Quilting Across Cultures

Teaching About Native American, European American, and African American Experiences in the United States

Ava L. McCall

As a European American woman living on a farm in the Midwest, I grew up with quilts. My mother, aunts, and grandmother quilted and I have memories of “quilting bees” when Mother and her sisters spent the day sewing and talking around the large wooden quilting frame. One of my most treasured possessions is a hand-pieced and hand-quilted Dresden plate pattern quilt that my maternal grandmother made for me. My family is part of a tradition in which women documented culture and history; expressed diverse perspectives, experiences, and cultural values; and created beautiful fabric art in quilts.

In this article, I encourage teachers to use quilts as a teaching tool to help elementary students understand various cultures and times—to learn about Native American, European American, and African American experiences and perspectives within the United States. By studying the origins of quilting (which was primarily women’s art), students can observe the cross-cultural sharing of different quilting traditions, the integration of quilt patterns with cultural values and lifestyle, and the representation in quilts of human experience over time. Teachers can draw on an increasing number of print and Internet resources and find quilters in their own communities, through quilting supplies stores and quilting guilds.


Quilting Across Cultures and Time Periods

Using quilts as artistic creations and historical documents offers opportunities to address the thematic strands of 1 Culture and 2 Time, Continuity, and Change.1 During the second half of the 19th century, the sewing machine was invented and mass produced, women (primarily European American women) began to work in textile mills, and manufactured cloth became available.2 Thus, women’s role in producing clothing and bedding for their families changed greatly. Prior to this period, Native American, African American, and European American women hand sewed clothing and bed covers for their families. Sewing was part of women’s traditional role in each culture and offered an avenue of self-expression at a time when education for girls was limited or prohibited. What education or training women did receive often included sewing, which provided the basis for developing the art of quilting.

Native American women were the first people on the continent to make clothing and bedding for their families. They prepared animal hides for clothing and heavy furs for bedding. After contact with European fur traders, Native women began to trade animal skins for manufactured cloth and blankets. Indigenous women decorated ceremonial clothing with unique patterns made from porcupine quills they prepared or glass beads and silk ribbons obtained through trade.

Following the treaty era and the movement of Native people to reservations and Native children to boarding schools in the late 19th century, Native American girls learned European American style sewing and quilting at boarding schools as part of the “civilizing process,” which aimed to acculturate Native Americans into European American lifestyles.3 Native women learned quilting from European American missionaries, settlers, and government field matrons, but built on the sewing and artistic skills previously developed through creating and embellishing clothing with quillwork and beadwork designs. Although women from the plains nations became well known for star quilts due to the significance of the morning star among Native American cultures and the artistry of the quilts, they were likely influenced by European and European American star quilt patterns.4 Star quilts, sewn by women of different Native nations, were used in everyday life as well as special ceremonies. Today, in most Native American communities, one can find quilts.5 The best way for students to become familiar with the process and significance of star quilts is for teachers to invite a Native American quilter with expertise in making star quilts to the school to demonstrate the creation of a star quilt and explain the meanings of symbols. If such quilters are not available, teachers may use the curriculum “To Honor and Comfort: Native Quilting Traditions” from the Smithsonian Institution to introduce the history of quilting among plains nations.6 The book Morning Star Quilts shows examples of contemporary star quilts and illustrates their significance in Native American life.7 Students may view the process of creating a star quilt through the website “A ‘Star’ is Born” at starquilts.com/starborn.htm.

European American women began to quilt in the United States in the late 1600s. They probably brought European quilt patterns and techniques with them.8 They were likely influenced by Italian trapunto, a form of stuffed quilting; French broderie perse, formed by appliqueing fabric motifs onto a background; and English piecing, created by making patterns from paper and sewing both the paper backing and fabric onto a background. English wore quilted clothing for fashion, protection, and warmth in the 17th and 18th centuries and made quilts with medallion and all-over patterns in the 19th century. During this same time European American women made block quilt patterns, which were repeated over an entire quilt, creating a uniquely “American” style of quilt. Quilts arose out of the utilitarian need for warm bedcovers and the artistic desire to create beauty in one’s surroundings. Teachers might use the curriculum guide Quiltmaking: A Traditional Woman’s Art Form9 to introduce the history and artistic nature of quilting as well as the components of a quilt. By sharing the picture book The Seasons Sewn, teachers can encourage students to see the connections between specific quilt block patterns with seasonal activities in the 18th and 19th centuries in the United States.10

