The Story Quilt

Intro · Historical Background · Student Activities · Booklists · Web Resources

A Program By Russ and Barb Childers

Bear Paw
  • The "Bear Paw" quilt block shown here echoes the name which Russ and Barb Childers created for themselves in 1983: Bear Foot!

    The STORY QUILT of Russ and Barb Childers takes students on an interactive, musical journey of the imagination. Audiences discover family stories, proverbs and word play, folk beliefs and folkways - but especially the stories, songs, dances, and games from Appalachian traditions. In the past, the fabrics that made up a handmade quilt often came from bits and pieces of a family's discarded clothing. If those scraps could talk, what memories would they reveal for today's child? Today, the artists use fiddle and banjo - and a full size quilt -- to find those threads that run true through our lives and connect our past to the present. From an actual 65" x 45" Story Quilt with 12 different quilt block designs, children choose from the blocks handmade by the artist's family and receive a story (and a fun-filled history lesson) unique to that pattern. For example, "See Saw" is a string trick learned from the artist's mother and now passed on to a willing child; "Shoo Fly" might be a delicious pie, but students sing and dance it, too; "Bow Tie" demonstrates the optical illusions of squares and triangles; "Nine Patch" prompts the artists to demonstrate an easy "hands on" way to learn the 9s multiplication table; "Jacob's Ladder" was a slave song in 1860s and a protest song for textile workers in the 1940s; "Fish Block" uncovers a tall tale about local fishing practices; "Schoolhouse" jumps to life with a banjo song; "Moon Over the Mountain" stirs up a fiddle tune about a midnight fox chase; and "Jack Knife" conjures up a Jack Tale -- and a dancing limberjack!

    Historical Background

    Since quilting first appeared in Mongolia in 100 B.C., many cultural groups around the world have engaged in similar piecework, patching together small scraps of fabric to create an artistic whole. Russ's grandmother in Eastern Kentucky and Barb's mother and grandmother in Ohio created quilts which are still in use by their families. Barb remembers hearing family stories associated with each scrap of material making up the Ohio Star quilt of her childhood. That quilt now hangs on a wall of the Childers' home in Batavia. At one time quilts were made for necessity, to provide warmth in the days when wood stoves and fireplaces inadequately heated small cabins. In those days, a cold winter's night might be determined to be a "three quilt night" -- or worse! -- causing quilts to be stacked high on the beds. But quilts were more than just practical objects. They also reflected the maker's eye for beauty as scraps of leftover fabrics were lovingly rescued, reused and recycled, combined in pleasing designs and patterns. Quilting was sometimes a solitary activity in isolated mountain dwellings, but the task became a welcome social activity when groups of quilters gathered to complete the quilts at community "quilting bees." As the English playwright and poet John Heywood (1497-1580) said "Many hands make light work!" It is not very hard at all to imagine how scraps of music and stories along with treasured family traditions were also passed along to the children underfoot at such events.

    Student activities to connect with the artist's visit

    These activities are based on patterns of quilt block squares:

  • Create a paper pinwheel based on the quilt pattern Pinwheel. These directions come from Pinwheels for Peace
    Shoo Fly
    Shoo Fly

  • Sing the "Shoo Fly" song in a call-and-answer style (e.g., 1st line -- girls, 2nd line -- boys, 3rd line -- both). Visit Songs for Teaching web site to listen and learn the lyrics.

  • Dance "Shoo Fly" as a folk dance. Arrange students in a circle. All face center with hands joined. For the chorus ("shoo fly don't bother me"), all raise arms as move forward 4 beats. All lower arms as move backward 4 beats. Repeat. For the first half of the verse ("I feel, I feel, I feel, I feel like a morning star"), slide clockwise for 8 beats, facing center of circle with hands joined. Slide counterclockwise second half of verse for 8 beats. Repeat from the beginning.

  • Make an Amish Shoo Fly pie. Find a recipe from NPR's Splendid Table. Don't forget to shoo the flies away!
    Nine Patch
    Nine Patch

  • Use construction paper to make nine 2" square patches. With another color, make nine more of the same size. Draw a 6" square block on a piece of paper. Staying inside the border of the larger block, use nine of the same-color smaller patches to form letters. Fill in any empty spaces with the background color. Rearrange the patches to make C, H, I, J, L, O, T, and U. How many are vowels? Consonants? How many words can you spell with those letters? Design a quilt using one letter turned all four directions. Here is an example using the letter H:

  • Nine Patch gets its name from the 9 small patches (squares) of the design. Use graph paper to help you "see" this. If the quilt square measures 9" on each side, what is the measurement of each "patch?" What does each side of the smaller squares measure if the large square measures 12"? 15"? Design a whole quilt on graph paper using the Nine Patch design. Decide whether to make a twin, double, queen, or king size quilt. You will have to research those sizes and decide how many Nine Patch blocks will fit in each direction. You will also want to play with the colors you want to use in your collection of Nine Patches!

