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Quilting in Class


“Over the years in prison, when I have been by myself, as I am a good deal of the time, I have closed my eyes and turned my head towards the sun, and I have seen a red and an orange that were like the brightness of those quilts; and when we’d hung a half-dozen of them up on the line, all in a row, I thought that they looked like flags, hung out by an army as it goes to war.

“And since that time I have thought, why is it that women have chosen to sew such flags, and then to lay them on the tops of beds? For they make the bed the most noticeable thing in a room. And then I have thought, it’s for a warning. Because you may think a bed is a peaceful thing, Sir, and to you it may mean rest and comfort and a good night’s sleep. But it isn’t so for everyone; and there are many dangerous things that may take place in a bed. It is where we are born, and that is our first peril in life; and it is where the women give birth, which is often their last. And it is where the act takes place between men and women that I will not mention to you, Sir, but I suppose you know what it is; and some call it love, and others despair, or else merely an indignity which they must suffer through. And finally beds are what we sleep in, and where we dream, and often where we die.

The words of acclaimed writer, Margret Atwood, from her book Alias Grace, tell a common (yet, often untold) story of home-life for many women. Furthermore, they capture an equally uncommon interpretation of a household object most are quite familiar with, quilts. Throughout history and cultures, symbols and meaning have been woven into quilts through intricate patterns such as the Tree of Paradise and Pandora’s Box. However, discerning such symbolism is not always a straight stitch. On the contrary, as Atwood suggests, the symbol of a quilt may take on many meanings and are likely as subjective as people who view and use them.

Similarly, in the classroom, the study of quilts provides ample opportunity for a subjective learning experience and discovery across disciplines. Take the work of Mary Harris, for example. As cited in Powell and Frankenstein’s Ethnomathematics: Challenging Eurocentrism in mathematics education (1997), Harris argues that, contrary to popular conceptualizations, nonstandard problems in math can be solve by any women brought up to make her family’s clothes. Similarly, the same may said for quilts. Although, making a t-shirt or sewing a quilt may not embody the traditional view of a mathematics problem, both involve a deep understanding of symmetry, patterns, optimization, parallel lines, area, and dimensionality.

Harris contends that all mathematic activities are both mental and physical; they require tools (such as physical materials) and language (such as the oral and written languages used to think about a math problem) to work through a problem in logical, creative and practical way (Harkness & Portwood, 2007). However, society often fails to recognize the value of non-standard approaches to learning, in math and science especially. Thus, the study of quilts K-12 education affords the perfect opportunity to challenge misconceptions about the relationship between math, science and art.

-Sara Hancock

Coming soon: Look out on our resources page for classroom suggestions and examples of arts integrated lesson plans for math, science and language arts through quilting.


"Separate and Not Equal: A History of Race and Education in America", 27-May-2017


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