U.S. history, piece by piece


Sherri Dawson gingerly pierces her fabric with a needle as she puts the finishing touches on a quilt that tells a poignant story in American history.

"Quilts were used during the Underground Railroad to tell slaves which way to go to escape," she explains, pointing to a pattern that features arrows with a backdrop of a sky.

Sherri, 13, is among seven eighth-graders in the Gifted and Talented Program at Wilde Lake Middle School in Columbia who have been chosen to participate in a project that uses quilts to teach American history.

Kristen Frangie, a Gifted and Talented education specialist at the school, said she was inspired to oversee the project after speaking with fellow teachers about art projects they had successfully tried with their pupils.

"The students were engaged in the process of researching American history and investigating the way quilts were used during the days of the pioneers to pre-Civil War, post-Civil War and the Great Depression," Frangie said.

After completing research papers on their respective topics last fall, the pupils began meeting twice a week in their school's media center to work on their quilts. Frangie, along with two community volunteers, helped the pupils design and stitch.

"They had to learn everything, from beginning with a sketch, creating a template and sewing," she said.

Most of the pupils had no sewing experience, so the "seam ripper," was used a lot, Frangie said with a grin.

"This hasn't been a fast process," she added. "I think they've all been able to apply their own creativity to the project. It's also been a wonderful way to express their own personality."

Amanda Cummins and Colleen McSweeney, both 13, teamed up to sew a quilt about the Civil War.

Their quilt depicts the words "hope" and "free," along with a flag.

"We decided to do a quilt on the Civil War because we have always thought that this period was really interesting," said Amanda.

"It represents freedom," added Colleen.

Nancy Berla and Jill Leiberg, both experienced sewers, volunteered to help with the quilting and said they believed the pupils learned many lessons.

"I think it required the process of problem-solving," Berla said. "There were a lot of mistakes ... but I'm sure they feel proud of doing something, from beginning to end."

Leiberg added, "We live in such a ready-made world that I think it was empowering for them to create something."

Alex Stewart, 13, sitting at a sewing machine, talked about how he focused on the Underground Railroad.

"I know that slaves used quilts a lot to show them how to escape to the North," he said while completing a quilt that used dark blues and white stars to represent the sky.

The hardships experienced by those who lived during the Great Depression led Alex Rubin, 14, to develop a quilt for that period.

"I really wasn't aware of everything they went through. It was a lot harder [than I thought]," he said.

Alex used a checkered, nine-patch pattern for his quilt.

"The women made the quilts and sold them for money or used them for warmth," he said.

Matt Kim, 14, designed and sewed a Log Cabin quilt, the type that was used during slavery.

"When this quilt was hung out at any house, it meant it was a place for slaves to refresh, and for those who needed food," he said.

With needle in hand, Sofija Canavan, worked diligently on her Lone Star quilt.

"It's from the pioneer period, and I used a flower and star in it," she said. "The quilts [during that period] were used for warmth or spread out for children to play on them. They were also used as currency," she said.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad