Lesson Plans: Grades K-2

Stories in Quilts

Created September 27, 2010


The Lesson


Stories in Quilts: Story Quilt

A quilting party in an Alvin, Wisconsin, home.

Credit: Lee, Russell, 1903- photographer. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection.

Quilts and other cloth-based narrative art are part of many cultures. Made by hand -- often collaboratively -- using familiar materials such as scraps of clothing, quilts are both personal and communal objects. Quilting continues to be largely a home-based form of women's artistic expression.

Quilts can be works of art as well as stories through pictures. They also tell a story about their creators and about the historical and cultural context of their creation (quilting bees, historical and personal events) through the choices made in design, material, and content. Heighten your students' awareness of how quilts tell stories that reflect the lives of the people who create them, and that record the cultural history of a particular place and time.

Guiding Questions

What is a quilt? What is a quilt made of? What is a story 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 that tell stories? How have story quilts been used as part of our identities, families, and cultures?

Learning Objectives

  • Explain what a quilt is and what a story quilt is.
  • Identify elements in quilts, such as colors, shapes, patterns, and symbols.
  • Realize that quilts can be objects of both everyday use and art.
  • Understand how stories are related through art objects such as quilts.
  • Understand how quilts and other cloth-based art forms are used to preserve family and community traditions.
  • Recognize that people of different countries and cultures use cloth-based art forms to pass down their traditions and history.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review each lesson and select archival materials you'd like to use in class. If possible, bookmark these materials, along with other useful websites; download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Prepare any necessary templates.
  • Establish an anticipatory set when beginning each lesson on quilts. Read aloud any of the books recommended below, display an actual quilt, or invite a local quilter to demonstrate. Encourage students who own quilts to share them with the class. However, because quilts can be valuable family heirlooms, exercise care in allowing students to touch and work with quilts brought from home. Sharing quilts offers a good opportunity for parents to come to class to share family stories and to help monitor appropriate handling of quilts.
  • If possible, obtain the book The American Quilt: A History of Cloth and Comfort 1750-1950, by Roderick Kiracofe, Mary Elizabeth Johnson (contributor), and Sharon Reisendorph (photographer) (Clarkson Potter, 1993; ISBN 0517575353), which contains many large photos of quilts of every kind. Another book to use for background information a pictures of story quilts is Dancing at the Louvre : Faith Ringgold's French Collection and Other Story Quilts, by Faith Ringgold (Editor), New Museum of Contemporary Art, Dan Cameron (Editor).
  • Review background material on Faith Ringgold from the Guggenheim Museum's Online Collection essay, "Tar Beach (Part I from the Woman on a Bridge series)":
    • "Ringgold's vehicle is the story quilt-a traditional American craft associated with women's communal work that also has roots in African culture. She originally collaborated on the quilt motif with her mother, a dressmaker and fashion designer in Harlem. That Ringgold's great-great-great-grandmother was a Southern slave who made quilts for plantation owners suggests a further, perhaps deeper, connection between her art and her family history."
    • "Tar Beach, the first quilt in Ringgold's colorful and lighthearted series entitled Women on a Bridge, depicts the fantasies of its spirited heroine and narrator Cassie Louise Lightfoot, who, on a summer night in Harlem, flies over the George Washington Bridge. 'Sleeping on Tar Beach was magical . . .' explains Cassie in the text on the quilt, 'only eight years old and in the third grade and I can fly. That means I am free to go wherever I want to for the rest of my life.'"

For background on other forms of cloth-based narrative art, review the following resources:

For print sources, two books with pictures and descriptions of arpilleras are noted here:

  • Festivals of the World: Chile by Gareth Stevens Publishing, Milwaukee, Wisc., 1998. 32 pp. (Grades 1-4) This book introduces Chile, its festival calendar, and its specific festival rituals. It includes craft projects to make an arpillera.

