A Cozy Collaboration

By Sue Liedke, posted on Nov 10, 2022

Made from fabric or paper, sewn or glued, a class quilt is a simple and effective way to complete a collaborative project. Each student participates in the design process, and with careful preparation, all the elements are assembled into a visually appealing design. In the past, my students have assembled elaborate paper quilts, each square a dazzling collage of painted and printed cut strips. This year, we took this idea to the next level with inspiration from the African American quilting community of Gee’s Bend, Alabama.

SchoolArts magazine, The Collaboration Issue, December 2022, Early Childhood art lesson, Gee's Bend, Alabama, Quilts
Collaborative class quilts.
SchoolArts magazine, The Collaboration Issue, December 2022, Early Childhood art lesson, Gee's Bend, Alabama, Quilts
Students design their quilt blocks on 12 x 12″ (30 x 30 cm) boards.
SchoolArts magazine, The Collaboration Issue, December 2022, Early Childhood art lesson, Gee's Bend, Alabama, Quilts
Students Jerome and Sam trim fabric with supervision.
SchoolArts magazine, The Collaboration Issue, December 2022, Early Childhood art lesson, Gee's Bend, Alabama, Quilts
Two students’ finished quilt blocks.

My Story
If I’m being honest, this is one of those “selfish” projects that grew from my personal interests. During the pandemic, I made my first three quilts, learning new skills and gaining confidence with each endeavor. As I planned this project, I was deep into my fourth quilt, a historic sampler with patterns from the 1800s and early 1900s. I also became interested in abstract and improvisational quilts and got excited to bring this new interest to my teaching practice.

Collecting Materials
The idea of hauling my personal sewing machine to and from school was daunting, so I turned to my neighborhood Facebook group. I requested a working sewing machine, explained my intended project, and someone in my area quickly offered me a machine she outgrew. For fabric, we used a yard each of affordable black and white cotton, complemented by scraps of old clothing, pillowcases, and curtains.

Gee’s Bend Quilts
For inspiration, we looked to the small town of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. In recent years, quilts from Gee’s Bend have been recognized for their improvisation and abstraction, a perfect inspiration for our collaborative art-making experience. The now-famous and very recognizable blankets, often made from old clothes and linens, hang in museums around the world.

My young students were introduced to these quilts through Patricia C. McKissack’s book, Stitchin’ and Pullin’: A Gee’s Bend Quilt, which explores their creation and history through poetry. I told students that we, too, would make a quilt, but unlike the quilters in Gee’s Bend, we would use a special tool: the sewing machine.

Starting with Quilt Blocks
In the first phase of this project, students created their own individual quilt blocks. Each morning before class, I cut strips of fabric about 6" (15 cm) long, adding squares and triangles when fabric scraps allowed.

We began our next class by looking at some exciting abstract quilts. I chose quilts I thought students would respond to and projected them on our white board. While we discussed these images, students explored how they would arrange compositions and play with shapes and colors.

At our worktable, four students sat with quilt boards, which were 12 x 12" (30 x 30 cm) pieces of quilt batting hot-glued to cardboard squares of the same size. They carefully chose and arranged the fabric pieces, smoothing them out as they went. When they were pleased with the design, they brought their quilt board over to the sewing machine.

Using a Sewing Machine
Each student had a turn with me as I demonstrated how to use the machine. Students practiced this sequence multiple times:

  • Lower the foot.
  • Start stitching (our Brother CS6000i has a start/stop button and an adjustable speed selector, so we didn’t have to use a presser foot).
  • At the end of your row, stop stitching.
  • Raise the needle.
  • Raise the foot.
  • Cut the thread.

Students’ quilt blocks were labeled with their name on the back, but the makers knew these individual artworks would eventually be assembled like a puzzle, just like the quilts we had been viewing and reading about.

Students weren’t ready to use hot irons and sharp scissors, so after class, I pressed each composition and used fabric scissors to trim them into loosely rectangular or square shapes.

Puzzling the Pieces
After five class periods, everyone had created at least one quilt block. Now it was time for “puzzling the pieces,” as McKissack puts it in Stitchin’ and Pullin’. She describes “Finding combinations of pieces that fit like a puzzle—taking a picture, telling a story.”

Everyone had a turn sewing their block to a friend’s block, resulting in strips, then the strips were trimmed by me and joined into a real quilt top! One class made a “puffy” quilt for the classroom’s play center (to keep the baby dolls warm), while other quilts were completed with a simple backing and fold-over binding.

I hand-stitched rings to the corners of the quilts for easy display. The finished quilts in the hallways and in the classrooms have become treasured artworks, and I love knowing that each student will remember having a hand in creating these cozy collaborations.

Sue Liedke is an art teacher at the Music Settlement School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a contributing editor for SchoolArts.

National Standard
Connecting: Relating artistic ideas and work with personal meaning and external context.

Stitchin’ and Pullin’: A Gee’s Bend Quilt

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