Patterns of Inquiry

Worrall, Mary

Patterns of Inquiry: Quilts in Research and Education

A 2010 study found that there were over 27 million individuals engaged in some aspect of quiltmaking in the United States alone and millions more in countries around the world. In addition, hundreds, if not thousands of museums, cultural heritage centers, universities and higher education institutions, organizations, and businesses in the U.S. and around the world own quilts, display quilts, and use quilt-related programming to interact in traditional and creative ways with their audiences.

 Across disciplines, quilts are the basis for a wide range of scientific, scholarly, educational, and artistic investigations and applications. Patterns of Inquiry presents research and educational activities involving Michigan State University Museum’s long-standing interest in and commitment to quilt studies.

Why Are Quilts Made?

The reasons why quilts are made and how they are used are tremendously varied. Quilts are made and used most often for bed coverings. Quilts are made to commemorate important personal, family, community, and national occasions; as gifts; for bartering and trading; as instruments of social change and education; and as a means of earning a livelihood or supplementing income. The process of quilting has also been important to some individuals as a means of passing the time or as a distraction from negative activities or experiences in their lives. Some quilts are made to express the maker’s personal, creative ideas about color, texture, pattern, shape, and form.

Like most other expressive art forms, there are aspects of quiltmaking that are considered traditional and others that are construed as breaking away from traditions. The physical attributes of what constitutes a quilt, the methods of learning, the reasons for making, the roles of quilts in community, and the determinants of what constitutes a “good” quilt or an “innovative” quilt vary greatly, depending on cultural, social, ethnic, occupational, and aesthetic perspectives.

The Development of Quilt Studies: Feminism, Patriotism, Ethnic Studies and Object-Based Inquiries

Scholars first began at the turn of the 20th century to seriously research historical and contemporary dimensions of quiltmaking The rise of the feminist art movement in the 1960s and a heightened national interest in American history spawned by the nation’s bicentennial celebration in 1976 paved the way for a burst of interest in historical and contemporary American traditions, women’s artistic contributions, crafts in general and quiltmaking in particular. The simultaneous growth of ethnic studies, women’s studies, material culture studies, and a growing interest in interdisciplinary pursuits meant that scholars began to integrate quilt studies more fully into a broad range of humanities fields. As scholars turned their attention to “new voices,” and increasingly incorporated gender, ethnicity, and class into their work, they found that quilts provided important material for research and information about families, labor, and communities that did not exist through other oral, written, or more traditional archival records.

The Quilt Index

The Quilt Index ( is an online tool for centralized public access to public and private collections of quilts and quilt-related materials. It is a project of Michigan State University Museum, MSU’s MATRIX, and the Alliance for American Quilts. The research and development of the Quilt Index has been supported by major grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services with additional support from many individuals and organizations around the world.

Having free online searchable access to tens of thousands of thematic material culture items from physically distributed collections offers extraordinary new opportunities for educators and learners from many different disciplines. The Index also provides a platform for innovative research by individuals who previously were unaware of the potential for diverse inquiries that quilts and the digital repository offers.

The Quilt Index and the Digging Into Data Project

How do you research a million quilts?  The Digging Into Data Project is making use of new digital methods for visual searching and pattern recognition to find ways for researchers to more easily use vast amounts of quilt data for research purposes. The Quilt Index's enormous bed of systematic textual and visual data provides a test bed for development of algorithms to isolate salient characteristics (such as color, or line/pattern shapes) to sort through massive numbers of image objectsin this case, quiltsto be able to investigate important scientific and humanistic questions.

The Digging Into Data Project is a collaboration of the MSU Museum (, MSU’s MATRIX (, Image Spatial Data Analysis Group (, Institute for Computing in Humanities, Arts, and Social Science (, National Center for Supercomputing Applications (, University of Illinois Libraries (, and Humanities Research Institute (

Quilts and Education
 As part of learning to make quilts, whether at home or in classes or on their own, artists inevitably also learn about mathematics (i.e. measuring and calculating needed fabric or in figuring the layout of pattern designs); family history (i.e. through hearing stories about who had worn which recycled fabrics, whose names were embroidered on blocks, or whose pattern was being used); aesthetics (i.e. what colors were thought to look best together or how many stitches per inch were deemed necessary for quality); chemistry (i.e. which fabrics or dyes would hold up or what should be used to clean finished textiles); and values (i.e. the need within some religious, family, or community groups to make quilts to support causes or the needy), and much more.  The Quilt Index’s Wiki has a number of resources to assist educators and learners in using the Index in their teaching and research activities.