  • Tonight Is Carnaval by Arthur Dorros. Puffin Unicorn Books, Penguin Books, USA Inc., New York, 1991. (Grades 1-4) This is a story illustrated with photographs of arpilleras created by the Club de Madres Virgen del Carmen of Lima, Peru.

[The Festivals of the World (Milwaukee, WI: Gareth Stevens Publishing) series can be used as an introduction for students to the festivals and traditions of different countries and to the concept of family, community, and national cultural traditions, including cloth based artistry.]

  • For Lesson 4, 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.

For a print resource, obtain Mary Lyons's book Stitching Stars: The Story Quilts of Harriet Powers (New York: Aladdin Paperbacks, 1997) to read to the class.

Additional background can be found in EDSITEment's blog post, "Telling American Stories in Quilts," which discusses how quilts provide an invaluable record of a particular place and time. American story quilts function as historical artifacts reflecting the diverse impulses that generated their creation. 

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. What Is a Story Quilt?

If possible, introduce this lesson with one or more authentic quilts in the classroom, to give students the opportunity to see how a quilt is constructed and what the elements of a quilt are. How might a quilt serve both practical and aesthetic purposes? How is a quilt different from a blanket? A quilt is made up of scraps of material that are sewn together. Quilts have two layers of material 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, and symbols. The designs on quilts can tell a story.

If it proves impractical to bring a quilt into class, use the image Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles from the Bayly Art Museum at the University of Virginia, available through Artcyclopedia, located on the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library, or images from one of the recommended books.

You may want to introduce the following vocabulary terms to the class before or while discussing story quilts and their elements and uses: quilt, story quilt, pattern, symbol, stitching, padding, patchwork, community, tradition, festival.

Ask the class if anyone has a quilt at home. Encourage some discussion about those quilts. How are they used? How many students use a quilt as a blanket? Take out the quilt(s) or quilt image(s) students will observe. Allow the students to observe the quilts as closely as practical. Ask students questions such as: How many different kinds of cloth do you see on the quilt? Do you see some of the same cloth in different places in the picture? What colors do you see? Do you see objects on the quilt -- people, animals, flowers, baskets, etc.? How are objects arranged? What pictures can you see in the quilt? Is this quilt telling a story, and if so, what is the story about?

Ask students to identify and describe the following elements in several quilts or quilt images:

    • Colors


    • Shapes


    • Patterns


  • Symbols

In addition to quilts, other cloth-based types of narrative art can be displayed, such as Hmong Storycloths (The Hmong and the Storycloth: How Traditions and Cultures Are Transmitted Through Folklore and Art, available from the EDSITEment resource AskAsia; Kente cloth in Africa (example lessons available at Fabric patterns/African Peoples and Textiles convey meaning through the use of pattern and color, both available from the EDSITEment resource Art and Life in Africa; and Latin American arpilleras (books with pictures and descriptions of arpilleras available at LILAS Outreach K-12 and Community Resource Library, Chile -- Children's Literature and Holidays and Celebrations - Children's Literature, found through the EDSITEment-reviewed website Latin American Network Information Center (LANIC).

The EDSITEment-reviewed resource Odyssey Online includes a special exhibit, Wrapped In Pride: Ghanaian Kente and African-American Identity, which "traces the roots of kente in Asante and Ewe cultures, in what is now central and eastern Ghana and parts of Togo, and its widespread use in Africa as garment and ceremonial cloth; then it explores kente as a meaningful document of dress, art, and identity in American cultures, specifically within African American communities in the United States." The website for this exhibit explains the role Kente cloth plays in the history and cultural identity of both Africa and African-American communities within the U.S.

Ask students to compare the different forms of cloth-based artwork and discuss the elements in each. Have students describe what they see, and write down their responses on a chart. The chart could contain the following information: What colors do you see in the quilt or other fabric art? What patterns do you see? What is being represented? What kinds of people, animals, or objects do you see? Whom do you think these characters or animals represent? Where do you think the story is taking place? What are the events taking place in the story? What do you think the story is about? What types of objects and stories would you portray in a story quilt?

