© 2000 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.

Piecing It Together:
America’s Story in Quilts

Some folks has albums to put folks’ pictures in to remember ‘em by,

and some folks has a book and writes down the things that happen every day…

but Honey, these quilts is my albums and my di’ries….

—Aunt Jane of Kentucky1

Judith R. Marrou

I am a lover of quilts. As a quilter, I am an amateur, but I have had enough experience in the craft to have gained a deep respect for artisans at work. At quilt shows, I am always impressed not only with the beauty and variety of the masterpieces, but with the tradition they represent: knowledge being passed from one generation to the next, such as techniques of stitchery; use of color, texture, and design; and aesthetics, such as the choices of subject matter for depiction on the quilts, which can include daily activities, Bible stories, or national events. These traditions are kept alive usually by women: mothers, grandmothers, and aunts. I’ve also seen some wonderful quilts designed by men. The best elements of our work as teachers were present in the construction of early quilts: planning, loving instruction, patience, discipline, practice, and (after the completion of the task) moral reinforcement.

Quilts represent a perfect marriage of opposites: They are art (being a thing of beauty) and practical (being a thing to keep warm under on a cold night); they are solitary (of use for one bed) and communal (often having been made by several women); they reveal the maker’s concern for conservation (the reuse of old cloth) and liberation (colorful and free expression of design). Like the United States, a quilt could be described by the words e pluribus unum, “out of many, one.”

Quilts have served as gifts of love, eloquent statements of faith, and jubilant expressions of individual artistry. They are also of interest to historians. Old quilts provide a record of the fabrics, and of human expression, from the past. People who were not literate, like many farm wives, women slaves, or new immigrants, were able to make a record of important aspects of their lives when designing their quilts.2 Quilting bees were a chance for neighbors to get together and talk about common concerns or to welcome a new immigrant. Before radio, TV, and the web, quilting bees were an important part of social life for women in both urban and rural settings.3

American literature contains many examples of quilts as metaphors for the things that Americans share and hold dear. Many of the characters (fictitious or real) in the children’s books that I review in this article might serve as role models because of their courage, perseverance, pride of ancestry, and love of home and family. I selected these books for the quality of their literary and social studies content, the value of the lessons they teach, and the visual appeal of their illustrations. I believe that they are universal in their appeal and (addressed by the teacher at an appropriate level of complexity) could hold the interest of elementary, middle school, and high school students alike.


Children’s Books About Quilts

The ten reviews that follow give a brief summary of each book and suggest some classroom activities or curriculum connections. Also, in each review (after the author, title, and publication information), numbers appear that refer to social studies themes that could be linked to the book. These themes come from the ten described in Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for the Social Studies (Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies, 1994). The themes highlighted in these books about quilts are


1 Culture (especially understanding one’s roots)

2 Time, Continuity, and Change (a historical time period is illuminated)

3 People, Places, and Environments (with an emphasis on geography)

4 Individual Development and Identity (family, traditions, and

5 Individuals, Groups, and
Institutions (with an emphasis on gender issues)


Ernst, Lisa Campbell. Sam Johnson and the Blue Ribbon Quilt. New York: Mulberry Paperback, 1983.
Themes: 2, 3, and 5

Summary: When Sam Johnson inadvertently discovers how much fun sewing can be, he tries to join the Rosedale Women’s Quilting Club. The club president says, “Don’t be silly. We can’t have a man here bungling everything! Go play horseshoes or checkers.” But Sam Johnson won’t take no for an answer. He organizes a rival sewing circle, and no women need apply!


Curriculum Connections: Talk about the designs and history of the beautiful borders on each page of this book. Each border relates to the content of its particular picture beginning with the “Open Book” design and ending with “Tree Everlasting.” The story takes place in the nineteenth century. What kinds of beliefs existed then about the proper roles of men and women? How have society’s views of gender roles changed? Do we have men who quilt today or are they still playing only horseshoes or checkers? There are some beautiful bird’s-eye views of the country landscape in this book that tie in nicely with early geographic concepts. Does the world look like a patchwork quilt from above? What did it look like then? What might be different now?


Flournoy, Valerie. The Patchwork Quilt. New York: Dial Books, l985.

Themes: 1 and 4

Summary: Tanya loves listening to her grandmother talk about the patchwork quilt as she cuts and stitches together the colorful pieces of fabric. A scrap of blue from brother Jim’s favorite old pants, a piece of gold leftover from Mama’s Christmas dress, a bright square from Tanya’s Halloween costume—all fit together to make a quilt of memories. But one day Tanya’s grandmother becomes ill. Tanya decides to finish Grandma’s masterpiece, and with the help of Mama and the whole family, she sets to work.

