Piecing it Together

By Jennifer Pricola — March 01, 2001 1 min read
Geometry plus sewing equals knowledge in Robyn Sturgeon’s math class
—Allison Shelley.

Observe any of Robyn Sturgeon’s fall-semester geometry classes at Sussex Technical High School in Georgetown, Delaware, and you’ll wonder whether she’s teaching mathematics or home economics. Discussions of linear equations compete with the hum of Singer sewing machines as students confer with Sturgeon on their graphing exercises—and the neatness of their stitching.

Sturgeon’s classes, which include freshmen, sophomores, and seniors, apply the principles of geometry to quilting. Working in groups of four or five, students choose two overarching themes—one geometric and one historical (such as the Civil War)—for their quilts, then divvy up work on the individual blocks. In addition, students submit to-scale graphs of their designs, including equations for each line of their respective blocks, and calculate translation, rotation, and reflection properties for their entire quilt.

“My biggest thing is for them to see where geometry is in the real world,” says Sturgeon. “It surrounds them.”

Oddly, Sturgeon was not an accomplished seamstress when she introduced her course in 1999—"I could barely sew a button on,” she admits. But when a colleague suggested that Sturgeon incorporate quilting into the hands-on geometry curriculum she was writing, she loved the idea. Sussex Tech doesn’t have a home ec department, so Sturgeon called on friends who were quilting hobbyists to teach her and the students to sew. These days, she can thread a Singer and handle a bobbin like a pro.

The first year, Sturgeon’s three classes finished 12 quilts. This year, thanks in part to a grant enabling her to buy three brand-new sewing machines and other supplies—the cost of materials such as matting, thread, and cutting boards runs about $1,000—Sturgeon extended the course to include two more classes. The kids produced 22 quilts, each approximately three feet wide by four feet long.

At the end of the semester, the students donate their finished products to pediatric hospital patients. It’s clear that the teenagers, who often come in before school, work through lunch, or stay well past three o’clock to finish, are learning more than how to manipulate parallel lines and angles. According to one student’s journal: “I didn’t make a quilt for a good grade. I made my quilt for the spirit of giving to others.”