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Staff Favorites: Beauty and the Quilt

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We are often asked which Library of Congress primary source is our favorite. We could never choose just one, but this week, I highlight an especially intriguing or engaging primary source from the Library’s online collections.

Just like my colleagues on the Library of Congress education team, I have a number of favorite items within the collections. However, instead of focusing on one item, I’m going to focus on a question: “What makes a quilt pretty?”

Yo Yo Quilt Detail
Yo Yo Quilt Detail

As one of the crafters on the team, I find myself drawn to the folklife collections, especially Quilts and Quiltmaking in America. I love listening to the interviews with the Blue Ridge quilters and looking at the amazing prize-winning quilts from the Lands’ End All American Quilt contest. When teachers ask about using primary sources when teaching math, I always point to this collection.

String Quilt
String Quilt

But one day as I was preparing to use this collection in a workshop, I looked at the subject headings and saw the word “Aesthetics.” Intrigued, I clicked on the word and found myself looking at a listing of responses to the question, “What Makes a Quilt Pretty?” When I clicked on the first entry I expected to hear a discussion on color and pattern. And the first part of the answer touched on these areas. But as the discussion continued, the focus changed from color and pattern to the workmanship of the quilts, especially the size of the stitches and how the patterns were cut and shaped. I was fascinated and found myself looking at beauty in a totally different way.

I’m not quite sure how I would incorporate this into a classroom activity, but I think it would provide a great start for a lesson on perception. How might you use this in your teaching? I look forward to reading your comments!

Comments (3)

  1. This sounds like an excellent idea for a lesson. I work in a group at my church that makes quilts for the needy in the USA and world wide. I would say that each quilt has its own beauty. Your comment that the perception goes from the color to shapes and to stitch sizes is something that everyone can observe even very young learners. We need to encourage youth to as the song went “Stop and smell the roses.” Especially in this fast pace world. I am going to use this lesson with my graduate class in social studies methods because I do try to emphasize the need to identify perceptions and to appreciate differences. I will also use it with my diversity class because if a person can accept diversity and perceptions with quilts and other pieces of art, perhaps they will be stimulated to do so with people. Thanks for the suggestion of this lesson.

  2. Growing up in the south, quilts around the house were a common sight – displayed not just for beauty but for the winter season as well. Thus, they were also functional. Now that I am grown and have inherited some of these beautiful quilts I cannot help but think when I look at them of my mother, grandmother, great grandmother, and aunts who grew up poor but with such determination – and truly the most hardworking women I’ve ever known. They are the women who put these beautiful quilts together – using old shirts, dresses, baby clothes, pants, blankets – anything they could find to use. When one of my aunts passed away a few years ago, I was given a quilt of hers as well as the large frame that she used in her living room which could be pulled up and down from the ceiling when she worked on the quilt.
    In my third grade classroom, a story and lesson on quilts made for a great creative writing assignment encouraging students to think about what the person might have been like who made the quilt, what they used to put it all together, what stories might be behind the various choices of cloth, etc. The list is endless to get students thinking, creating, and writing!

  3. During 1941 and 1945 I first saw quilts hanging outside on clothes lines when we would go for a ride in the country. Since my father had his own business he only had Sundays off. I thought people don’t do laundry on Sundays. The quilts must have been just airing to be freshened up. Later in life I found out that those quilts were for sale. Usually there would be two or three blowing in the nice breeze. We never bought one unfortunately.

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