Lesson Plans:
Quilts and the Underground Railroad

Subject(s)/Grade(s): Art, 4-5
Related Subjects: Social Studies, Language Arts, Geometry

Learning Outcomes

  1. Students will learn about the use of quilt patterns as symbols for slaves escaping across the Appalachians on the Underground Railroad.
  2. Using the book, Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad (1998, Tobin and Dobard), students will choose a quilt pattern.
  3. Students will make a quilt pattern pillow. Rather than actually quilting, students will be appliquéing a quilt pattern to a felt backing).
  4. Upon completion, pillows will be displayed and a brief story written by each student on how their pattern is significant and why they chose it. It is important to explain that the process of interpreting quilt patterns as slave symbols is hypothetical and has been contested and supported alternately by different historians.


  • Felt
  • Backing Fabrics
  • Cotton Fabric Swatches
  • Embroidery Thread
  • Needles
  • Pins
  • Scissors
  • Pillow Stuffing Material
  • Paper Patterns of Quilt Types


  1. Students will learn about the use of quilts for symbols along the Underground Railroad and what the different patterns meant to the escaping slaves. Read Patchwork Path: A Quilt Map to Freedom.
  2. Students will choose a pattern to create as a pillow.
  3. Students will take a square of felt, and then choose cotton swatches for their quilt pattern.
  4. Swatches will be cut according to the paper pattern (created by teacher based on the book).
  5. Swatches will be folded under around the edges and ironed, then pinned in place on felt; this will be done until entire pattern is secured.
  6. Using large embroidery thread, students will use a blanket stitch to stitch swatches in place.
  7. Students will then choose backing fabric and sew backing and quilted felt together insides facing out.
  8. When three and a half sides are sewn, students will then pull the pillow right side out.
  9. Students will stuff pillow, then finishing sewing the fourth side.
  10. When pillows are complete, students will write a short piece addressing why they selected a particular pattern and why the student believes it could have been significant to an escaping slave seeking to communicate through symbology.


  1. Students will receive credit for step-by-step completion of the quilt project.
  2. Students will share their explanatory narrative with the class.
  3. Each student will receive feedback from teacher and class regarding their understanding of the lesson and their own creative product. Discussion topics will include how effective this communication method might have been. The class may also discuss a relative contemporary situation.

North Carolina Curriculum Alignment

  • Art Objectives 2.01, 2.02
  • Social Studies Objective 2.04


  • Tobin, J. & Dobard, R. Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad.New York: Doubleday, 1999.
  • Stroud, B. The Patchwork Path: A Quilt Map to Freedom. Cambridge: Candlewick Press, 2005.

-Submitted by Jennifer Robinson, Mitchell County Schools