The quilt. It's something every fifth-grader at Lafayette Elementary looks forward to -- the annual quilt-making project with art teacher Laurie McLaughlin.

Quilt-making is a tradition at the Northwest Washington school. McLaughlin's students have been sewing them for about 20 years -- one each year. The quilts are then auctioned to raise money for the school.

The project takes several weeks and is linked to what's being taught in social studies. Until this school year, the kids were studying the early settlers when it was time to start quilting, so the quilts had a pioneer theme.

But the lesson plan has changed. In November, when the quilt project began, the kids were studying the Civil War era. So McLaughlin thought of making an Underground Railroad quilt.

The Underground Railroad wasn't a railroad at all. It was the name for secret routes that slaves used in the 1800s to escape to states without slavery or to Canada. They would travel, usually on foot, from one "station" to another with the help of "conductors," people who opposed slavery. As many as 100,000 slaves escaped this way.

What role did quilts play?

According to stories passed from one generation to the next, the patterns on some quilts had messages for escaping slaves -- to follow a certain path, for example, or to double-back on their tracks to confuse the slave hunters.

These quilts, so the story goes, were aired outside where escaping slaves might see them. No one suspected what was going on because it was common to air bed linens frequently.

It's important to mention that most historians don't believe that quilts were used in this way. There is nothing in writing from those days to confirm the story, but it continues to be told.

The Lafayette quilt is a sampler, with 12 patterns. (The 19th-century quilts said to have guided the slaves each had one pattern; otherwise, the secret message would be confusing!) Every Lafayette fifth-grader -- nearly 70 kids -- had a hand in its creation during two art classes. Some kids gave up recess time to do more. Genevieve Wall showed up 25 days; Laura Horvath did 30 days.

"It was a lot of work, but I'm really proud of how it turned out," said Genevieve, 11.

"It turned out fabulous," said Laura, 10, who had some sewing experience. "I've been mending my dad's socks since I was 6," she said.

In addition to learning some history, the girls said they learned a lot about each other while sewing. "I felt like little ladies" in earlier times, said Laura, "because that's what they would have done -- sit around chatting."

McLaughlin says the quilt project gives her students "an understanding of the investment of time in these early American crafts and the artistry involved in making something useful."

Not everyone bought the story behind the quilt, though. "The tale they tell is sort of too elaborate to be real. It had to be perfect," said Alex Cohen, 11. " 'Follow the geese,' " he said, referring to one of the quilt patterns. "What if there weren't any geese that day?"

Doubts aside, the kids felt so proud of their creation that they put more than just sweat into it. "It's a bit gross," Genevieve confided, "but sometimes we'd prick our fingers [on purpose] so there would be a little of us in the quilt."

Thinking ahead to the auction, she added: "I hope that somebody who worked really hard on it gets it."

-- Marylou Tousignant