Telling America’s Stories with Quilts

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Harriet Powers’s pictorial quilt 1898. Wikimedia Commons.
Harriet Powers’s pictorial quilt 1898. Wikimedia Commons.

“We Americans have adopted quilts as a symbol of what we value about ourselves and our national history,” —Laurel Horton, “Speaking of Quilts: Voices from the Late 20th century.”

Quilts provide an invaluable record of a particular place and time. Throughout our nation’s history, women and sometimes men have used the art of quilting for diverse purposes: to keep warm, to decorate the walls of their homes, to express their political views, to commemorate a special event, to remember a loved one, etc. Made by hand—often collaboratively—with remarkable inventiveness and creativity using familiar materials such as re-cycled scraps of used clothing, quilts are personal and communal, aesthetic and functional historical artifacts.

Engage students in recognizing how people of different cultures and time periods have used cloth-based art forms to pass down their personal traditions as well as community history. Heighten students’ cultural awareness with an examination of how quilts tell stories that reflect the lives of the people who create them, and the context of their creation (i.e., quilting bees, historical and personal events) through the choices made in design, material, and content.

EDSITEment has a trio of lessons to help teachers and students answer the following questions:

Stories in Quilts | Family and Friendship in Quilts | History in Quilts

  • What is a quilt?
  • What elements make up a quilt?
  • How are quilts used to tell stories?
  • What kinds of stories can be told through quilts?
  • How are art and history connected through quilts?
  • What are some of the purposes and uses that quilts have served in different places and cultures in the past?
  • What function do quilts have today?

The Quilt Index, representing, according to NEH’s Humanities magazine,A Patchwork of History, was born out of the “explosion in quilt scholarship over several decades which highlighted the need for an independent expanding bibliography.” This digital catalogue features thousands of historic and contemporary quilts for education, research and inspiration.

The Quilt Index is a multidisciplinary resource that includes curriculum resources for all levels, such as Quilts and Literature, which includes links to a variety of classic and contemporary short stories. Other resources feature a glossary of quilting terms, and still others, traditional lesson plans. Here is a sampler:

  • Quilting Activities from the Illinois State Museum includes “Be a Quilt Detective” (Keeping Us in Stitches Activity), which teaches that history can be recorded in a handmade object.
  • Lessons from the Michigan State University Art Education Department include “Quilt around the World,” which has students learn about a different country of their choosing and challenges them to represent that culture using geometric and organic shapes out of different fabrics.
  • In addition to cultural heritage aspects, Quilts and the Underground Railroad and other lessons available from Craft Revival: A Project of Hunter Library Digital Initiatives at Western Carolina University contain STEM applications (i.e., Quilt Dilations, which uses quilts to explore mathematics and Dye Sample Journal, which covers the arts of dyeing fabric and the chemical process of using modern dyes to imitate colors once produced from plants.)

Seven Southern Quilters is a quilt story website available from University of Virginia American Studies, which includes an overview of quilter Harriet Powers, born into slavery in Georgia in 1837. Powers’s extraordinary 1885-86 Bible quilt with its unique rendering of traditional African applique has been preserved at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Her 1895-98 pictorial quilt, accessible through the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, includes panels and describes her depictions of Biblical events alongside extraordinary occurrences she had witnessed in her life.

The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt may provide an opportunity to study how quilting can be used to memorialize loved ones as well as to elevate national awareness. The website highlights several key facts about the AIDS Memorial Quilt’s history, noting its nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 and its ongoing status as “the largest community art project in the world.” An archive project has been established to preserve the more than 48,000 panels that make up the quilt to create a full visual record of this powerful symbol, along with the many items of personal memorabilia that accompany each panel.

“A Quilt, a Map, and a Few Good Apps,” was written by Donald Brinkman in July 2012, on the cusp of the XIX International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C, when hundreds of volunteers laid out thousands of panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt on the lawn of the National Mall for public viewing. Brinkman offers insight into the digitization measures used to display the quilt and includes links to Bing map, which enables online imaging of the whole quilt and an AIDS Quilt Touch App, which serves as a digital means to access the names and explore the vista of images.  

Related resources:

Picturing America: Quilts 19th through the 20th centuries

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