Sample History Paper on Stitched from the Soul: A Folklore Narrative

Stitched from the Soul: A Folklore Narrative


Folk lore is characterized by various elements which give it variable perceptions depending on the individual reader. In most cases, stories presented through folk lore can appear to be meaningless to the reader, or even fictitious unless considered in the context within which the stories were developed. A typical example is the theme of the slave quilts and their relevance to the context within which they were created. On the one hand, there are folklorists who have endeavored to find meaning in the quilts within the contexts of tradition and time in which they were created, some with amazing even indelible outcomes. On the other hand, there are those folklorists who, in their quest for knowledge, have diverged from the most conventional way of getting historical information, which is through folklore. Their main point of contention is that their counterparts focus on singular narratives to develop stories that may or may not be true.

In Marie- Fry’s book on slave quilts, the process and meaning associated with the variants of quilts produced by slaves are explored. Fry reflects the perception that the process of art creation begins as a result of many potential reasons from therapeutic to behaviorist practices. The rationale behind creating folk art will eventually determine the features associated with the art created (Jones, The 1995, 253). In some cases, the individuals viewing the art may pick the same information that the creator intended to perceive. On the other hand, the information drawn by the viewer may be completely different from the intended inference.  There is however an exception where there is a prior agreement in the codes or colors or shapes to be used. Similar patterns have to be observed in the case of Marie- Fry’s literature and its subsequent meaning with regards to the process and the historic background portrayed.


The process of folklore creation is affected to a great extent by the themes of the stories to be created and the intentions of the authors. The first step in effective folklore narration is the breakdown of boundaries (Stanley 3). Breaking down boundaries implies going beyond one’s own culture to dig deep into the cultures of other people. The main reason why folklorists do this is to enable them understand the underlying motivations behind the folk art produced by a specific group of people. The case of Professor Marie- Fry depicts a typical example of the process, beginning from breaking of boundaries. The professor, even though not born a slave, had been driven by the desire to know more about the life of her great – great grandmother who had been a slave prior to the liberation. Being a slave is commonly associated with intense labor and lack of time for slack. At a time when slavery was considered to be the only source of cheap domestic and farm labor, getting free time to engage in slack activities sounds like something the masters would not desire even for a minute.

The process of folklore creation can be linked to various aspects of folk art including their capability to incorporate the cultural and historic values of the community within which they are produced. The process itself depicts either an escape from the conventional lifestyle difficulties as depicted in the slave quilts story as told by Marie Fry. In Kilgour (32), the quilt making activities of slaves are linked to their desire to ease their lives from the common slave duties and activities. This implies that quilting was considered easier than most of the activities that slaves engaged in and thus perceived somewhat as a part time or leisure activity. While this may be true to a certain extent, it begs the question on why the slaves quilted for the plantation houses. Whether this too was as part of getting away from their difficult lives or a result of compulsion as were other activities around which the live of slavery revolved.

Jones (The 1995, 253) opines that folk art is driven by several motivations. As in any other form of folk art therefore, it is probable that the engagement of slaves in quilting was a result of various motivations. Jones also suggests that although the motives for engaging in folk art may vary significantly, no singular reason could probably be the driving factor behind folk art at all times since most of the reasons intertwine. Some of the reasons described in Jones’ article including the need for identity; boredom; nostalgia and the social interactions with others all reverberate with the context within the slave quilts were made. Similarly, Fry depicts the slave quilts such as those by Harriet Powers as reflective of the cultural as well as the social aspects of the creators thereof. In this case therefore, the process of quilting is portrayed as a journey from the present to the past. For the creator of folk art, the process is a reminder of a place and time that could have changed them in a particular way, either positively or negatively. This also means that folk art, just like any other form of art, can be a conveyor of both positive and negative impacts depending on the contextual placement of the piece and its recipients. The quilting process also portrays a journey from the past to the future for the reader who may not have understood the origins of the slaves or the impacts of slavery on their lives. For an individual like Professor Fry, folk art perceived through the slave quilts communicated her journey from the slavery background to her time in art. Not only does it depict a journey of self realization but also one of historical creativity and deliberation.