African Americans have made quilts in the United States at least since the late 1700s. Although Africans did not bring a knowledge of bed quilts to the United States, they did have experience in piecing, applique, embroidery, and weaving.11 Men were often textile artists in Africa, but slave owners usually insisted on the European division of labor, with enslaved African American women doing the sewing, weaving, and quilting, while men did carpentry, blacksmithing, and shoemaking. There is evidence that some free African Americans made quilts during slavery, but the majority of preserved quilts were made by slaves for their owners. Slaves engaged in many different quilting styles, including pieced, appliqued, embroidered, whole cloth, broderie perse, and reverse applique. Teachers may show examples of quilts made by slaves from the photographs in Stitched from the Soul: Slave Quilts from the Antebellum South12 and by viewing African American historical quilts on the web at www.quiltethnic.com/historical.html.


Economics of Quilting

Not only have women used quilts as an outlet for artistic self expression and representations of their cultural backgrounds during different times, but their quilting has been influenced by their economic status as well as the status of the national economy. The study of quilts provides opportunities for teachers to address the thematic strand 7 Production, Distribution, and Consumption. Quilts arose out of the basic need for warm bedcovers and the desire to create beauty in the home. The fabrics and threads used, the type and size of the stitches, and preservation of quilts reflected quilters’ economic status and the national economy. After the Industrial Revolution, quilters with greater disposable income and more leisure time could afford to purchase fabrics especially for quilts and quilt with very small stitches. The quality of the fabrics also depended on the quilter’s economic status since higher quality fabrics usually cost more. Those with less income and leisure time often made quilts from fabric scraps left over from making the family’s clothing and might choose to use larger stitches in order to complete quilts more quickly. High-income quilters could afford to use the most treasured quilts sparingly, in order to preserve them, by displaying quilts on beds only during special occasions. Low-income quilters usually had fewer quilts and other bedding, necessitating frequent usage and laundering, which resulted in quilts becoming worn and tattered.

During slavery, African Americans made quilts for their own use, but few of these quilts survived due to heavy wear, continual washing, fire, theft, and loss during escape from slavery.13 Slave women were forced to make beautiful quilts for their owners, using materials slave owners provided. These quilts reflected the economic status of the slave owners and the artistic sewing skills of the slave quilters. The quilters are usually unknown because they did not often own the products of their labor or sign their work.

For some individual and groups of quilters, making quilts to sell was a means of earning income. Sometimes quilters were forced to part with treasured quilts because of economic hardships. Harriet Powers, an African American quilter who created two famous Bible story quilts, was forced to sell her first Bible story quilt in 1891 for $5.00, although she asked $10.00 for it.14 At this time, typical wages for African American crafts people were $1.00 per day. During the 1960s, African Americans formed a quilting cooperative, the Freedom Quilting Bee, in Gees Bend, Alabama, as one of the “Great Society” programs. They made quilts to sell in major stores, resulting in enough income to improve the quilters’ living conditions. During the 1980s Native American women on the Rosebud, Pine Ridge, and Cheyenne River Reservations in South Dakota formed businesses to produce and market star quilts and other quilts. They aimed to use their women’s quilting skills to make some supplemental income, but not all of these cottage industries succeeded in improving the economic status of the quilters.15

At times, quilt fabrics and patterns reflected the national economy. During World War I and the Great Depression, women made clothing, quilts, and other household items from recycled feed and flour sacks. The Flour Mill Trademark Quilt is made from flour sacks embroidered with the designs of the original flour sacks from many different mills to honor women’s ability to use limited resources in creating the bedding families needed.16 “The Trade and Commerce Bedcover” shows a time of economic activity in Stockton, New Jersey, around 1830 with sailors working on ships, tobacco growing, and well-dressed people riding on a steamboat.17 Teachers may show pictures of quilts or solicit examples from the students, their families, or the school community in order to analyze the economic context of different quilts. Students should analyze the quilt for its overall condition, age, quality of fabrics, type of stitching (hand or machine), and size of stitches, and speculate about the quilter’s economic status and the economics of the time period.18


