Including Quilters’ Voices in the Social Studies Curriculum

Ava L. McCall

Part of my family history growing up in the rural midwest included quilting. My grandmother was a quilter, and this tradition was passed down to several of my aunts as well as to my mother. Originally they made scrap quilts of fabrics left over from the families’ handmade clothes. These quilts provide a record of the clothes family members wore, the quilt patterns shared, and the individual quilter’s creativity in arranging the different fabrics to make each quilt unique. Our U.S. history is filled with women like my mother, aunts, and grandmother, ordinary people contributing to their families and community through hard work, yet unrecorded in standard history books.

Quilts were one means of recording the experiences, feelings, and values of both European American and African American women. Quilting was a symbol of women’s relegation to a domestic role and an opportunity for self-expression. Most African American women were not taught to read and write during slavery and thus could not make a written record of their lives. Many European American women learned only basic reading and writing skills because of their
gender or their socioeconomic status. They, too, used quilts rather than speeches or printed texts to share their lives (Ferrero, Hedges & Silber, 1987).

The study of quilts in the curriculum may provide a more complete view of human history
as it emphasizes social history and incorporates the voices and perspectives of women and men from different races, cultures, and social classes (Banks, 1987; Cardis & Risinger, 1994) This article will provide some historical background on the functions of quilting in women's lives and several suggestions for the instructional use of quilts in the social studies curriculum.

The Significance of Quilting in People’s Lives

Women are the quilters in U.S. history, and they began quilting as soon as they arrived from Europe and Africa. Men played a minor, supporting role (Chase, 1978; Fry, 1990). Since families needed bed coverings, quilting began as a functional activity.

But quilts also became recognized as an art form and as a type of historical document. Sewing was a universal experience for all girls, taught to children as young as two or three years old. One women recalls piecing one side of a quilt by sewing half an hour
a day, sitting at her mother’s knee (Ferrero et al., 1987). As a character from Aunt Jane’s Album explains, learning to sew was a necessity prior to the industrial revolution and the availability of commercially made clothing and bedding.

I went to piecin’ as soon as I was old enough to hold a needle and a piece o’ cloth, and one o’ the first things I can remember was settin’ on the back door-step sewin’ my quilt pieces, and Mother praisin’ my stitches. Nowadays folks don’t have to sew unless they want to, but when I was a child there warn’t any sewin’ machines, and it was about as needful for folks to know haw to sew as it was for ‘em to know how to eat; and every child that was well raised could hem and run and backstitch and gather and overhand by the time she was nine years old. (quoted in Riley, 1991, p. 29)

African American women, who first learned to sew and quilt as slaves, sewed both for their owners and themselves. Young slave children helped by putting filling in the quilts, threading needles, and holding the light by which the quilters would work. On plantations of more than 20 slaves, the masters developed a division of labor among the slaves by teaching
carpentry, blacksmithing, shoemaking, and sewing. Slave owners followed the European gender
division of labor and insisted that women slaves become the principal weavers, seamstresses, and quilters, although men had worked with textiles in Africa.
These “sewing women” made quilts from fabrics and patterns selected by their mistresses who usually supervised their quilting. The quilts were usually not credited to them and sometimes were attributed to their owners. However, being skilled in sewing or quilting sometimes led to the purchase of a slave’s freedom or the earning of extra income (Fry, 1990).
Slaves could quilt for themselves, choosing from the quilt patterns of their mistresses, other slaves, or their own designs. They could select fabrics for quilts from old clothes, leftover plantation cloth, or new cloth they purchased with “side money” (Fry, 1990). The quilts they made were often worn from constant use. They provided necessary warmth and comfort and were used ceremonially across the lifespan in baptisms, burials, and a multitude of commemorations inbetween.

Quilts also uniquely reveal the significance of the quilters’ lives and work. Since women’s domestic work has historically been invisible and ignored in the gross national product, making something more concrete, such as a quilt, made this labor more tangible. A character from the short story, Aunt Jane’s Album, spoke for many women when she explained the significance of quilting in her life.

