Teaching Mathematics through Cultural Quilting

By Paznokas, Lynda S. | Teaching Children Mathematics, January 2003 | Go to article overview

Teaching Mathematics through Cultural Quilting


Paznokas, Lynda S., Teaching Children Mathematics


My granny was a great one for quilting. She had this big flour sack full of scraps. Squares and triangles and diamonds and stripes, all colors. Soft shiny pieces of Mam's petticoats. Rough scratchy pieces from Pap's work pants" (Howard 1996, p. 1). Stories of quilts can be as comforting to children as quilted bed coverings. Quilt stories are found in children's books and in the quilts themselves, which can help unravel stories about real people that quilts have pieced together. Quilts have been made by all socioeconomic levels and all ethnic groups in America, making them valuable historical and artistic artifacts that tell stories of the past. Quilting is sometimes called "memory's art."

Not only can quilts help teach multicultural history, literacy, and art, but quilting also provides a perfect and enjoyable tool for teaching mathematics concepts. For centuries, quilters from around the world have used patterns, shapes, measurement, fractions, and economics. Teachers can capitalize on the appeal of quilting to teach these concepts, interweaving mathematics with multidisciplinary studies of culture and using picture books for all ages. In the spirit of needlework, this article describes a "sample collection" of the wide variety of mathematics activities that relate to the quilting traditions of various American cultures and times in history.

Hawaiian Quilts: Symmetry

Historical connection

Native quilters in the Hawaiian Islands are famous for their distinctive quilts. Large designs of a single color are appliqued onto a fabric base of a contrasting color. The designs are usually inspired by nature, especially floral patterns. One tale says that this type of quilting originated when a woman laid out a piece of cloth to dry under a tree. The leaves and fruit, probably of a 'ulu, or breadfruit, tree, cast beautiful shadows on the cloth. The woman decided to applique this design onto another piece of fabric (MacDowell and Dewhurst 1997).

Mathematics connection

With their clearly delineated designs, Hawaiian quilts work well for teaching symmetry. A figure that rotates onto itself before turning 360 degrees has turn symmetry. In the example in figure 1, rectangle ABCD has turn symmetry. A half-turn (180 degrees) around point P rotates ABCD onto itself. If a figure can be folded into two parts that match exactly, then that figure has line symmetry. Figure 2 shows two examples of shapes that have line symmetry along the dashed lines.

Mathematics lesson examples

To explore symmetry, students can look at reflections in a mirror placed on the center of a Hawaiian quilt design (see fig. 3). If the combination of what is seen on the paper design and the reflection in the mirror makes the quilt look complete, then a line of symmetry has been found. Using dashed lines, students draw the lines of symmetry over each quilt pattern (see fig. 4). Other symmetry exercises using quilts include the following:

* Students identify lines of symmetry with quilt patterns from other cultures, such as the Blazing Star (see fig. 5), which has eight lines of symmetry.

* Students design quilt blocks with particular numbers of lines of symmetry.

* Students use a partial pattern, a prescribed number of lines of symmetry, and a grid to complete quilt patterns.

* Students explore ways that quilt blocks can be combined by using point or turn symmetry and line symmetry. These vocabulary words should be introduced or reviewed in an earlier lesson.

Freedom Quilts: Color Ratios

Historical connection

Quilts were made by many enslaved African Americans living in the southern United States in the early 1700s to mid 1800s. Oral testimonies explain that quilts were used to help slaves escape on the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was a cooperative system that developed among people who helped slaves escape northward from about 1830 to 1865. …

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