Making Good: Community Story Quilts

Children made individual symbols to represent their favorite excursions, and since there were several symbols for some of the excursions, I gathered the symbols, cut them out, and assembled them with pieces I made and in larger ensembles to complete the stories for each place. The ensembles were then appliqued to a base design of the state of Alabama with a background of blue and tan rays. (photos by Bob Farley)

A community story quilt is a perfect project for any group, young and old alike. The idea can easily be adapted for family, school, summer camp, library reading programs, vacation bible school, or just for a group of friends, or a business group too. I’ve seen wedding quilts, friendship quilts, and nature quilts made by groups with a wide spectrum of skill levels. Community quilts are made using the same set of steps all over the world. Individuals make their own pieces, and then the parts are gathered, joined together, and made into one project by the group, and they are always made with love and care.

Several years since the conception of an idea, I finally found a school to work with in the creation of a community story quilt. I was delighted to find Red Mountain Community School, here in Birmingham, Alabama, eager and willing to take a leap of faith and commit time and effort towards the quilt even without knowing exactly what the end results would be. I stitched my thoughts and goals together as I developed the plan, hoping it would be an educational experience as well as an artistic expression. My hope was, through this kind of experience, and through a shared connection, the quilt would help participants gain a sense of pride and inspire a feeling of empowerment.

One kid made the treehouse symbol for Red Mountain Park, and another made the Vulcan statue. Both places are on Red Mountain, and they are all iconic features in Birmingham, so I cut out a mountain, applied the treehouse, a trail, and put Vulcan on his pedestal on the other ridge of the mountain. I stitched Red Mountain onto the panel to tie everything together.

It would be as much of an experiment for me as it would be for them. I had no idea if it would work out as I saw in my mind’s eye. I knew collaboration with groups can sometimes be tricky, and that there is always a risk for mismatched perceptions and expectations, but I also knew if I kept an open mind and an easy-going attitude, it just might work out. The beauty of collaboration is that if you allow the project to take its own course, let it happen organically, and trust people will work hard towards a common goal, it will be successful. You cannot and should not try to control the outcome. It is what it is, and whatever it becomes is beautiful.

One of the boys wanted to make a rock and tree that he saw at DeSoto State Park, in the north of the state. He didn’t think he could sew, but he did a beautiful job. A girl, and daughter of my artist friend who introduced me to the school, made the bicycle and helmet. She remembers repelling on the rocks and riding her bike in the park. I heard wonderful stories during the project.

The entrance to Cathedral Caverns was made by one child, and the hanging bat and stalactite and rock (tan suede) was made by another. The rock has a secret message tucked away and sewn inside. I completed the ensemble by building the cave like a map, separating the rooms by stalactite/stalagmite columns.

This story quilt was also a way to recycle some of the hoards of fabric in my sewing shack. I know that not everybody has the abundance of fabric as I do, but it is not hard to beg people to donate fabric for the cause. If you can’t find fabric, and if there are no sewers in the group? No problem, the story panels can be made of paper collage and then assembled on larger panels. It does not matter how the quilt is assembled, if in the traditional manner or a freestyle way, if everyone has fun and learns something along the way, it is a beautiful experience just the same.

I was so happy to see the kids pointing to the symbols they made. The boy (pictured) begged me to finish his symbol for him, and I wouldn’t. I was so proud of what he thought of and completed. I think he was proud of himself as well.

I loved watching the kids as they made their symbols and as they saw the finished piece for the first time. The older kids helped the younger kids, and everybody had fun making the quilt.

Tips to Plan and Make a Community Quilt

1 – Gather materials and tools. You’ll need canvas or muslin squares for each participant, various fabrics for symbols, multiple colors of thread, needles, pins, scissors, and one or more sewing machines.

2 – Brainstorm for a theme. Allow a theme to develop naturally. Find out what the group has in common by asking a series of questions. Follow each answer with more questions. I promise a theme will develop.

3 – Make a list of subjects. When the theme has been developed, make a list of all of components the group can think of. The list will be longer than what you will need for a quilt, but as the process continues, you’ll be able to pick and choose the best from the list and drop the rest.

4 – Figure out the symbols. Go through the subject list and have everyone participate in listing symbols to depict each subject. The imagery might be clearer for the group if the list is drawn instead of written. Have each person pick their symbol from the list.

5 – Distribute materials. Everyone will need a canvas or muslin square to sew their symbols on. Colorize fabrics and stack them for participants to sort through and choose pieces for their designs.

6 – Make the symbols on squares. Start stitching either by hand or by machine. Allow enough time for all participants to complete their symbols without pressure or frustration.

7 – Gather and assemble to finish the quilt. Assemble the quilt by any method the group or a lead maker feels is within their skill level. A freestyle method on top of a base design is fun, as the design can add another dimension to the story quilt. Sewing the panels in a more traditional way by assembling in a grid is just as lovely. It is easy to find inspiration by searching images on the web. One of my favorite inspirations is They Draw & Travel.

Topics of Discussion for an Educational Story Quilt

In working with a school, align the project with the school’s curriculum by addressing geography, history, and the environment through arts-integrated social studies with a goal of engaging visual literacy and critical thinking. Have the students to identify and define their own community and collaborate in the creation of a story quilt to symbolize their collective definition of community.

- What is community?

- Is community a place?

- Is community about the people in a place?

- Is community an emotional connection?

- Is community tied to past, present or future?

- How does your sense of community compare with others?

- Tell a story about your community using some or all of the answers to the above questions.

- Create a symbol to resemble that sense of community.

Topics of Discussion:

History, experiences and perspectives of others in the community, economics, civic responsibility, land use, land stewardship, environmental issues, community appearance, community perception (external and internal), likes and dislikes, shared connections, views of the past and hopes for the future

Have you every made a community quilt or other community art project? Why not start now?!

See my own sewing shack, where I brainstorm story quilts, community projects and much more, in the photo gallery below.

This post is part of our new Making Good series about makers who use their DIY skills to better their communities. Check back for more Making Good posts, including ideas you can bring to your own community.

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About Michelle Reynolds 

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I’m a slipcover maker who refuses to fill the trash with the cutaway bits of designer fabrics, so I strive to make use of every scrap. I live with my ...

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