Quilting Offers Multidisciplinary Exploration of Math and Art

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Math & art are often seen as opposites; however, at the intersection of the two lies quilting: an inherently mathematical art form.

Families can explore everything from shape identification to tessellations by learning to create quilts together! Often, math and art are seen as opposites: structure and the lack thereof. However, at the intersection of the two lies quilting: an inherently mathematical art form.

Art and math are often seen as being disconnected and opposite from one another: one offering structure and systematic methods, and the other following no predetermined procedures and adhering to no rules. However, the two are very closely linked. By finding the overlap between creativity and mathematical concepts, families can discover context for and the purpose of some of math’s big ideas.

Quilting offers a fantastic creative entry point for learning math at any age or level. Impossible without basic geometry concepts, quilting involves a great deal of math. The most obvious and easily accessible math topic to explore through quilting is geometry, as all quilts are designed and created based on a complex pattern whose roots lie in the properties of the shapes of the pieces from which it is made. Of course, quilting requires some sewing skills, but as long as you can sew in a straight line, you can make a quilt.

Quilters (or aspiring quilters) of any age can benefit from the math-specific experiential learning inherent in quilting, whether using a pattern or creating one of their own. Using a specific pattern to make a quilt involves careful measurement and can perhaps require unit conversions and basic calculations like doubling, tripling, or halving quantities. In addition, following a quilt pattern offers opportunities to identify shapes and explore their properties. This activity can range in complexity from finding squares and rectangles to breaking down irregular polygons into smaller pieces to determine their area and/or perimeter.

Creating quilts using an original pattern offers even more opportunities to put math skills into context and beautifully blends creativity with math concepts. The easiest quilts to design are made from a series of square blocks: quilting mathematicians can design one block by carefully combining squares, rectangles, and triangles or design a quilt where no two blocks are alike. Designing quilt blocks means paying close attention to each shape’s measurements (and adding 1/4 inch to each measurement for seams!) and finding the easiest and/or most logical way to recreate the drawn pattern using fabric pieces. Additionally, original quilt designs can offer an opportunity to practice math skills. Quilters could, for example, use the project as an opportunity to practice finding fractional proportions of a shape – using each quilt block as an opportunity to show 1/2 differently. Quilt blocks filled with shapes that fit into a specific category – like right triangles or regular trapezoids – are another possibility. Almost any geometry topic applies, and the possibilities are endless!

For help getting started, families can look to the resources offered on Mathwire’s Mathematical Quilting page. Expertly crafted ideas for incorporating big math topics such as pi, tessellations, and perspective into quilts can be seen in the online gallery of quilter and mathematician Elaine Krajenke Ellison.

Titles to support explorations of the intersection of math and quilting include:

Make quilting even more multi-disciplinary by adding in a literature study of Lisa Campbell Ernst’s Sam Johnson and the Blue Ribbon Quilt or by exploring the history of the local textile industry!

[Photo credits: (cc) Rossana Ramani; (cc) Lesley Scott]

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