Saturday, January 7, 2017

Birds in the Air Pattern & A Poetic License

Birds in the Air
See the free pattern below.

Question from a beginning quilter:
"I'd like to do an Underground Railroad quilt but I am confused about the Quilt Code. I don't want to fall into the trap of assuming escaping slaves used quilts to help them with maps, etc. Can you suggest a simple pattern with some meaning?"
The problem with using symbolism and Underground Railroad quilts is that there is no evidence anyone ever made a quilt as a map or guide for escaping slaves. This doesn't mean we cannot make quilts with meaning to us about historical issues. I wrote a book about ten years ago called Facts & Fabrications: Unraveling the History of Quilts & Slavery to give quilters ideas on how to use traditional patterns to tell the story of slavery. One of the blocks is Birds in the Air.

Birds in the Air
Pieced and appliqued by Barbara Brackman
Machine Quilted by Rosie Mayhew
2006, 47" Square.

The pattern is a traditional design that goes back to the 1840s. One name, published about 1940, was Birds in the Air, a perfect theme to recall the idea of freedom.

Coats and Clark or Spool Cotton
published the pattern and the name.

During the 1930s the WPA project interviewed people who'd been born into slavery. One of my favorite quotes is from Edward Taylor who remembered the last days of the Civil War.
 "I used to hear the white folks reading the paper about the war and reading the Yankees beat them, and I wondered what in the world is Yankees. I thought they were talking about the birds of the air or something."
Perhaps the blue birds are the Yankees and emancipation.

Read more about the history of the quilt block and its names at this post:

You could print this poetic license, which is on page 9 of Facts & Fabrications.
It gives you permission to add a layer of symbolism to your quilts.

The block is a good one for a beginning quilter because it's simple piecing and simple applique. It would look good in Baltimore Blues, my recent reproduction fabric collection.

Here's the pattern from the book:

To Print:
  • Create a word file or a new empty JPG file.
  • Click on the image above. 
  • Right click on it and save it to your file. 
  • Print that file. 
  • Add seam allowances when you cut the leaves.
Cutting a 15" Block
A. Cut 4 squares 4-1/4" x 4-1/4"
B. Cut 4 rectangles 4-1/4" x 8"
C. Cut 4 squares 3" x 3" and 5 contrasting squares the same size for the center 9 patch.
D. Use the template to cut 12 leaves.

47" Square Quilt
4 Blocks Finishing to 15"
3" Finished Sashing.
    Cut 4 strips 15-1/2" x 3-1/2"
    Cut 1 Square 3-1/2"

7" Finished Outer Border
    Cut 2 strips 7-1/2" x 47-1/2"
    Cut 2 strips 7-1/2" x 33-1/2"

See the quilt on page 94 of Facts & Fabrications: Unraveling the History of Quilts & Slavery , by Barbara Brackman (C&T Pub. 2006)

Here's a short preview of the book.

You can buy a print edition here:


Anonymous said...


I know this block as the Honeybee block. Is that a newer name or misnomer?


WoolenSails said...

Thank you for posting this, I actually scanned in the pattern from the book, I got at the library.
I want to make it but for some reason lost the other pages, so now i can rethink it and go through my stash, like the idea of doing it in blues.


Barbara Brackman said...

Dotti. Quilt patterns don't have CORRECT names. They often have many. See the picture of the magazine page calling it Birds in the Air.

Anonymous said...


Thank you the suggestion of the magazine article.


Unknown said...

I am much taken by the beautiful floral print you used as sashing for your quilt. Is it one of your prints? Where. Can
I purchase the fabric, what is the name.
ThNk y ou
Juliein TN

Barbara Brackman said...

Julie that print is 15 years old or more.

Marfa said...

Barbara, could not find the Facts and Fabrications information, concerning the Poetic License. These quilts are absolutely georgeous.

Anonymous said...

Thanks! Love the Baltimore Blues.

Rushd Lady said...

HI! I've read your blog from time to time, but especially after I picked up the book in St. Louis about the Underground Railroad quilts. I just ran across a bit about a PA. abolitionist Quaker woman who supposedly created the "Birds in the Air" quilt pattern. She and her husband ran an Underground Railroad station in Pennsylvania. Her name was Deborah T. Coates. Here's her Findagrave memorial:

I've asked the memorial holder to list their source for that information.