Biographical meaning

The book title i.e. ‘stitched from the soul…’ Itself creates the perception of pieces of work done not only willingly but also from the heart. The confusion that arises in the consideration of the plantation house quilts is kind of dispelled by the perception that the slaves making the quilts most likely did it out of love for what they did. The question thus remains on whether they actually loved the process of making quilts for the plantation house or loved the biographical meanings behind the quilts themselves and the quilting process. Based on the assertion of Kilgour (32), quilting was not only easy but it also enabled the slaves to earn additional income for themselves and their households. The most possible foundation for the ease that the slaves associated with the quilting process is that it was something born naturally to them. They had engaged in quilting from their tender ages back in their native lands and thus considered it part of their predisposition. The quilting process thus stood for an element of their culture, the only one they could probably connect to at that particular time and place (Cash 32). As they forgot or ignored other elements of their cultural practices, they found quilting as an acceptable part of their life within the context of slavery. It only means that slavery took away from them the values and beliefs that they had initially and only left them quilting so they engaged in the activity whole heartedly seeing that it was the only connection between slavery and the life they had left behind. It thus formed their only source of unique identity, which is the pursuit of every individual (Jones, Tradition, 115 – 117).

Another aspect of the quilting process that probably gave meaning to the slave’s biographies is the communication meanings attached to each individual piece. Fry asserts that different colors in quilts held different meanings. While the blue quilts meant the maker of the quilt was protected, the black quilts meant either that someone could die in that house or that the house was considered friendly to escaped slaves where they could find some help. The link between communication with others and the process of quilting could have made such a significant impact on the lives of slaves that they considered the activity as an indelible part of their lives. Based on this form of characterization, the quilts could most definitely be used as a source of information on cultural backgrounds; race and ethnicity of the slaves. Through the images portrayed in the quilts, the second feature of folk art as described by Stanley (17) is portrayed. This is in that folk art can be used both positively and negatively as a communication channel on the perceptions held about people, whether stereotypical or not.

Stukin (par. 1- 6) describes various perceptions held by different authors about the slave quilts of the railroad times. In her story, Fry emphasizes the role of the quilts in the communication processes through the railroad escape routes. The divergence of ideologies in the way in which different authors portray the quilting process and the resultant products therefore, convinces Stukin (par. 6) that the truth as per the extent of biographical representation of the quilts and any other folklore stories is relative. To one folklorist, the narrations of a single eye witness could be sufficient to ascertain the truth while to another; truth is founded on confirmation of allegations from different sources. This also draws Stanley’s (3) argument that folklore founded on single narratives should not convince people enough of the authenticity of the folklore.



Stitching from the soul depicts a historic description of the quilting process and meanings by the slaves in the 1980s. Through the narrative, various elements of folklore are portrayed, including their relevance to folklore diamond in process; culture and biographic representation. The place of the quilt narrative as per the folklore process is based on the motivational factors of ease and need for extra income. The process in particular is described as easy due to its linkage to the past lives of the slaves and the fact that it is the only element of their indigenous culture that they could comfortably carry with them to their masters’ houses. Similarly, the biographic element of diamond folklore is well portrayed through the book in areas such as their roles in the communication process and its relevance to the present and future generations.


Works Cited

Cash, Floris Barnett. Kinship and quilting: an examination of an African American tradition. The Journal of Negro History 80, 1(1995): 30 – 41. Retrieved from

Jones, Michael Owen. The 1995 Archer Taylor memorial lecture: why make (folk) art? Western Folklore 54, 4(1995): 253: 276. Retrieved from

Jones, Michael Owen. “Tradition” in identity discourses and an individual’s symbolic construction of self. Western Folklore 59, 2(2000): 115 – 141. Retrieved from–Tradition_in_Identity_Discourses–Western_Folklore_2000_vol_59_no_2.pdf

Kilgour, Alison. Slave quilts. The New Yorker, August 7, 1989. Retrieved from

Stanley, David. Folklore in Utah: s history and guide to resources. Logan: Utah State University Press. Retrieved from

Stukin, Stacey. Unraveling the myth of quilts and underground railroads. Time Magazine, 2016. Retrieved from,8599,1606271,00.html