Incorporating Lifestyles and Values within Quilts

Quilts reflect the quilters’ cultural values, beliefs, and lifestyles (1 Culture) and document the past and present (2 Time, Continuity, and Change). Quilters from different cultures portrayed the world around them through quilts. They made abstract representations of their physical environment such as the crazy windmill pattern to depict windmills pumping water from the earth, the sunflower pattern to portray growing sunflowers, the churn dash pattern to symbolize using the butter churn to make butter, and the log cabin pattern to represent building log homes.19 Although much less prevalent, quilters made pictorial quilts to represent their physical and social environment. For example, one quilter began, but never finished, “The Charleston Battery Scene,” which depicted homes, household objects, and different modes of transportation, including shipping, in Charleston, South Carolina, around 1840. Phebe Cook made “The Phoebe Cook Quilt” to portray 100 neighbors in the town of Edison, Ohio, in 1872. The neighbors are depicted as dressed in stylish, detailed clothing of the period, wearing a variety of accessories, and engaged in everyday activities such as riding in carriages, plowing, and churning butter.20 Although the identity of the quilter is unknown, quilt historians speculate that an African American quilter likely made the pictorial or story quilt “Log Cabin Quilt” around 1870, after slavery had ended. The quilt seems to honor the simple log cabin home and everyday activities of emancipated African Americans, such as tending trees and gardens, caring for children, and meeting with friends.21 Teachers may use the picture book With Needle and Thread: A Book About Quilts22 to introduce the history of quilting among different cultural groups in the United States, the meanings of quilts, and different quilt patterns. The picture books The Seasons Sewn: A Year in Patchwork and Eight Hands Round: A Patchwork Alphabet also illustrate many quilt patterns and discuss their origins.23

The collaborative nature of quilting seems to be a cross-cultural phenomenon. Native American cultures traditionally value cooperation, generosity, and interdependence with everyone contributing to meeting people’s basic needs. In contrast, individualism, competition, and materialism are significant values in European American cultures, although quilters from each culture did not always follow these values. Both European Americans and African Americans built on the cultural value of cooperation by holding quilting bees or quilting parties to quilt or stitch the three layers of a quilt together. The layers included the top containing the colors and specific pattern, the middle batting providing the warmth and “puffiness” of the quilt, and the bottom (the backing) typically containing no quilt pattern. Native women usually quilted alone, divided each task (cutting fabric pieces, piecing, and quilting the three layers) with other women of their nation, worked with family members to complete quilts, or formed quilting groups based on earlier traditional porcupine quillwork societies. Native quilters used their quilts to strengthen community by giving them away or making them to honor members of the nation.24 Quilting bees or parties were opportunities for women to share news, build community, and find refuge from the loneliness many European American women felt when they moved west away from family and friends.25 Quilting parties were opportunities for African American slaves to share strategies for survival.

Teachers might help students understand more about the cooperative nature of quilting bees by making a class quilt or a friendship quilt. For directions in making a paper or fabric quilt, see the curriculum “Quiltmaking: A Traditional Woman’s Art Form” and the activity “Blessed are the Quilters, for They are the Piecemakers” from Cooperative Learning, Cooperative Lives.26 Quilters from local quilting guilds and quilt supply stores could be invited for a classroom quilting bee. The curriculum “To Honor and Comfort: Native Quilting Traditions” depicts the importance of quilts in give-aways and honoring ceremonies among Native nations. The picture book Sam Johnson and the Blue Ribbon Quilt introduces men’s involvement in quilting and the significance of cooperation in creating quilts.27

Quilts reflect important cultural symbols, such as the morning star in Lakota culture. The morning star appears in the eastern sky in April and has been an important symbol in Lakota myth and ceremony. It represents the direction from which the spirits of the dead travel to the earth, provides a link between the living and the dead, and is a symbol for immortality. The morning star also represents a new beginning and a new day dawning. When Plains people camped in tipis, the camp crier encouraged everyone to awaken to see the morning star. Before recreating the morning star within quilts, the star pattern had traditionally been painted, quilled, or beaded onto animal skins used for tipis, clothing, and shields.

Star quilts have become a significant art form on a number of Lakota reservations and the multitude uses of star quilts reflect the thoroughness of their integration within traditional Lakota culture. Although star quilts are seldom used as everyday bedcovers, they may be worn as shawls or robes. More frequently, star quilts are offered at weddings (to show recognition and respect for the marriage), given to newborns, or presented in recognition of achievement at honoring ceremonies. They are presented as very prestigious gifts in give-aways held at memorial feasts, naming ceremonies, powwows, and veteran homecomings. Spiritual leaders occasionally use quilts during religious ceremonies. Young Native men may wrap themselves in star quilts during vision quests or place them on top of sweat lodges during traditional ceremonies. Star quilts are used in funerals, enfolding the deceased or draped over the casket.

Religious symbols are also incorporated within quilts. Harriet Powers was a former slave who could neither read nor write, but she remembered Bible stories from hearing them and singing spirituals. She created two original applique Bible story quilts, now on display in the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. These quilts became two of the most well-known narrative quilts in this country. On the first quilt, Harriet interpreted such scenes as Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, the Last Supper, and the Crucifixion. On the second, she integrated folktales with Bible stories. Such quilts attest to a strong African American oral tradition and depict African American art, religion, and folklore. African American quilters continued the religious narrative tradition into the 20th century. Teachers may use the picture book Stitching Stars: The Story Quilts of Harriet Powers to introduce students to the quilter’s life, the time during which she lived, and the significance of her art.


