The Flying Geese quilt block is simple, versatile and quick to make. Flying Geese can stand alone as a single block or can be used to make many other famous quilt blocks – the Sawtooth Star being one of them.
Through my research on the history of this block I came across very few facts. There are some myths, mostly about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, but not much else. My conclusion, then, is that the history behind this block is as simple as the block itself – it looked like a flying goose, and so when the early quiltmakers made a quilt using this block, they named it “Flying Geese.”
Basing a quilt block name on simple observations seemed to be a common trend. To the women of that time, these blocks symbolized what they saw in their everyday lives – Log Cabin, Snowball, Bear’s Paw and Honeycomb.
Knowing that quilt blocks symbolized commonly found objects, it’s easy for storytellers and quilt lovers to jump to the conclusion that quilts could have been used to send basic messages to escaping enslaved people during the Civil War. Without much proof to back this up, there is a lot of controversy over quilt codes and their use in the 19th century. Fact or fantasy aside, it’s a wonderful story even if it may be just that.
Below is a map of the Underground Railroad to give you some perspective on how far fugitives would travel to safety.
The main reason stories about quilts being used as secret codes is not confirmed as facts is because there does not seem to be any evidence that is pre-1865. Most of the “evidence” even then is hearsay without any written first-hand accounts. Fugitive enslaved people and Underground Railroad participants detail many ways of conveying messages, but never mention quilts and some of the details of the “quilt code” are incompatible with symbolism in African culture. With that said, the myths about code quilts are really interesting, so let’s talk about it anyway 😉
According to folklore, settlers aiding escaped enslaved people would place household items, including quilts, outside their homes to convey messages to those in need. Below are a few quilt blocks and their codes.
This pattern informed escaping enslaved people to follow migrating geese toward Canada and to freedom.
This pattern was used to let enslaved people know where safe houses were. People who helped the Underground Railroad may have identified themselves as friends to enslaved people on the run by tracing this pattern in dirt as a signal. This quilt told enslaved people to look for this symbol on their journey to freedom.
Enslaved people’s clothes were often tattered and easy to spot. This pattern meant that someone would bring the enslaved person nice clothes to help them blend in with the free blacks.
Once through the mountains, enslaved people were to travel to the crossroads. The main crossroad was Cleveland, Ohio. Any quilt hung before this one would have given directions to Ohio.
This meant the enslaved people were to gather all the tools they might need on the journey to freedom. Tools meant: something with which to build shelters, compasses for determining direction, or tools to serve as weapons for defending themselves.
Make Your Own Flying Geese
Simple Sew Steps:
Below are instructions on how to make the Flying Geese block Two different ways. Tip: Once you master Flying Geese, check out my Sawtooth Star Quilt Pattern to see how to build upon its versatility!
Basic Flying Geese - Produces 1 Block
The instructions below will produce 1 - 3” x 6” finished block. To figure out the dimensions for larger or smaller blocks, simply add ½” when cutting to the desired size. See example...
- On the wrong side of 2 dark 3 ½” squares, draw a guideline from corner to corner.
- Place 1 dark square right side down on a light 3 ½” x 6 ½” rectangle. Sew along the guideline. Using a rotary cutter and ruler, trim ¼” from the seam. Press out.
- Repeat step 2 with the other 3 ½" dark square.
No Waste Flying Geese - Produces 4 Blocks
You need one square, the size of the finished width you desire the Flying Geese to be + 1 ¼”, and four squares that are the height of the finished unit you want plus ⅞”. The instructions below will produce 4 - 3” x 6” finished blocks. See example.
- Place 2 dark 3 ⅞” squares on opposite corners of the 7 ¼” light square and on the wrong side of the dark 3 ⅞” squares, draw a guideline from corner to corner.
- Sew a ¼” from the guideline on both sides. Cut apart.
- Press seams out. Place 1 dark square right side down and sew a ¼” from the guideline on both sides. Cut apart and press seam out. Repeat with the remaining unit.
Modern Flying Geese Quilts
Below are examples of quilters today using the Flying Geese block to make stunning modern quilts. The possibilities of what you can do are endless!