Four Directions Quilts
Many Indigenous cultures use the concept of Four Directions. Often it is a way to connect the physical world with some symbolic meaning. These heritage algorithms find a vertical and horizontal position (Cartesian coordinates), and then “mirror” the image (reflection symmetry). The pattern, like life, is created through balance.
The Iroquois or Haudenosaunee ("People of the Longhouse") are a confederation of six nations: the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora. In their origin story, the world was originally all water. Sky Woman came down from the clouds; and to support her a giant turtle dove into the mud and brought it to the surface, creating Turtle Island (North America). From the four directions came four winds, which created the four seasons. The west wind and Sky Woman had twins, who created the rest of the world. So the Four Directions are not just compass points; they are an underlying structure of the world.
The Native nations sometimes fought. The Iroquois confederation was created to make peace. To symbolize the peace they buried weapons under a pine tree. They said the pine tree had four roots, one in each of the Four Directions, to show peace spreading everywhere . Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and others used the Iroquois confederation as an example to show the 13 colonies how they too could peacefully unite as one. We still use their eagle symbol today.
The Hmong people trace their origins to China, but centuries ago many migrated to Southeast Asia, and tended to settle in less populated hill areas where they grew crops such as dry rice. This isolation as “hill tribes” preserved older traditions such as the shaman’s trance ritual and gathering wild foods in local forests. During the 1960s, the CIA recruited them to fight against the North Vietnamese. Once the US lost the war and withdrew, over 300,000 Hmong suddenly became refugees.
While waiting in refugee camps, or resettled in the US, textile work was one of the few forms of income. According to their oral tradition, the symbols in their textiles were originally a communication system. Pandau or “flower cloth” became famous for its use of “reverse applique” (cutting spaces on the top cloth so that the one below shows through). Because quilting is a common US tradition, the Hmong symbols are sometimes stitched together as quilt blocks.
In 300 BCE the Celtic peoples were spread across Europe, including present-day Britain, Spain, France, Germany--as far east as Turkey! Today only small pockets of Celtic spoken language remain (dark green on the map). Ireland’s Gaelic is the most famous. But their geometric designs-- ”Celtic Knots”-- live on. Quilt designs are one place where you can see these patterns today.
Beth Ann Williams worked as a volunteer in Africa before her multiple sclerosis became too severe. She describes her attraction to Celtic quilt designs as combining her interest in heritage, nature, and religion.
Hawaiian quilts began with kapa moe, an Indigenous bed cover made from tree fiber cloth. Geometric designs were stamped into the cloth. Missionaries introduced western quilts, and the idea of folding cloth into quarters before cutting, so that the pattern is reflected in every quadrant. This was part of their efforts to replace “heathen” culture with their own. But the attempt backfired: Hawaiians used the new materials as a way to continue their Indigenous traditions.