Quilts and Curriculum
 Using quilts as learning tools in new ways has become a part of K-university curricula. Several books have been printed on quiltmaking for youth but the first major publication that has expansively tied quilts to curriculum was Quilting Circles, Learning Communities developed by historians, folklorists, K-12 teachers, and artists who participated in the 2004 and 2005 Arts, Curriculum and Community conferences by the Wisconsin Arts Board and the University of Wisconsin’s Office of Education Outreach. To answer the question “why should students study quilts at all?” conference organizers Anne Pryor and Nancy B. Blake respond, “…[L]earning to see everyday objects with informed eyes is a gateway to creative thinking. Working within a familiar form is an effective way to reach at-risk children and to challenge high-achievers to apply new insights.” At least one of the book’s lesson plans was based on the Quilt Index.

Quilts and Math
 Patchwork and appliqué quilts can be designed to illustrate a variety of mathematical concepts, such the Pythagorean Theorem, Fibonacci triangles and sequences, Sierpinski triangles, spirals, fractals, golden ratio, and tessellations. Using such quilts, as visual aids and as art projects, in the classroom provides a concrete context by which to understand abstract concepts, build connections in students’ minds across disciplines, and encourage creative mathematical thinking. The Quilt Index team has begun developing a research interest group that plans to create tools for using the Index to more effectively teach math concepts, especially to students who can resonate with this art form familiar to them through home and community.

Cyberlearning and the Quilt Index
 The Quilt Index has developed a new partnership with the Teacher Education program at the MSU College of Education and with computer science researchers from the University of Minnesota-Morris who work with computer applications for teaching mathematical thinking with quilt geometry. A proposal has been developed that will conduct extensible research on using large cultural heritage databases for inquiry based learning, using the Quilt Index as the test bed and constructing a distinct learning environment. The learning environments will include an online tool for organizing upper elementary and middle school students’ process and the project will include two test streams—one on developing historical thinking using primary resources and another on developing mathematical thinking using lenses to explore the mathematical properties for a quilt and learn how to understand symmetry.

Quilts and Social Justice
 Textiles have long been used, mainly by women, as a medium to express feelings, values, and experiences that reflect upon and motivate action related to issues and needs in contemporary society. Studies of women’s activities in the nineteenth century in the U.S. clearly document extensive engagement in social reform movements, including using needle skills to raise conscience about injustices or issues that they felt needed to be addressed. When other avenues to engage in support for these causes were denied women, making quilts proved an effective tool to demonstrate their convictions and to channel skills and energies that would make a difference in the causes they believed in.  
Textile artists continue to use their skills to express issues related to social justice. In some cases, textiles have been produced by individual makers who, working alone, simply wish to make a statement; others have been produced by women working in organized efforts to subversively or overtly protest against human rights abuses or to record the histories and memories of individuals whose stories traditionally are overlooked and under-recorded.

Quilts and Health
 Name a disease or illness and you will find at least one quilt related to this disease that has been made in support of personal well-being, health education, patient advocacy, memorialization of victims, and/or fundraising. For some diseases you will find not just one quilt but literally thousands as in the case of the NAMES AIDS Memorial Quilt Project. Collectively, the number of quilts made and used by individuals, their caregivers and advocates, and by health professionals around the world is in the tens of thousands. The number of quilts is staggering. A multi-disciplinary cluster of individuals representing the Great Lakes Quilt Center/Michigan State University Museum, the MSU College of Human Medicine, and other university partners have begun to examine the intersection of quilts and quiltmaking and health. 
Exhibition Credits
Patterns of Inquiry was presented at the Michigan State University Museum from June 3 - September 23, 2012.

 Exhibit Curator: Mary Worrall
 Curatorial Consultant: Marsha MacDowell
 Graphic Designer: Smita Sawai
 Collections Management: Lynne Swanson and Beth Donaldson
 Object and Installation Photography: Pearl Yee Wong
 Installation: Juan Alvarez
 Installation Team: Meredith Brown, Elleda Groeneveld, Katie Nowinski, Amanda Rzotkiewicz, and  Stephanie Wottreng
 Educational Activities: Mary Worrall and Stephanie Wottreng
 Marketing and Communications: Lora Helou and Stephanie Palagyi
 Administrative Services: Jilda Keck and Sue Schmidtman
 Information Technology: Sunny Wang
 Facilities Management: Mike Secord
 MSU Museum Director: Gary Morgan
Special thanks to Clare Luz, Justine Richardson, Dean Rehberger, and Amanda Sikarskie.
This exhibition was supported by a Creating Inclusive Excellence grant from the MSU Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives and by the College of Human Medicine. Portions of the exhibition were based on research on the Quilt Index that was supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Digging Into Data Challenge sponsored by the Joint Information Systems Committee, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.




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