by Suzanne Labry
Elaine Ellison’s Mathematical Quilts
Elaine Ellison grew up with power tools. The basement of her family home in Michigan was full of all manner of drills and saws, and her father taught her how to use them.
She remembers always doing things with her hands and wanting to be an artist, but when
it came time for her to attend university, her practical-minded mother insisted that she study “something that would enable me to support myself,” Elaine laughs, as she recalled her youth.
She took her mother’s advice and eventually earned several degrees (B.A. in Mathematics, M.A. in Mathematics Education, and Ed.S. in Educational Administration) that gave her a lifelong career as a math teacher. She taught students at West Lafayette High School in West Lafayette, Indiana, while also teaching mathematics methods to future high school teachers at Purdue University.
In her spare time, she continued to pursue art in various media, mainly photography, drawing, painting, and bronze work. It was not until the 1980s that she discovered the book that changed her life: Geometry and the Visual Arts, by British mathematician Daniel Pedoe.
“When I read that book, I realized I could combine all my interests in a way that would inspire my students as well as myself,” she says. “Not long after that, the idea of using quilts as a teaching tool came to me. Although I had learned to sew clothing in Home Economics classes, and even before that I had made lots of things like doll clothes, the thought of using fabric—and particularly quilts—as a medium for teaching math was a revelation.”
She began making quilts that illustrated geometric and mathematical principles for use in her math lessons. She co-authored (with Dr. Diana Venters) two books on using quilts as the springboard for explaining mathematical theorems and formulas in the classroom: Mathematical Quilts and More Mathematical Quilts.
“Landmarks in Algebra,” 82”X40”, by Elaine Ellison. Photograph by Miguel Figueras.
The books contain lesson plans, hands-on activities, and quilt patterns that teach “deep-level” math concepts in a creative, accessible way from elementary grades through high school. Elaine’s math quilts have been exhibited all over the world, and the London Science Museum owns six of them. Hundreds of teachers and thousands of students (directly and indirectly) have been able to understand challenging concepts in a visual, tactile manner.
Elaine Ellison is the kind of math teacher we all wish we could have had.
She retired in 2005, but Elaine Ellison in retirement looks like everybody else still working. She is a sought-after speaker who lectures and provides workshops to pre-service
teachers, quilters, museums, and art groups. She makes quilts. She writes and delivers academic papers and travels the world. She is a member of the international Bridges Organization, which aims to “foster research, practice, and new interest in mathematical connections to art, music, architecture, education, and culture.” She’ll be making a presentation at this year’s Bridges conference at the National Museum of Science and Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. She is one of very few Bridges participants who uses quilts to make the art/math connection.
Elaine Ellison is also adding to the multiplicity of uses for quilts. There’s a lesson in