Activity 2. Tar Beach: A Quilt That Tells a Story

Faith Ringgold's quilt Tar Beach 2 tells a story. The image of the quilt is available on her website maintained in collaboration with Art in Context, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library. The images imply a narrative, while the creator has included writing on the quilt that tells the story. Because the writing is too small to read in the available image, students can suggest the story the quilt might be telling.

Have the class look at the image and predict what the text may be. Together with the class, create a collaborative text that describes the quilt images. You can also read aloud to students Faith Ringgold's children's book Tar Beach, based on the story quilt of the same name. Use the quilt image and the book Tar Beach, in addition to selected books from the Festivals of the World (Milwaukee, WI: Gareth Stevens Publishing) series, to address the concept of family and community traditions. Connect the various festivals around the world that are mentioned in the book with festivals and traditions that students are familiar with in the U.S. and in their individual families. Discuss with the class ways in which quilts and other narrative-based cloth art can express and preserve the cultural traditions of a family or a community.

Assign each student to design one square of a patchwork quilt that is representative of her or his family or culture. Students can dictate or write a descriptive paragraph about the square. The paragraphs can be organized to create a story about the quilt.

Activity 3. Crown Heights Children's Story Quilt: A Quilt about Stories

Ringgold's Crown Heights Children's Story Quilt is adorned with pictures from 12 folktales from the different ethnic groups that make up the Crown Heights area of New York: "Anansi Stories" (Jamaican), "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" and "We Wear the Mask" (West Africa), "The Ghost of Peg Leg Peter" (Dutch), "The Banza" (Haitian), "The Winged Head" (Algonquin), "Bright Morning Runs East" (Mohawk), "Catherine the Wise" (Italian), "The Rainbow-Colored Horse" (Puerto Rican), "Sea and Mountain Spirits" (Vietnamese), "Which Is Witch" (Korean), and "The Lost Princess" (Jewish). An image of the quilt is accessible from the New York City official website, available through Artcyclopedia, a resource of the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library.

Have students look at the various squares and make guesses about the stories shown. Any guesses what the stories might be about? Do any of them seem like they might be scary? Funny? In the upper right-hand corner is a square about Anansi, the trickster figure originally found in African tales, though drawn by Ringgold from a Jamaican story. What do students see in the square? Read an Anansi story to the class. Three may be found at Afro-Americ@, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library.

This quilt represents children from Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. You can download and print out maps of New York and of the United States using the Atlas on the EDSITEment-reviewed National Geographic Xpeditions website, and a map showing Brooklyn and the Crown Heights neighborhood on the Brooklyn Neighborhood Map, located on Brooklyn On Line, available through the New York City History collection from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library.

In addition to showing students the location of Crown Heights, you can provide background information on The Crown Heights' Story Quilt through the UCSD Visual Arts | Faculty section of Art in Context Center for Communications, Crown Heights Children's Story Quilt, located through the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library. This website describes The Crown Heights Children's Story Quilt as "featuring folklore from the 12 major cultures that settled Crown Heights." In Flying over the bridge: An interview with artist Faith Ringgold, the artist explains her work: "I did a commission -- a mural -- on Crown Heights. It's about the twelve cultures of people who have settled in Crown Heights and when they arrived. The Koreans and the Vietnamese were the last two groups of people who arrived in the '70s. The earliest groups were the Algonquin Indians, who arrived 3000 BCE; the Dutch; and the free West African and African slaves."

Crown Heights is an area in New York, and this quilt represents the children of Crown Heights through the stories from different cultures that Ringgold has chosen. Ask students what folktales, stories, rhymes, and images represent your class. Present students with squares of paper and have them draw pictures for, or, for more advanced grades, write the names of, tales and stories that relate to your class and community. You can ask them to select images that represent their family, class, school, community, city, or state.

