Science Story Quilts

Introduction: Science Story Quilts

About: The Lesley STEAM Learning Lab is a center designed to research new opportunities for learning through engagement and inquiry-based exploration.

A story quilt consists of pictures, sound, scents and textures that are used to tell a story. You make a story quilt by hand either on your own or with others to tell a story of a moment, an event, a feeling that is important to you.

The goal of this workshop is to create a story quilt that builds and cultivates your identity as a scientist. This includes learning about scientists who come from diverse backgrounds; then you will learn how to make and using sustainable dyes to color fabric for the quilt.

To begin explore the following links about artists who explore science and quilts, real scientists and fictional ones:

Artist-Scientists Who Make Quilts/Quilts as Art + Science:

Real Scientists

Fictional Scientists (comics, films)

What other real and/or fictional scientists can you add to this list?


Large paper or poster board (at least 12" x 16")

Light-colored or white scrap paper


2-3 small plastic containers

Craft glue or glue stick (ex. Elmer's)

Pencils, pens or markers

Ingredients for natural dyes (see Step 3)

Note: The optional Extension Activity requires additional supplies (see Step 4).

Step 1: What Are Story Quilts?

This project is inspired by Faith Ringgold, an African American artist who was born in 1930 in Harlem, New York City, and is best known for her large, painted story quilts.

Quilts encode Indigenous mathematical ideas, social messages, and other systems for turning patterns into meaning. Scholars call these quilt codes “heritage algorithms”. You can learn how to simulate quilting in African American, Appalachian, Native American, Pacific Islander, Celtic, and Asian traditions here:

Quilting uses small scraps of fabric to make blankets and other textiles. It was originally based on discarded cloth, so the traditions often came from low income communities. Reuse of cloth also benefits the environment by reducing waste. For this project we will be using paper instead of fabric and natural dyes to add color to the paper.

When creating your science story quilt think about what message the quilt will send to people who see it. You may even want to create a storyboard.

Step 2: Making the Scientist Blocks

This part of the project will help you develop an awareness of who scientists can be and to counteract stereotypes people have about them.

Cut six 4" square patches from paper to create drawings of scientists (see example above). Choose scientists whose backgrounds, or stories are of interest to you.

In addition to the six scientist patches, make an 8" square patch for a drawing of you or someone you know as a scientist (for the center of the quilt). When creating your patches think about

  • Illustrating (picturing) the story of a scientist
  • Describing the scientists you chose to draw
  • Describing scientists in general

Use the Science Quilt Template to help you measure and create the paper blocks for your quilt.

Step 3: Use Natural Dyes & Select Your Colors

For your quilt you will be making 2-3 natural dyes to color your paper patches. Natural dyes, made from food scraps that would otherwise go unused, can inspire creative opportunities that reduce food waste. Creating them requires experimenting with ingredients to see what colors emerge. Below is a list of common food scraps and the colors they create (choose 2-3 colors/ingredients):

• Orange: carrots, onion skins

• Brown: walnut hulls, tea, coffee, acorns

• Pink: berries, avocado skins and seeds

• Blue: red cabbage, blueberries, purple grapes

• Red-brown: pomegranates, beets, hibiscus (reddish color flowers)

• Grey-black: blackberries, walnut hulls, iris root

• Red-purple: basil leaves, pokeweed berries, huckleberries

• Green: artichokes, sorrel roots, spinach, lilacs, grass, plantain, peach leaves

• Yellow: bay leaves, sunflower petals, paprika, turmeric, celery leaves

Step 4: Make the Natural Dye Patches

Using light-colored or white scrap paper, cut out ten 1.5" squares. Make at least 1/2 cup of natural dye for each color:

Boil 1-2 cups of water.

Pour 1/2 cup of boiling water into a small container; pour another 1/2 cup in a different container.

Add 1 tablespoon of your chosen food/plant ingredients (ex. turmeric, frozen blueberries) to each container. You may have to grate or mash up the materials before adding them to the boiling water. You can use a spoon or fork to extract more color from the materials in the containers.

Soak 5 squares in one color/container and 5 squares in the other one. The longer you soak the squares the darker the colors will be when dried (10-15 minutes should be enough time).

Place the dyed paper patches on a paper towel or cardboard to air dry.

Step 5: Extension Activity: Paper Chromatography

Instead of using food ingredients you can try chromatography or "color writing" that refers to the method of separating out a mixture of pigment molecules, such as chlorophyll and anthocyanins, that are contained within plant leaves. Paper chromatography lets these molecules (colors) seep or leak slowly into paper. The plant cells in the leaves need to be torn open to expose their pigment molecules. When torn leaves are placed in a small amount of alcohol (solvent) and the alcohol evaporates, it will pull the pigment up the paper, separating pigments according to size (largest will move the shortest distance).

Here's what you'll need:

  • Leaves (more than one type for better results)
  • Small jars with lids (drinking glasses with covers will also work)
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Coffee filters or whatever paper you have on hand
  • Hot water
  • Shallow pan
  • Pencils or markers
  • Kitchen utensils


  1. Tear up 2-3 large leaves and put them in a jar with a small amount of rubbing alcohol (to cover the leaves).
  2. Cover the jar and put it in a shallow pan containing hot tap water. Let set in hot water for 30 minutes (keep water hot) or when the alcohol has picked up color from the leaves.
  3. Cut a long strip of coffee filter paper, dip one end in the alcohol and hang the other end from a marker or pencil.
  4. Leave the paper in the alcohol for an hour, remove and allow to dry.
  5. Repeat steps as necessary to create more paper.

Step 6: Color Your Scientist Patches

You can use your natural dyes to tint or paint your scientist patches. Use a paint brush or sponge and the remaining natural dyes to add color to your patches; this includes the center ("You, the Scientist") patch.

Step 7: Assemble Your Quilt

Using craft glue (ex. Elmer's) and the Science Quilt Template for reference you can adhere the patches to your base sheet of paper or poster board (12" x 16").

But before you glue anything down think about the story you are telling; arrange the patches around the center square (You, the Scientist) based on your story.

Once your science story quilt is assembled you can use a pen or marker to write or draw on it (see example above).

This work is made possible by support from STAR, a Biogen Foundation Initiative. The team at Lesley supporting this initiative includes faculty and staff in the Lesley STEAM Learning Lab, Science in Education, the Center for Mathematics Achievement, and other related Lesley University departments and programs.

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