I’ve been a hard worker all my life...but, most all my work has been the kind that, perishes with the usin’, as the Bible says. …when one o’ my grandchildren or great-grandchildren sees one o’ these quilts, they’ll think about Aunt Jane, and, wherever I am then, I’ll know I ain’t forgotten. (quoted in Riley, 1991, p. 42)

The social aspect of quilting bees or parties was also of considerable significance. Quilting bees occurred when women joined together and cooperatively finished a quilt begun by the host. Once neighbors became available in newly settled areas to help each other with quilting, such social occasions were an antidote to the loneliness European American women experienced (Ferrero et al., 1987). The central actors at these social occasions were the women quilters, although men occasionally assisted with some of the tasks.

For slave women, quilting parties were opportunities to continue the oral lore of slave culture which taught moral lessons, values, attitudes, humor, and important strategies for survival. Despite the hardships of slavery and the usual necessity of obtaining permission from the master for quilting parties, quilting helped slave women build community by learning about significant events in the lives of other slaves as well as important information about the “big house” (Fry, 1990). Slave men might have threaded needles or held the light during the quilting, but afterwards, most men joined the women to eat, sing, dance, listen to music, and play games (Fry, 1990).

Portrayals of History Through Quilts

Quilters represented the physical and human world around them through unique pictorial quilts, quilts with standard patterns, and narrative quilts. Unique pictorial quilts include “The Charleston Battery Scene” (Fox, 1990) depicting Charleston, South Carolina around 1840. This unfinished quilt displayed Charleston as an important port with great architectural heritage. The clever use of fabrics represented the different building materials used in creating these homes. “The Phoebe Cook Quilt” (Fox, 1990), pictorially records a small midwestern town (Edison, Ohio) and the people who were Phoebe Cook’s neighbors in 1872. Nearly 100 figures dressed in the latest fashion and engaged in such everyday activities as riding in carriages, riding horses and ponies, plowing, and milking cows were pictured.

Quilters in Texas and New Mexico used standard quilting patterns as abstract representations of their physical environment. The Diamond Field quilt pattern for example, represents a cotton crop at the gin ready to be processed; the Crazy Windmill Quilt pattern represents the significance of windmills in pumping water for families in the arid Texas Panhandle; and the Log Cabin Quilt pattern reflects a father’s work in building a family log house (Cooper & Allen, 1989). “The Log Cabin Quilt” was also a narrative quilt made by African American women (Grudin, 1990).

This quilt combined abstract representation of log cabins, the first home for African Americans after emancipation, with pictorial representations of the everyday activities of freed African Americans around the homestead (tending trees and gardens and caring for children).

National trends and events were also reflected in quilts. Friendship quilts representing European American expansion westward were made in great numbers between 1840 and the Civil War. Some of these pioneers never saw friends or family again (Ferrero et al., 1987). Also, the “Train” quilt completed in 1884 represented the transcontinental railroad linking European Americans in the West with the Midwest and the East (Ferrero et al., 1987). Commenting on the economics and national interests of the time, “The Trade and Commerce Bedcover” (Fox, 1990) showed interest in trade, commerce, and individual entrepreneurship around 1830 by portraying workers’ activities and the details of their clothing as well as the activities and detailed dress of the more well-to-do. In contrast, the “Flour Mill Trademark Quilt” (Waldnogel, 1990) exemplifies
quilters “making do” with limited materials during World War I and the Great Depression by reusing cloth flour sacks.

Another means by which quilters represented history and illustrated women’s more active involvement in the public sphere was in commentary on the moral, political, and religious beliefs and causes of the times. Northern women active in the anti-slavery movement made such quilts as the “Underground Railroad” to provide an abstract representation of the path slaves took to freedom (Ferrero et al., 1987). In contrast, women from the South believing in the economic need for slave labor, made and sold quilts during the Civil War to raise money to support the Confederacy (Ferrero et al., 1987).