Curriculum Connections: Students make a list of family traditions that their families have passed down through the years. Possible questions to ask: Does your family have any special holiday traditions? How far back does the oldest tradition go in history? If you could start a tradition in your family that would be followed for generations to come, what would it be?

There is a larger theme in this book about working together; Tanya’s family members all pitch in by adding a patch to the quilt. This activity suggests that a sense of incompleteness prevails without a patch (or an expression of love) from every member of the family. Could a similar connection be made with the students in your classroom?

This book could also be used as a lead-in to a lesson on the AIDS Quilt, which memorializes people who have died from AIDS. The Quilt is a modern example of a community (actually, an international) sewing project. A children’s book about the Quilt is A Name on the Quilt—A Story of Remembrance by Jeannine Atkins (New York: Antheneum Books, 1999). The AIDS Quilt is actually a traveling exhibit, made of thousands of quilts, each one made by surviving friends and family. Students could be asked to consider why surviving family members might have seized upon the idea of a memorial quilt instead of, say, a monument made of stone or steel.

Howard, Ellen. The Log Cabin Quilt. New York: Holiday House, l996.

Themes: 2, 3, 4, and 5

Summary: Young Elvirey and her family (Granny, Pap, two daughters, and a son) set out in a wagon from South Carolina to the woods of Michigan, looking for a new beginning. They are sad because their Mam has just died. When Elvirey goes to fetch Mam’s things to put into the wagon, Pap tells her, “There ain’t no room for suchlike.” But the quilting scraps will not be abandoned. Granny heaves the sack onto the seat of the wagon, glares Pap right down, and says, “I aim to set on it.” After the family arrives in Michigan, Pap leaves on a hunting trip and the children are left with Granny. When the temperature drops below freezing, the soft chinking between the logs freezes and begins to fall out. Cold air rushes in. What can they use to replace the chinking? The children begin to stuff Mam’s quilt scraps in the cracks. Warmth, and warm memories of her, return.

Curriculum Connections: Trace the family’s journey on a map. How long might it have taken them to make the trip? Why were they moving to a new place? What makes a house a home? Is it just material possessions? Do students have any stories from their own families about objects being used in unexpected ways? About objects that have a special meaning for their family?


Hopkinson, Deborah. Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt. New York: Alfred Knopf, Dragonfly Books, l993.
Themes: 1, 2, 3, and 4

Summary: When Clara is only twelve years old, she is taken from her mother, a slave, to live at a plantation many miles away. She is befriended by a black lady who becomes her “Aunt Rache#148; and teaches her the craft of sewing. Now an accomplished seamstress, Clara changes from a field hand to a house maid, sewing for the plantation owners. Still missing her mother’s company, she befriends Cook and other house servants and learns about the Underground Railroad. None of the slaves has a map that would show how to make the journey to the Ohio River or how to locate people who would help them escape to Canada. Clara learns about map making and how pictures can represent places and directions for others to follow. She decides that she will create a quilted map that will lead her and others to freedom.

Curriculum Connections: Review the travel route of the Underground Railroad and trace it on a large classroom map. Estimate how long it might have taken a family to make the difficult journey to Canada. Bring in the book Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky by Faith Ringgold (New York: Crown, 1995). This beautifully illustrated book tells the story of Harriet Tubman’s role in the Underground Railroad and how it began. For younger children: Design a simple map legend on a grid that might resemble a quilt. Such a map could lead the way to a secret spot and a special treasure. The map should include a compass rose, a map legend, and cardinal directions. For older students: The quilts shown in both books discussed above tell stories about the Underground Railroad. Quilts tell other stories, too. Students could design a quilt map that traces another historic period in our country, for example, cattle trails in U.S. History.


Polacco, Patricia. The Keeping Quilt. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.
Themes: 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5

Summary: Around the turn of the century, large numbers of Russian Jews fled the pogroms (riots against Jews) to come to America, many with little money and few possessions. Through cooking, storytelling, handicrafts, and religious observations, the immigrants kept memories of “backhome Russia” alive. When Great-Gramma Anna came to America, all that she had left from Russia were her dress and babushka (head kerchief). These later became scraps used to make a treasured quilt that has tied generations together for over a century. The “keeping quilt” is used as a wedding huppa (canopy), a baby blanket, and a picnic blanket, but these practical uses stand for a larger idea: keeping family and cultural traditions alive.

Curriculum Connections: If any students have quilts or special articles of clothing that have been in their family for generations, invite them to bring them in, with parental permission, or to share a photograph of the item. Discuss how quilts are made and why they are valued as heirlooms. Students could discuss the following questions:

• How would the families’ lives in the story be different if they had not had the “keeping quilt” to pass on to each other?

• Has anyone ever passed something on to you? What? Why is it important to you?

