introduction

Tomorrow I'll post the first pattern in my 2016 Block of the Month Series Westering Women. Today: An introduction, discussing the format for the free pattern, a suggested set, history behind the posts and sources.

1) The Format

It's a free Block-of-the-Month, easy to access. No signing in or signing up. Just check this blog on the last Wednesday of every month in 2016. Or subscribe by email so the info goes into your mail box.

2) The Set

If you want to plan ahead: You'll be getting 12 blocks, finishing to 12". Here's a suggested set based on tradition.

3” sash & cornerstones, 9” Borders
66” x  81”

Yardage from EQ7
Cornerstones - 1/4 yard
Sashing - 1-1/8 yards
Border - 2 yards

For the blocks---if you are starting from scratch---
6 half-yard pieces or 12 quarter yard pieces will give you the variety you need (3 yards). It just depends on how scrappy a look you want.

Cutting the Cornerstones: Cut 20 squares 3-1/2" x 3-1/2".

Cutting the Sashing: Cut 47 strips 3-1/2" x 12-1/2".

Cutting the Border: 
Cut 2 strips 9-1/2" x 66-1/2" for the top and bottom.
Cut 2 strips 9-1/2" x 63-1/2" for the sides.

2) Local History
I originally wrote this series for my quilt guild in eastern Kansas. The Oregon/California/Santa Fe Trails are local history to us. We're surrounded with references to the overland roads. For example, many of our members live in the city of Overland Park, Kansas, near streets named Santa Fe and Mission Road.

Madonna of the Trail sculpture by August Leimbach.
The DAR situated these monuments
along the trail from Maryland to California in the 1920s.

The series is skewed geographically to our local history (if we lived in Iowa I'd be talking more about the Mormon Trail and Council Bluffs).

A life-size stone buffalo by James Patti is a
landmark in my neighborhood.

The block-of-the-month also supposes you readers know a lot about the trail. Most Americans understand why people left the east, how they settled the west and how that massive migration became a pillar of our past.

If you would like to read more background see the references at the bottom of the page.

Silent Movie Poster

3) History and Mythology.
Because the stories of the western settlement are so important to our identity they are full of mythological heroism, dangers, triumph and suffering. A good deal of what we know is myth based on 20th-century imagery and stories from sculpture, movies and television westerns.

12 Quilts of the Covered Wagon

Quilts and quiltmaking tend to become part of any American story of hardship from the Civil War and the Great Depression to frontier living and log cabins. I will address a few myths about the trail, and the role of quiltmaking in the lives of travelers over the year.

I've occasionally seen Ruby McKim's 20th-century
embroidered Colonial History quilt advertised
as an authentic wagon-train-made quilt.

I do want to make it quite clear that I do not believe that women made quilts in any numbers while they were traveling.

Detail. Quilt made from Oregon Pioneer Association Ribbons, 1923.
Collection of the American Folk Art Museum

Women brought quilts; they made quilts when they found new homes and they continue to remember the migration story through quilts.

Abut 1940 the Omaha World Herald printed a
pattern for a pioneer embroidered quilt featuring The Covered Wagon States.

Block from an online listing

See a quilt made from this pattern at the International Quilt Study Center and Museum website:

If you are hoping to hear stories about quilts actually made on the trip west, you will have to look elsewhere. The quilt blocks we'll be making were named in the 20th century, part of the nostalgic re-telling of the migration history.

Historical Sources for the Women's Words.

When I first became interested in following the trails west I read many women's diaries and letters looking for descriptions of local landmarks. I was struck by the lack of mention of sewing in these diaries since I'd taken it for granted that quiltmaking was part of all frontier experience. After reading dozens I realized patchwork or quilting was rare while traveling and I wrote a paper on the topic for the American Quilt Study Group. It's not online but read it in Uncoverings 13, 1992.

Barbara Brackman, "Quiltmaking on the Overland Trails: Evidence From Women's Writing,"
Uncoverings 1992, Volume 13 of the Research Papers of the American Quilt Study Group. Edited by Laurel Horton.

Buy the book here:

Most of the references to women's voices are taken from Kenneth Holmes's Covered Wagon Women, Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, a series of books reprinted by the Nebraska Press.


Many of the individual documents are now available online and I will provide links to them in the posts.

Warning--this photo is probably about 1900

In the posts I'll try to use original period illustrations such as engravings and paintings from the era. Photographs are always suspect. Many are reproduction photo setups or from old movies. I have to confess to falling for many of the reproduction pictures. You can tell from the women's clothing and hair styles that it's not 1860 or even 1880, but the photos look so great.  I'll try to warn you when I use reproduction set-ups and late photos of women and wagons.

I hope not to upset your wagon of preconceived notions about women on the way west, but I've always felt that knowing a true history is far more interesting than the noble myth. I hope you find that true too.

Ezra Meeker did a lot of wagon train recreations in the early 20th century.

It looks pretty good but it's 1900 in downtown Seattle.
You quickly learn to recognize Ezra Meeker (on the left) who set up and sold these postcards.

More background to read---these references are decades old but still important.

Glenda Riley, "The Frontier in Process: Iowa 's Trail Women As a Paradigm," The Annals of Iowa Volume 46 Number 3 (Winter, 1982) pps. 167-197. Available online:

Merrill J. Mattes, The Great Platte River Road: The Covered Wagon Mainline via Fort Kearny to Fort Laramie, 1987.

