April 2, 2014

The Search for the Fylfot

In the course of looking at historical Quaker quilts, we observe a dizzying array of quilt block motifs.  There are not any that we can say are exclusively Quaker, or preferences that are found outside the mainstream culture.  However, one will catch our eye and make us ask, "where did THAT come from?"

Cather-Robinson Quilt, c. 1850.  Detail.  Collection of the Willa Cather Institute 
of Shenandoah  University, Winchester, VA.  Photograph by Mary Holton Robare.

We began the search for the origins of this symbol, referred to as "Fylfot" and with a variation known as a "Fylfot Cross", with a couple of quick e-mails and a post to an online quilt discussion group. In short order we learned quite a lot!  It is not uncommon to find fylfots on quilts, both as an applied motif and stitched in quilting.  

Researcher Kay Triplett shared a picture of a block from a wonderful going-away friendship quilt.  You can see four fylfots surrounding a fleur-de-lis medallion on this block.

Quilt detail and full view.  The Poos Collection.  Courtesy of Kay Triplett, Curator
for the Quilt and Textile Collections.

Kay further shared, "These swirly fylfots were considered good luck symbols [...]  From what I have been able to learn online, fylfot is a Celtic or Anglo Saxon word, and I think of the Irish as the source of the 4 leaf clover good luck symbol."

In Decorative Motifs from the Southern Backcountry by Kay Moss, we discover that the fylfot appears on, as well as in the quilting, of historical quilts.

Quilt detail.  The Poos Collection.  Courtsey of Kay Triplett, Curator for the
 Quilt and Textile Collections.

The fylfot motif also appears on painted furniture, stamped into the tin of pie safes, on eighteenth-century Moravian pottery, and on German Frakturs as well.

Interestingly, we discovered that some people refer to the motif using an alternative spelling of "Flyfot" or "Flyfoot".  Common knowledge suggests this is a German term, short for "Fly foot."  Brief searches of two online quilt indexes do not yield any immediate hits for "fylfots" but each has quilts indexed as under the pattern name "flyfoot".  What shows up in these searches is a less-curved motif than the fylfots shown above. The more angular "flyfoot" form is recognizable as a swastika.

Today swastikas are so powerfully associated with the hate-crimes perpetrated by Nazis during World War II that it is virtually impossible to imagine them appearing on the quilts of pacifist Quakers.  However, prior to World War II the symbol carried more benevolent meanings such as well-being, good fortune, or good luck.  It was also associated with Native Americans.

Quilter's Scrapbook, newspaper clipping dated 1930.  Collection of Mary Lynne Smith.

For all our curiosity, we still do not know how the motif made its way into the c. 1850 Cather-Robinson quilt attributed to a Quaker community of the Shenandoah Valley.  The name inscribed on that block is blurred, but it seems likely that the curved-form fylfot crept in due to the quilt block maker's familiarity with then-popular regional designs.  Here is one of our favorite Shenandoah Valley examples.

Blanket Chest by Johannes Spitler, Shenandoah County, Virginia, 1756-1807.  Yellow
pine, accession no. 1995-94, image no TC1995-24.  The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation,
Museum Purchase.

According to the Colonial Williamsburg web site, "Johannes Spitler (1774-1837) of Shenandoah County, Virginia, may have been a Mennonite from the community settled ca. 1733 by 51 Swiss and German pioneers from Lancaster County, Pa. Spitler is famous for his softwood blanket chests and tall case clocks decorated boldly in white, red, and black designs on a blue ground."

From this we might expect this journey to take us back further in time to Switzerland and Germany.  But searches for origins of patterns, symbols, and meaning rarely follow a straight line.  Researcher Gaye Ingram suggested we seek its roots in Indo-European culture, and pointed out that Mediterranean cultures tended to use the three-footed versions.  As it turns out, the symbol is thousands of years old!

Left: Early Bronze Age, 2,000 B.C. or later Iron age.  Right: Victorian era reproduction.
Above: Swastika Stone, Ilkley Moor, West Yorkshire.  Photographs courtesy of 
Wikimedia Commons.  Photographs by T. J. Blackwell, September 14, 2008.

Ancient carving of the fylfot symbol.  Carpene, Sellero, Val Camonica, Italy. 
Luca Giarelli,  CC-BY-SA 3.0.   Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Colonial Williamsburg web site, Online Collections.  Referenced December 13, 2013.

Cushing, Frank Hamilton.  "Observations Relative to the Origin of the Fylfot or Swasatika" in American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Apr-June, 1907), pp. 334-337.

Facebook Discussion Group, "Quilts-Vintage and Antique" administrated by Lynn Evans Miller.  http://www.facebook.com.groups.quiltsvintageandantique/. December 13, 2013.

Moss, Kay  Decorative Motifs from the Backcountry 1750-1825.  Gastonia, North Carolina: Schiele Museum of Natural History and Planetarium, Inc., 2001.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this information on the Fylfot. We were using a symbol very similar recently, and of course, our discussion turned to where and when this symbol came about. Now we have a clearer picture.