Quilts such as “The Crusade” quilt (Ferrero et al., 1987), containing 3,000 signatures of women who endorsed the Women’s Christian Temperance Union shows their support for the movement. “The Suffragette Quilt” (Fox, 1990) made around 1875 was inspired by the first United States National Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, New York. It contains vignettes of women engaged in activities considered very radical for the times (e.g., a women dressed to go out while her husband wore an apron and took care of a child, a women driving her own buggy with a banner advocating “Women’s Rights,” and a woman lecturing publicly to an audience who appeared to be taken aback by her speech).

Two of the most well-known, narrative quilts made in this country reflect religious beliefs. They were the original creations of Harriet Powers, an African American woman, originally a slave who could neither read nor write. She created two applique Bible quilts from New Testament and Old Testament Bible stories and local folktales she had heard. These quilts are now displayed in the Smithsonian and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (Grudin, 1990; Lyons, 1993). Perry’s Harriet Powers’s Bible Quilts (1994) provides large, detailed, color photos of these quilts along with extensive background information.

Finally, in more contemporary times, quilters have created summaries of important aspects of local or national history. One example, the “Underground Railroad” quilt (Gratin, 1990), was made by an interracial group of senior citizens in 1983 to commemorate the efforts of the town of Oberlin, Ohio, in helping fugitive slaves along the Underground Railroad. Another example of African American history was the “Afro-American Bicentennial Quilt” (Grudin, 1990), made in 1976 as a chronological record of significant people and events from a Black pilot of the Nina who sailed with Columbus to America in 1492 to Hank Aaron, the Home Run King in 1975.

A third example, “Reprise” (Grudin, 1990), was created by Marie Wilson in 1979 as a celebration of interracial womanhood. It features accomplished women such as Marie Curie, Marian Anderson, and Sojourner Truth interspersed with silhouettes of women in such generic roles as mother, bride, spinner, and teacher.

Teaching Social Studies With Quilts

The importance of quilts in social studies can be illustrated by slide presentations of quilts across United States history and followed up with curriculum materials which aid quiltmaking (Ruthsdotter, n.d.). Ruthsdotter’s book provides background on the history of quilting, examples and explanations of 12 different block samples, and directions for making a class quilt with students of different grade levels. Another recommended lesson to intro-duce students to quilting involves making a more complicated class quilt and is described by Schniedewind and Davidson (1987).

The teaching of family history also lends itself to the integration of quilts. Several children’s books portray family and personal history in quilts, including The Bedspread by Sylvia Fair (1982), The Quilt Story by Tony Johnston and Tomie dePaola (1985), The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco (1988), The Quilt by Ann Jonas (1984), The Patchwork Quilt by Valerie Flournoy (1985), Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold (1991), and My Grandmother’s Patchwork Quilt by Janet Bolton (1993-94). Teachers and students alike could bring in family quilts and discuss who made the quilts, why the specific patterns were chosen, when the quilts were made, and any special significance of the quilts to their family histories.

Quilts could also be integrated with a local history unit. As a way of summarizing what students have learned about their city and community, each of them could make a quilt block illustrating one important concept or generalization. Quilters within the community could be invited into the classroom to assist students in making a class quilt of their community’s history. State and regional history might also be studied through quilts (see Cross, 1993; Elbert & Elbert, 1993).

Using quilts in social studies is one means of expanding the curriculum conversation to include the voices of European American and African American women. Slave quilters speak of their strength, resilience, and artistry under the harsh conditions of slavery. European American women reveal their interpretations of trends and events in U.S. history before suffrage. Quilters offer their life experiences and viewpoints in their quilts. We need only listen.

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About the Author
Ava L. McCall is Assistant Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, Oshkosh, WI. She teaches Social Studies Methods from a multicultural, feminist perspective.