• When you get older, what would you like to pass on to someone else in your family? Why? What would you tell them about it?

Then invite students to make a “quilt” on paper that would symbolize special memories they share as a class. For example, students could make an end-of-the-year quilt or one that celebrates a special event, theme, or national holiday.


Johnston, Tony and Tomie dePaola. The Quilt Story. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1985.
Themes: 1, 2, 3, and 4

Summary: A little girl and her family travel across miles of plains to a new home; the “newness” of it makes her feel sad and lonely. She turns to a familiar old friend for comfort: her patchwork quilt. Over the years, the quilt serves many purposes. Generations later, another little girl moves across miles of highways to her new home. Feeling out of place, she finds warmth and comfort in the same quilt as her ancestor did.

Curriculum Connections: Ask the students to write about a special belonging such as a favorite blanket or stuffed animal that has been an important part of their lives. They could compare this story with The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams Bianco (New York: Henry Holt, 1998).


Paul, Ann Whitford. The Seasons Sewn. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1996.
Themes: 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5

Summary: In this fascinating and finely illustrated book, the author shows how the names of patchwork quilt patterns tell us something about life in America during the nineteenth century. “Bear’s Paw,” “Trail of the Covered Wagon,” “Turkey Tracks,” “Crossed Canoes,” and “Falling Timbers,” among other patterns, evoke a time when the daily activities of American families and the changing seasons were inextricably connected.

Curriculum Connections: Ask students to invent repeating patterns based on modern-day objects or activities. Possibilities include “Phone Cord,” “Tire Tread,” or “Joystick and Mouse.” What are some techniques (without using a computer) for copying a design identically around the edge of a piece of paper?


Paul, Ann Whitford. Eight Hands Round. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

Themes: 1, 2, 3, and 5

Summary: The patchwork designs in this book are mainly from the eighteenth century and are presented in alphabetical order. Among them are favorites such as “The Anvil,” “Grandmother’s Fan,” “Log Cabin,” and “Windmill.” Two patchwork squares in the book focus on the nineteenth century and the Civil War. Their stories are told in the squares “Tobacco Leaves” and “Underground Railroad.”

Curriculum Connections: Students create their own quilt squares (on paper) to reflect the imagery of a particular century and place, maybe showing a particular event or way of life. Students could be assigned various topics such as transportation, communication, or social issues and then create quilt squares that would represent these topics during the assigned century.


Cobb, Mary. The Quilt-Block History of Pioneer Days With Projects Kids Can Make. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1995.
Themes: 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5

Summary: This book presents the history of American pioneers through the quilts that they made. As in Ann Pau#146;s books, the reader discovers what dozens of quilt-block designs, from a simple “nine-patch” to “Martha Washington’s Star,” tell about America’s early days. This book includes easy paper craft projects that your students can make without sewing a single stitch.

Curriculum Connections: This book can be used as a companion piece to Ann Pau#146;s publications. It is filled with wonderful projects that connect with all areas of the curriculum, and it is suitable for middle as well as elementary students.


Turner, Ann. Sewing Quilts. New York: MacMillan, 1994.

Themes: 2, 3, and 4

Summary: Ann Turner is the author of several well-known children’s books, including the novels Time of the Bison and Grasshopper Summer. In this book on quilts, with its quiet poetic verse and soft, evocative pastel art, Turner and illustrator Thomas Allen capture the importance of quilting and the simple joys and fears of a little girl growing up in the early twentieth century. The girl watches her mama sew a red, blue, and yellow log-cabin quilt and somehow knows that the snug cloth house will keep the family safe from harm. The little girl sews her own quilt, too—a bear-paw quilt. As she stitches each paw tightly to the fabric underneath, she tells the bear to run slow. She senses somehow that her quilt will keep her papa safe from all the bears that live in the woods.

Curriculum Connections: This book is for younger students. It would tie in nicely with The Quilt Story (dePaola) and The Patchwork Quilt (Flournoy). Students could learn about the creation of a quilt in the past (Turner) and in the present (Flournoy) and the common bonds that unite generations as they work together to create a family heirloom. As with Patricia Polacco’s book, The Keeping Quilt, these books also provide good opportunities for suggesting that students share their own stories about important historical heirlooms in their families.



1. Eliza Clavert Hall, Aunt Jane of Kentucky (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1995), as quoted in Joyce S. Steward, ed., Quilting Quotations: Celebrating an American Legacy (Philadelphia, PA: Running Press, 1994).

2. Ava L. McCall, “Including Quilters’ Voices in the Social Studies Curriculum,” Social Studies and the Young Learner 7, no. 1 (September/October 1994).

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


About the Author

Judith R. Marrou is an adjunct professor of social studies in the Department of Curriculum Instruction at the University of Texas, Austin.