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Famous African-American Fabric Portraits

Teacher Lesson




  • Language Arts




  • 6-12


Brief Description

This lesson uses a "hands-on" approach for teaching students about famous African Americans. Students research a person's life and then make fabric transfer portraits and informational booklets.




Students will


  • research a famous person in African-American history.
  • summarize historic information.
  • give an oral report.
  • make a fabric portrait.



    Africa, famous, African-Americans, biography



    Materials Needed


  • man's handkerchief (one per student) or a white piece of cloth the same size as a handkerchief (cut from a sheet, for example)
  • biographies and pictures or drawings of famous African Americans (some library and Internet resources provided)
  • fabric crayons (found at craft stores and most large discount department stores)
  • colored construction paper (1 sheet per student)
  • white copy paper
  • newspaper or scrap copy paper
  • electric iron
  • 8- x 10-inch picture frame, or construction paper or mat board cut the to 8- x 10-inch size
  • computer with Internet access (optional)


    Lesson Plan


    Provide students with a list of the names of famous African Americans. The list might include contemporaries figures, such as Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods, Venus and Serena Williams, and Whitney Houston, or historical figures, such as Mary McLeod Bethune, Harriet Tubman, Benjamin Banneker, and George Washington Carver. If you would like older students to compile their own list, they might use the Biography Resources below.

    Have students follow the instructions below:

  • Select an African American from the list and research that person's life.
  • Draw or trace a picture of the person on a piece of (white) copy paper. The art can be an original work or a tracing from another resource.
  • Turn over the paper and trace the picture in reverse. Students might place the paper on a lighted overhead projector or press it against a window if tracing is difficult. Another alternative is to use a pencil to trace the image and then use a bold marker to trace over it. (Caution: The bold marker might bleed through the paper, so be sure to have newspaper or scrap paper under the sheet you are drawing on.)
  • Color the reversed picture with fabric crayons. (Color heavily because all the color will not transfer when ironed.)
  • Place the colored reverse picture face down on a white handkerchief or a white piece of cloth. Place another piece or two of white scrap paper on top of the reversed picture to prevent the colors from transferring to the iron.
  • Place the picture on an appropriately padded surface. Slowly move the hot iron over the "face-down" picture.


    SUGGESTION: For the sake of safety, especially with students in the elementary grades, I recommend that teachers do all the ironing.

    When all the fabric portraits are done, have students cut away -- or fold under -- the excess fabric, and mount the finished portrait in an 8- x 10-inch picture frame. Students are now ready to make an informational booklet to accompany their fabric portrait. Following are some simple instructions/suggestions to provide your students:

  • Fold a piece of construction paper in half horizontally; then fold it again in fourths to make a small booklet.
  • On the front of the booklet, write the name of the person you selected as the subject of your portrait.
  • Draw a picture of that person or draw a picture of something symbolic of that person's life.
  • Inside the booklet, write ten important facts about that person's life. When students have finished their booklets, set aside class time for them to share their work. Display the framed fabric portraits and informational booklets in the classroom or library as part of a Black History Month exhibit.

    Extension Activities

  • Invite some students to make an audio tape of additional information to accompany their fabric portraits. That way, visitors to the exhibit will be able to take a walking tour of the exhibit.
  • When the exhibit is dismantled, have students remove their pictures from the frames and ask a PTO volunteer to sew together the portraits to create a Black History Quilt. Display the quilt each February or throughout the year.

    Some Suggested Resources

  • magazines, such as Ebony and Jet
  • Portraits in Black by Doris Metcalf
  • Portraits of African-American Achievers by Doris Metcalf
  • Portraits of Outstanding African-American Women by Doris Metcalf
  • Portraits of Contemporary African-Americans by Doris Metcalf
  • African-Americans, Their Impact on American History by Doris Metcalf

    Biography/Event Resources on the Internet
    Following are a handful of excellent resources for developing a list of famous Black Americans from which students can select or research:

  • Notable African Americans This list, which includes more than 300 names (click A to Z List) with links to brief bios, is probably the best starting point. Students can use library resources or a favorite search engine to find more specific information about any individual.
  • The Encyclopedia Britannica Guide to Black History Click an era in African-American history and find links to a wide variety of biographies.
  • Black History in America: Trailblazers
  • Prominent African Americans




    Use various criteria including neatness of fabric portrait, accuracy and neatness of the informational booklet, and oral presentation to assess this lesson.


    Submitted By


    Doris Metcalf (retired), Florence City Schools, Alabama


    Originally published 02/13/2003
    Last updated 12/30/2014


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