John Mack Faragher, Women and Men on the Overland Trail, 2001.


Scrappy quilter said...

So looking forward to this one. Thanks for doing this

Susie Q said...

You are a hoot.....upset your wagon of preconceived notions .....

Family reunion in Oregon set me on doing the "Oregon Trail" with my daughters in the year of the sesquicentennial. Well.....we only did the last 1,000 miles as time and an old car were limiting. .... there was no way those women could have sewn anything on the trail beyond mending.... modern SHOCK... the trail does not follow highways...roads... or for that matter trails.... but follow the "ruts" we did our best and were taken to areas of pristine beauty.... as well as ruts still there .... if for some reason a woman had her evening meal cleaned up and breakfast ready to eat... I am sure she SLEPT....

Ready to sew....

Barbara B said...

What I love about your information in these quilt-a-longs is I can trust your historical info and you will help us see beyond the many myths. Looking forward to this next one. Thank you!

Wendy Caton Reed said...

Bravo! Another excellent fact filled post. I remember reading your 1992 article. I'll have to go back and re-read it this week. I made a quilt for a special exhibit at our statewide show in 2003. I am going to post it on my blog today along with the story written out on each block (which few will read since it is 1,651 words long). I am looking forward to starting yet another "sew-a-long with Barbara".

lalaluu said...

I love history, and I'm loving your straight-forwardness about it. I often wonder how it really was to live through certain times instead of the "myth" that historical fiction writers and Hollywood parade in front of us. I look forward to finding the truth with you! (And making the blocks, too, of course!)

kathyinozarks said...

I am looking forward to this too especially the history. for the last couple of months I have been reading historic romance novels during this time period and I enjoyed it so much I ordered some books on the oregon trail and a couple of the covered wagon women so am anxious for your new series-thanks so much

Raewyn said...

I'm looking forward to this Barbara and thank you. I'm a kiwi from New Zealand but still find this information fascinating!

Dorry said...

I am so eager to get started...but that winter storm Jonas prevented me from getting out to the quilt shop to choose my basic background fabric. In common with Raewyn (lovely Kiwi name!)from above please don't assume that we all know a lot about the topic. Some of us will be really keen to learn the real history and will very much appreciate not having that fake history thrust upon us to confuse matters. Maybe by tomorrow the roads will be cleared sufficient for a modern day car trip. Of course a Westering Woman had no choice but to press on regardless of weather...

Jacqueline said...

You are so generous with your time and knowledge. Thank you.

Chantal L. said...

I am convince that you will keep us on the right track or trail and I will not get lost by some Ezra or another. I love that about you. Born and raised in Canada, I do not know much about the Covered Wagon trail except that it did happened. I am sure it was no walk in the park and no picnic either. Nevertheless, I am ready with my humble little baggage and a pillow. (I hear those wagons didn't have good shocks and it was a pretty joltingly ride. ;^)

Remnant Quilter said...

Oh, please DO upset my wagon of preconceived notions; they get in the way of understanding how we got to where we are today. I am so looking forward to continuing to learn from you, Ms. Brackman.

Cynthia@wabi-sabi-quilts said...

Looking forward to another year of history lessons and your great wit!

Deborah said...

I am currently reading "The Oregon Trail" by Rinker Buck. Excited to do this BOM and to read the background you provide.

Darlene Warner said...

Also looking forward to another year of blocks and history lessons!
Thank you

Catherine Debrion said...

Je suis francaise et je trouve votre idée excellente !
Je vous suivrai avec plaisir.....

Baquin Chantal said...

Dear Barbara !
Thank you so much for this travel, we are sevral, from France to get in the waggon !
Happy quilting !

CecileD said...

What a wonderful tribute to these brave women.....
Thank you Barbara. I'm impatient to discover the first block..... :)

Sally said...

Did a 6 week trip this past spring following the Oregon Trail starting in St. Louis. Amazing sights, but believe me, if those women had any "extra" time, the last thing they would be doing is stitching quilts. After finding water and hauling it to the wagon, finding materials to build a fire, and looking after the children, there was no time or energy left for stitching. If you could see some of the trail -- rough, rocky, dusty.. and the hills they had to deal with. The Barlow Road near Government Camp, Oregon, gave me nightmares.

Lori Smanski said...

i really look forward to learning the blocks and the history. thank you for all you are doing.

Pieceful Lady said...

Hi Barbara
the history of women and needle work continues to capture my interest. Although i know the travel west was by wagon, i never really thought about what that actually entailed. This is my cup of tea and look forward to this 21st century journey. My daughter was born in Kansas, so this will be for her.

Themis Abdo said...

Thank you, I am in. Regards from Brazil!

Marina Brito de Campos said...

I am totally on board, looking forward tot the blocks an the history!

Rosa said...

Can´t wait to read all the history of this blocks BOM.Thanks so much

Jo Ann's Book Basket said...

Where is the first block?

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I'm new at this. I looked at the setting instructions and can't see where to use 47 sashing strips. Should it be 31? Thanks.

C.A. Hurliman said...

I find this topic very interesting. I live in Oregon near the Oregon Trail. I am very enthusiastic to participate in making this Westering Women quilt. This is really great! Thanks very much for all the effort you put into your blog.