History of Quilts for Kids

I usually don’t blog about myself or my experiences. I’m as shy online as I am in real life, so I sometimes break a sweat when I have to reveal. On rare occasions, however, I do like to go on about things I find important. Despite my current career of luxury in which I putz around on the internet and buy fabric by the bolt, I still consider myself an educator at heart and learning and teaching are a couple of things that I like to talk about.

Quilts are another. So today I’ll tell you a story to hopefully inspire a few of you to think about quilting in new ways and incorporate the art of the quilt into your family life.

In 1994 I was a newly-certified teacher of United States History in an 8th grade classroom. I was young, idealistic and determined to make waves. I scoffed at the US history textbooks provided by the school district (the “rich, white men version of history” was my opinion at the time) leaving them on my shelves, untouched, for the entire school year.

Instead I came armed with my tattered copy of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and a classroom set of duplicates of primary documents from the Library of Congress and various historical societies. I was pleased with most of my curriculum, but I still struggled with ways to incorporate the voices and experiences of women with any consistency. One day, in a small meeting room in Salem, Oregon, I found a very unlikely muse—Eleanor Burns.

If you’re new to sewing, you might not know Eleanor Burns. She has some quilting shows on PBS and she’s written dozens of books. She has been one of the driving forces behind the quilting revival movement of the past few decades. She is best known for her strip-piecing techniques that could help you make a “Quilt in a Day.” In 1994 I was definitely not into Eleanor Burns. She was of my mom’s generation, and the sewing and quilting industries were doing nothing at the time to encourage younger sewists.

I did a little sewing and I was developing an interest in quilts, but it was not a passion, and not something I did with my friends. It simply wasn’t very cool (and at the time, to be honest, I still cared about cool.)

Well, imagine my excitement (!) when my stepmother bought us tickets to see Eleanor Burns Live. No kidding, it was a traveling quilting history show to small towns. (Does anyone else remember this?) The room (in a library? a community center?) was full of older (than me) women in folding chairs. Up on the stage was a huge stack of vintage quilts, laid out flat, over 3 feet high. I was itching to get out of there, but I did want to get a look at those quilts…

Cue the Stars and Stripes Forever and enter Eleanor with 2 assistants. For the next hour or so, the helpers would hold up one of the quilts (which were arranged in chronological order), and Eleanor would place the quilt in historical context.

She talked about the pattern, the fabric, where the quilt was made, what was going on in the country at the time, what the life of the woman who made it was probably like and so on.

Eleanor was as goofy as ever, and the music and corresponding hats were a bit over the top, but the show was fantastic. We were laughing, crying, and just in awe. Above all else, I was inspired.

I went back to my school on Monday and began planning. I worked quilts into my curriculum as much as possible. The math teacher got involved and he used quilt blocks to study geometry and tessellations. I enlisted the help of the English teacher, who used historical quilts as writing prompts.

I wrote to fabric manufacturers and got them to send me boxes of fabric remnants for free. We borrowed sewing machines and made quilt blocks. It was good, rewarding teaching and I believe it made history more real to the kids. Here are just some of the reasons I loved using quilts as a teaching tool:

  1. Quilting is an art form in which women have always taken great pride. It is beauty, patience, skill and love in a utilitarian object.
  2. Quilts are representative of home economy and recycling. Many quilts were pieced with bits of old clothing, feed sacks, flour sacks and other linens.
  3. Quilts make wonderful writing or storytelling prompts. You can ask questions like, “Who do you think made this quilt?” “How old was she?” “Who did she make it for?” “How did it end up here?”
  4. Quilting (especially piecing) requires good math skills.
  5. Quilt patterns can often be placed in a geographical context. (Chisholm Trail, Rocky Mountain Puzzle, Ohio Star, Road to California, Sawtooth Star, etc.)
  6. Quilts are multi-cultural and multi-denominational. The styles and significance of quilts often vary from group to group.
  7. Stories about quilts can help children (and adults) relate to and develop empathy for people of the past. (For example, it was very common for travelers who died on the Oregon Trail to be “buried in her quilts.” Lists of provisions for pioneers in wagon trains often included 5 quilts per person. Imagine what it was like for a mother preparing for that trip to get all of those quilts ready, knowing that they might have to be put to use in such a way.)
  8. A quilt was often a collaborative work by a community of women (think quilting bees and friendship quilts.) They are symbolic of a more communal way of life that is becoming unknown to modern generations.
  9. Quilts are beautiful and wonderful to look at.
  10. Kids relate to blankies.

Now I’ve gone on enough. Whether you teach for a living, homeschool, or you’re just into learning with the kids in your life, I hope you’ll consider exposing children to quilting. Teach them the actual sewing part, without a doubt, but also the history. Take the kids with you to the next quilt exhibit that comes to your area.

Visit your local historical society, which most likely has a collection of quilts from your state. Get books from the library and check out the scores of resources that exist online. And by all means, if Eleanor Burns comes to your town, you simply must take the whole family!
If you’re interested, here are just a few online resources to get you started.

History of Quilts for Kids

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