We Americans have adopted quilts as a symbol of what we value about
ourselves and our national history.
--From "Speaking of Quilts: Voices from the Late Twentieth Century"
by Laurel Horton
Throughout history, women and sometimes men have used the art of quilting for many diverse purposes: to keep warm, to decorate their homes, to express their political views, to remember a loved one. Made by hand—often collaboratively—using familiar materials such as scraps of clothing, quilts are personal and communal, aesthetic and functional. The lessons in this unit are designed to help your students recognize how people of different cultures and time periods have used cloth-based art forms to pass down their traditions and history.
Quilting continues to be largely a home-based form of art engaged in primarily by women. Heighten your students' awareness of how quilts have reflected and continue to reflect the lives of the people who create them, and of how quilts record the cultural history of a particular place and time. This theme of History in Quilts contains two separate lessons that can stand alone or be taught in conjunction with one another.
If your students explore the past through their own family history and ancestors, this unit could be used as a tool to focus on those aspects of your curriculum.
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?
If possible, center this lesson around one or more authentic quilts in the classroom, to give students the opportunity to see how a quilt is constructed (the stitching, squares, stuffing and so on). How is a quilt different from a blanket? It is like two blankets sewn together with padding in between. The stitching that keeps the padding in place creates a pattern that invites further decoration. This decoration can employ elements such as color, pattern, symbols, and narrative.
If it proves impractical to bring a quilt into class, use Quilt Image #21, available online via a link from the EDSITEment resource Center for the Liberal Arts, or images from one of the recommended books.
Ask the class if anyone has a quilt at home. Encourage some discussion about those quilts. How are they used? Do any of the students use a quilt as a blanket or have a quilt hanging on the wall at home? Show students the quilt(s) or quilt image(s), and have them describe what they see: How many different kinds of cloth are in the quilt? Do they see some of the same cloth in different places on the quilt? What colors have been used? Are there objects on the quilt -- people, animals, flowers, baskets, etc.? How many? Where does the quilt feel thicker and thinner? Where are stitches located?
Without telling students the names of each quilt, display several different kinds of quilts or quilt images as described below, available on The American History Museum of the Smithsonian, a link from the EDSITEment resource Center for the Liberal Arts (unless otherwise noted):
As you show each quilt, ask the students to describe what they see. Have them describe the patterns and objects on each quilt, suggest why each quilt was made, and hypothesize about what kind of story the artist was telling with the pictures on the quilt.
Provide students with the following chart and have them match the letter of each quilt to its appropriate type, or set up one large chart for the class and ask for volunteers to write the letter of the quilt that matches the quilt type:
|Type of Quilt||Letter of Matching Quilt|
National symbols such as stars, stripes and eagles were used in American quilts throughout the 19th century.
Look at the following quilts (and especially the photograph of the details from the quilts), available on The American History Museum of the Smithsonian, a link from the EDSITEment resource Center for the Liberal Arts. What images do students recognize?
Some quilt designs are created through repetition of a pattern. Show the class Quilt Image #24, available online via a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Center for the Liberal Arts. What patterns do the students see? How many times does the pattern in the center repeat? The pattern on the border?
Students can create a patriotic quilt based on this pattern, using five large image blocks as a centerpiece, surrounded by a border. Give students templates with pictures of national symbols. (Note: Download the PDF containing templates of several patriotic symbols is provided with this lesson. To view PDF, download the Adobe Acrobat Reader.) Allow students to color in the symbols any way they want. Once all the squares are done, gather the class. Now, together the students can create a patriotic quilt. Decide how the center symbols will be organized, and paste them onto a large sheet of paper or attach them to a bulletin board. Allow students to add a border around the edge of the quilt, like the one in the example. In classes where students are assigned to research and/or write about a national symbol, this activity could initiate that project.
If desired, end the lesson by comparing the quilt squares designed by the students to Quilt Image #45, available via a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Center for the Liberal Arts. This contemporary quilt records the celebration of the American Bicentennial. Which symbols are used in both this quilt and the students' squares?
An additional patriotic quilt, Proud to Be an American: 1992 1st Place National Winner, may be viewed on the EDSITEment resource American Memory. This is a kind of patriotic quilt, showing what's important to the quilt's creator. What did she consider important? What symbols are used in the quilt? How?
The recent film "How to Make an American Quilt" (1995), based on Whitney Otto's novel of the same name, has several scenes of women sitting together to stitch a quilt. Students might gain a visual image of what is involved in quilting by viewing brief clips from that film.
Recommended reading from American Memory
3 class periods