  • You can use your fingers to remember the answers to the 9s multiplication table!'s-in-Multiplication-Using-Your-Hands
    Ohio Star
    Ohio Star

  • How many points are in an Ohio star? Draw a 6-pointed star by using 2 triangles.

  • Did you know that Betsy Ross recommended a 5-pointed star for our nation's flag over the 6-pointed star that George Washington preferred? Go to the U. S. History web site for directions on folding and cutting a 5-pointed star:

  • Some stars have even more points. What are the names of all 16 points of a Compass Rose? Here is a simplified version with only 8 points from Enchanted Learning:
    Fish Block
    Fish Block

  • A "fish tale" is a tall tale, or a story with a nugget of truth buried in a lot of comic exaggeration. Research some tall tales, also known as "windies" and whoppers. For some good examples, see Whopper, Tall Tales, and Other Lies by Alvin Schwartz.

  • Write a "fish tale" using some true events from your life.
    None Such
    None Such

  • Nonesuch, Kentucky, is on the Kentucky River between Harrodsburg and Lexington and is one of the creative names given to early Kentucky settlements, such as Hell-Fer-Sartin and Kingdom Come and Mousie and Marrowbone and Red Hot and Monkey's Eyebrow. Make up your own story about the origins of one of these unusual names -- or the name of a town in your locale. See Kentucky Place Names by Robert Rennick.
    Jacob's Ladder
    Jacob's Ladder

  • This quilt square design comforts us with a story from the Bible, which was frequently the only book in pioneer homes. It was not unusual that no one in the household could read the stories within, but the settlers knew them by heart. The story of Jacob's Ladder was a favorite and even retold in song form! Slaves sang the hymn in 19th century America; Pete Seeger rewrote the chorus and sang "workers of the South" during a textile workers protest in the '40s. Find the lyrics on the Traditional & Folk Songs web site at Sing along with the audio clip!

  • Make a toy called a Jacob's Ladder. Directions here:

  • Make a string figure called Jacob's Ladder. Directions here:

    Keep Your Own Patchwork Memory!

  • Collect a scrap of fabric from each family member (ask permission first!) to put together as a patchwork cover on a small journal. Make a pocket inside the book to hold old photographs of the family members (wearing the clothing from which the scrap of fabric came, if possible). Write a story based on what might be the result "if this fabric could talk."

    Paint a Quilt Block on Your School, Barn, Mailbox, or Birdhouse!

  • Donna Sue Grove's idea started a trail of quilts painted on barns through Adams County in Ohio. Take the trail or visit Appalachian Discovery online at In Brown County, Ohio, students designed and painted a barn quilt square as a class project to enrich their art, math, and heritage in a community project. Contact JoAnn Gaudio May at the Ripley Union Lewis Huntington School District.


      Ask your librarian for books about quilting. Here are a few of our favorite children's books:

    • Basket. George Ella Lyon. 1990. A story with a song based on a true event in the author's life.
    • The Bone Talker. Shelley A. Leedahl. 2000. An old woman's neighbors are unable to find a pastime she enjoys until a small child gives her two pieces of cloth, a needle, and thread.
    • The Elephant Quilt: Stitch by Stitch to California! Susan Lowell. 2008. Lily Rose and Grandma stitch a quilt that tells the story of their family's journey from Missouri to California by covered wagon in 1859.
    • Papa and the Pioneer Quilt. Jean Van Leeuwen. 2007. As her family travels by wagon train to Oregon, a young girl gathers scraps of cloth so that she can make a quilt.
    • The Quilt-Block History of Pioneer Days. Mary Cobb. 1995. Projects kids can make.
    • Stitchin' and Pullin': A Gee's Bend Quilt. Pat McKissack. 2008. As a young African American girl pieces her first quilt together, the history of her family, community, and the struggle for justice and freedom in Gee's Bend, Alabama, unfolds.
    • Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt. Deborah Hopkinson. 1993. A young slave stitches a quilt with a map pattern which guides her to freedom in the North.
    • That Summer. Tony Johnston. 2002. A family, including a child who is dying, sews together a quilt of its memories and love.
    • Eight hands round: a patchwork alphabet. Ann Whitford Paul. 1991. Pioneer life through 26 quilt patterns, one for each letter of the alphabet.
    • The seasons sewn: a year in patchwork. Ann Whitford Paul. 1996. Seasonal work of pioneers described by their quilt patterns.

    Web Resources

    The Internet is filled with web sites about quilting! Here are some of our favorites:

  • Quilt - Courtepointe - a Canadian film by Gayle Thomas fuses traditional music with traditional patterns in a dizzying do-si-do of possibilities

  • - the online quilt block pattern library

  • - images and historical information on hundreds of quilts from several major collections developed by the American Quilt Alliance.

  • - find quilt block designs and instructions while listening to music!

    For more booklists, web sites, and activity ideas, link to Russ Childers' web page at