Activity 4. The Story Quilts of Harriet Power

Background for the Teacher: The EDSITEment-reviewed website American Studies @ The University of Virginia includes information on Harriet Powers and her quilts and points out that Powers combined African and European quilting techniques and traditions:

Born a slave 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 technique along with European record keeping and biblical reference traditions, Harriet records on her quilts local historical legend, Bible stories, and astronomical phenomena.

An essay on "Southern Quilting Traditions" on the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Studies @ The University of Virginia describes the differences and similarities between African-American and European-American quilting traditions:

The origins of the two major influences on Southern Quilting are very different -- originating on different continents and merging in America on slave plantations where division between white and black culture was distinct. Yet, as can be seen in the following examples, the differences of background and tradition, while seemingly distinct, do little to stop the merging of the two traditions. Both types of quilting are highly symbolic, both rely heavily on the process of story-telling, and both rely heavily on the union of women to produce and pass them on. ("Southern Quilting Traditions")

Share with the class the image of Harriet Powers's Quilt, available on The American History Museum of the Smithsonian, a link from the EDSITEment- reviewed website Center for the Liberal Arts. Ask students to describe what they see. You can discuss with students how Powers's quilt combines the African-American and European-American quilting techniques and traditions.

Read from Mary Lyons's book Stitching Stars: The Story Quilts of Harriet Powers (New York: Aladdin Paperbacks, 1997). Discuss the different characters/stories on the quilts. Do the students recognize any of Powers' images? How would her quilts help someone retell the stories she included?

Harriet Powers chose stories from one of her favorite books, the Bible. Students might enjoy collaborating on a story quilt based on one of their favorite books, or series of books. Individuals or small groups could contribute squares based on their favorite story or nursery rhyme, or based on a book you have read aloud in class. Let the class pick a familiar story and brainstorm the different parts of the story.

Can the students make a quilt that would enable someone "reading" the quilt to retell the story? Spend some time deciding on the important parts of the story or book. Have each student design a picture for a class quilt retelling a familiar tale. The students' illustrations can be assembled into a paper quilt and hung in the classroom or school hallway. Invite another class to view the quilt to see if they recognize the parts of the story.

Extending The Lesson

  • Invite a quilter to your classroom to discuss her or his quilts, or invite family members of students to bring their quilts to class for "show and tell." Where quilting is still a tradition, students can also conduct interviews about quilts in their homes.
  • Use the book The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco to introduce an activity in which students make a 'keeping quilt' and hang it in the school. Read aloud from The Keeping Quilt, and then ask students to write about a memory. For younger grades, the children can talk about their memories, and the teacher can write down a list of memories on the board. After writing/talking about her or his memories, each student should draw a picture related to that memory. The picture is then traced onto vellum paper and colored with fabric crayons, along with the child's name. Finally, the drawings are ironed onto a large piece of material that can be stuffed and backed as a "keeping quilt" for the school.
  • Use the poems and pictures in Pieces: A Year in Poems & Quilts by Anna Grossnickle Hines as a starting point for having children write and illustrate poems to form a "Fabric Storyscape" quilt.
  • Students interested in another unusual way of remembering family stories can read Knot on a Counting Ropeby John Archambault and Bill Martin, Jr.; illustrated by Ted Rand (Henry Holt & Co., Inc., 1987; Reading level: Ages 4-8; ISBN 0805005714).
  • Teachers can use the children's book A Name on the Quilt: A Story of Remembrance by Jeannine Atkins and Tad Hills (Illustrator) (Atheneum, 1999; Reading level: Ages 4-8; ISBN: 0-689-81592-1) as an example of a quilt that preserves history and helps us remember someone.

The Basics

Time Required

4 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • History and Social Studies
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Folklore
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. History
  • History and Social Studies > People > Women
  • Literature and Language Arts
  • Art and Culture
  • Analysis
  • Oral presentation skills
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Using primary sources