Closer Readings Commentary

American Quilts in Poetry and Stories

This Women’s History Month introduce your students to Lucille Clifton a former Maryland poet laureate and National Book Award winner, whose collection Quilting: Poems 1987–1990 was widely acclaimed. She used “quilts as a metaphor for life - each poem is a story bound together through history and figuratively sewn with the thread of experience.” For more on this poet turn to the Poetry Foundation and the American Academy of Poets.

March 16th is National Quilting Day ~ this year’s theme is “Celebrate America”

“We Americans have adopted quilts as a symbol of what we value about ourselves and our national history,” so writes Laurel Horton in special presentation “Speaking of Quilts: Voices from the Late 20th- century” available from the American Memory Project. We refer to quilts as evidence of our nation’s ingenuity and resourcefulness. The patchwork quilt has replaced the melting pot as the metaphor for the cultural diversity of our population. However, just as our national motto, E pluribus unum, "One, from many," encompasses the collective history of individuals from many backgrounds, American quilts have many stories to tell. Read more on Quilts and Quiltmaking in America 1978-1996 from the Library of Congress including a Gallery of Quilt photographs.

EDSITEment has resources for all grade levels using quilts as a means to tell stories.

Geared for K2, Stories in Quilts |EDSITEment asks: How are quilts used to tell stories? What kinds of stories can be told through quilts? How are art and history connected through quilts that tell stories? A second lesson, Family and Friendship in Quilts | EDSITEment, explains what a quilt is and describes some of the historic purposes and uses of quilts, such as friendship and family record quilts.

History in Quilts | EDSITEment contains activities designed for the elementary school set (though it can be adapted for use with older or younger students.) This lesson poses questions: What is a quilt? What elements make up a quilt? 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?

Picturing America: Quilts 19th through the 20th centuries is an NEH resource relating to image 10-B Quilts: 19th through 20th Centuries in the Picture gallery.

An NEH resource which represents A Patchwork of History” is the Quilt Index. Born out of the "explosion in quilt scholarship over several decades which highlighted the need for an independent expanding bibliography," the index features thousands of historic and contemporary quilts for research and inspiration. This resource includes lesson plans for all levels such as Be A Quilt Detective (Keeping Us in Stitches Activity) which teaches students that history can be recorded in a handmade object. Quilt Around the World has students learn about a different country of their choosing and challenges them to represent the culture of this country using geometric and organic shapes out of different fabrics. STEM applications abound in these lessons such as Quilt Dilations which uses quilts to explore Mathematics and Dye Sample Journal which teaches the arts of dyeing fabric and the chemical process of using modern dyes to imitate colors once produced from plants.

A theme of interest to older students may be the AIDS Memorial Quilt now made up of 48,000 panels representing more than 94,000 victims. The quilt when laid end to end would extend for 50 miles and require 33 days to view. In late July, 2012, some 100 volunteers handled thousands of panels when laid out on the National Mall during the XIX International AIDS Conference in Washington D.C. The AIDS Memorial Quilt has an interactive website which allows students to participate in the memorial. Professor Anne Balsamo of the University of Southern California, starting with a grant from the NEH and then working with Microsoft Research Connections and the University of Iowa Digital Studio for the Public Humanities, has made the quilt accessible on desktop, tabletop, and mobile app.

Seven Southern Quilters from UVA American Studies includes the story of Harriet Powers born into slavery in Georgia in 1837. Harriet Powers created two quilts which are the best known and well preserved examples of Southern American quilting tradition still in existence. Using the traditional African applique techniques along with European record keeping and biblical reference traditions, Harriet's quilts render local legends, Bible stories, and astronomical phenomena into physical form.

How can you use quilts with your students to learn about American stories?