Quilting with a Point of View

With the availability of manufactured cloth and sewing machines, quilters could create more realistic quilt patterns in less time. Women used these opportunities to comment on such controversial issues of the day, as slavery, temperance, and suffrage. Before 1900, it was generally considered inappropriate for women to speak publicly, but they used their domestic role as quilters to express their views. More recently, both women and men have used quilts to communicate their perspectives on current issues such as the AIDS epidemic.

In Antebellum America, some quilts portrayed the quilter’s perspective on slavery. Slaves escaped from the time they were first brought against their will to the United States in 1619. The antislavery movement began after the Revolutionary War in 1776. However, the freedom movement known as the “Underground Railroad” began in the 1820s and lasted until slavery was abolished in 1865. It was a system of free and enslaved African Americans and European American abolitionists who cooperatively helped slaves escape. Conductors led slaves to safe houses where they could hide, rest, and eat on their journey. Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad illustrates recent research on specific quilt patterns that communicated coded directions for slaves to follow in their escape to Canada. A particular quilt pattern displayed on a fence told slaves what action to take in preparation for flight. For example, the monkey wrench quilt pattern meant “gather needed tools,” the wagon wheel pattern meant “pack everything you need,” and the tumbling blocks pattern meant “it is time to leave.” Other patterns gave directions for the route north.

Another way some women showed sympathy for the abolitionist movement was by renaming traditional quilt patterns. The Jacob’s ladder quilt pattern became known as the underground railroad pattern, which is an abstract representation of the path slaves took to get to freedom in Canada. Teachers may introduce the role of quilts in providing directions for escaping slaves by reading aloud the picture books Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt and The Secret to Freedom.28

Quilts also depict European American women’s perspectives on westward migration. When European Americans moved west during the 19th century, they made quilts to keep them warm on the journey and after they arrived at their new homes. Family and friends often made friendship or album quilts for the emigrating family with each quilt block signed by an individual left behind. These quilts were important connections between women pioneers and friends, neighbors, and family members who did not see each other again. Quilts were also used during the journey in the burial of deceased family members and as an item to trade for needed goods.29 Women also pieced and appliqued quilt blocks while traveling, and continued quilting after arriving at their destination. Their quilt patterns—wheel, wandering foot, turkey track, and log cabin—reflected the theme of migration. The theme of celebrations can be seen in quilts made to acknowledge weddings, births, and accomplishments. One important achievement commemorated in album quilt patterns was the survival of the journey and establishment of a new home. Since women pioneers spent so much time outdoors during these experiences, they created quilt patterns honoring flowers, weeds, trees, and the sun. Teachers may use the picture book The Quilt-Block History of Pioneer Days30 to illustrate the place of quilts as European American families moved west. The Josefina Story Quilt portrays the experiences of one fictional family as they moved to California in 1850.31

The most well-known, large-scale quilt reflecting people’s views on a contemporary issue is the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Cleve Jones began the quilt in 1987 as a national effort to create a hand-sewn memorial to Americans who lost their lives to AIDS. The AIDS Memorial Quilt became a medium for women and men to deal with the loss of a loved one from AIDS, educate the public about AIDS as a devastating epidemic, support HIV prevention education, and raise funds for community-based AIDS service organizations.32 When the AIDS Quilt was first displayed on October 11, 1987, volunteers unfolded 1,920 quilt panels in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Since then, The Quilt has toured nationally to raise funds for AIDS-related services such as hospices, food delivery programs, and in-home support services. The AIDS Memorial Quilt continues to grow. It now has over 44,000 panels from all over the world. Sections of the quilt can be seen in schools, museums, synagogues, and churches. Teachers may visit the NAMES Project website (www.aidsquilt.org) and use the picture book A Name on the Quilt: A Story of Remembrance, to introduce family and friends who created a quilt panel to honor the life of a family member who died from AIDS. 33



Quilts made by African American, Native American, and European American women are artistic representations of lifestyles, cultural values, and points of view during different time periods in the United States. Trade books, Internet resources, curriculum materials, and local quilters can bring quilts into the classroom to illustrate important themes in history, culture, and economics. Quilts as teaching tools provide opportunities for elementary students to learn about similarities and differences among cultures, changes in sewing and quilting over time, and economic influences on quilting. Changes in European American, African American, and Native American quilting illustrate cross-cultural influences on quilting. The integration of specific quilt patterns by different cultural groups reveals how important cultural symbols are adopted and adapted. Many quilters showed their strong views about slavery, religion, westward migration, and the AIDS epidemic in quilts.



1. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, DC: NCSS, 1994), 34.

2. P. Ferraro, E. Hedges, and J. Silber, Hearts and Hands: The Influence of Women and Quilts on American Society (San Francisco, CA: Quilt Digest Press, 1987).

3. P. Albers and B. Medicine, “The Role of Sioux Women in the Production of Ceremonial Objects: The Case of the Star Quilt,” in P. Albers and B. Medicine, eds., The Hidden Half: Studies of Plains Indian Women (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1983): 123-140.

4. M. MacDowell and M. Wood, “Sewing It Together: Native American and Hawaiian Quilting Traditions,” Akwe:kon/NMAI 11 (1994): 109-117.

5. M. L. MacDowell and C. K. Dewhurst, eds., To Honor and Comfort: Native Quilting Traditions (Santa Fe, NM: Museum of New Mexico, 1997).

6. M. L. MacDowell and C. K. Dewhurst.

7. F. Pulford, Morning Star Quilts (Los Altos, CA: Leone, 1989).

8. W. A. Soltow, Quilting the World Over (Radnor, PA: Chilton, 1991).

9. M. Ruthsdotter, Quiltmaking: A Traditional Woman’s Art Form (National Women’s History Project, 7738 Bell Road, Windsor, CA, 95492, n.d.).

10. A. W. Paul, The Seasons Sewn: A Year in Patchwork (San Diego, CA: Browndeer, 1996).

11. C. Benberry, Always There: The African-American Presence in American Quilts (Louisville, KY: The Kentucky Quilt Project, 1992).

12. G. M. Fry, Stitched From the Soul: Slave Quilts From the Antebellum South (New York: Dutton Studio Books, 1990).

13. G. M. Fry, J. L. Tobin and R. G. Dobard, Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad (New York: Doubleday, 1999).

14. M. E. Lyons, Stitching Stars: The Story Quilts of Harriet Powers (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993).

15. M. L. MacDowell and C. K. Dewhurst: Quilts by Star Route Industries (Rapid City, SD: Sioux Indian Museum and Crafts Center, 1989).

16. M. Waldnogel, Soft Covers for Hard Times: Quiltmaking and the Great Depression (Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 1990).

17. S. Fox, Wrapped in Glory: Figurative Quilts and Bedcovers, 1700 - 1900 (Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1990).

18. W. Burchberg, Quilting Activities Across the Curriculum: A Thematic Unit Filled With Activities Linked to Math, Language Arts, Social Studies, and Science (New York: Scholastic, 1996).

19. P. Cooper and N. B. Allen, The Quilters: Women and Domestic Art, an Oral History (New York: Anchor Press, 1989).

20. S. Fox.

21. E. U. Grudin, Stitching Memories: African-American Story Quilts (Williamstown, MA: Williams College, 1990).

22. R. Bial, With Needle and Thread: A Book About Quilts (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996).

23. A. W. Paul, Eight Hands Round: A Patchwork Alphabet (New York: HarperCollins, 1991).

24. S. Termin, To Honor and Comfort: Native American Quilting Traditions (Available from The National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, Education Department, One Bowling Green, New York, NY 10024, 1997).

25. R. Pellman, The World of Amish Quilts (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 1984).

26. N. Schniedewind and E. Davidson, “Blessed are the Quilters, for They Are the Piecemakers,” in Cooperative Learning, Cooperative Lives: A Sourcebook of Learning Activities for Building a Peaceful World (Dubuque, IA: William C. Brown, 1987).

27. L. C. Ernst, Sam Johnson and the Blue Ribbon Quilt (New York: Mulberry Books, 1983).

28. M. Vaughn, The Secret Freedom (New York: Lee & Low, 2001); D. Hopkinson, Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993).

29. M. B. Cross, Treasures in the Trunk: Quilts of the Oregon Trail (Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 1993).

30. M. Cobb, The Quilt-Block History of Pioneer Days (Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1995).

31. E. Coerr, The Josefina Story Quilt (New York: HarperCollins, 1986).

32. C. Ruskin, The Quilt: Stories from the NAMES Project (New York: Pocket Books, 1988).

33. J. Atkins, A Name on the Quilt: A Story of Remembrance (New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1999).


Ava L. McCall is professor and chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, College of Education, University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. She taught in an elementary school for thirteen years.