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Amish Quilts: A Special Heritage

 

The visitor to Amish Country today will have no problem finding quilts, but most are made today to meet the commercial tastes of modern visitors. Many people are familiar with the "traditional antique Amish quilts" seen in so many art books. Amish quilts are works of art. Originally seen as items of folk craft, they are now recognized as worthy to hang in the most prestigious museums and collections.

The earliest dated Amish quilt appears to have been made in 1849, and the next dated one comes from the year 1860. Quilt historians say the Amish learned quilting techniques from their American neighbors, since it was never a major form of German folk art. Robert Hughes, famous art critic and historian, notes that "the work of Amish quilt makers in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, between about 1870 and 1950 was one of the finest aesthetic forms in America."

It did take some time for people to look at quilts as art. Indeed, we often come to appreciate folk art when the people and traditions that produce it have almost disappeared. When such folk art does become "popular," it often changes to meet the tastes of those outside the community for whom it is then produced. Hughes notes that our idea of folk art as "simple" work done by "anonymous" craftsmen needs to be challenged…

"We have to drop the snootiness that goes with looking at the artifacts of a ‘simpler’ way of life than ours, because the life of rural communities is not simple and never was. By the same token it is a good idea to think twice about the figure of the folk artist as a ‘humble, anonymous’ craftsman or craftswoman. This is a figment of the sophisticated."

Hughes goes on to say that everyone knew who made the quilts they saw or received within the family or community. Indeed, with quilts often given by the Amish as wedding gifts, or as a special remembrance, the identity of the maker was valued perhaps more than the quilt itself. There was little need to sign the quilt since the maker was hardly anonymous. Our modern eyes forget this social context when we look at an "anonymous" quilt on a museum wall.

 

Hughes also notes that quilting was a woman’s art form. "Most of the finest works of art made by women in the late 19th century came from people who had no ideas at all about a career as professional artists—including the wives and daughters of Amish farmers."

The classic Amish quilts of Lancaster County are different from other Amish quilts and many feel those of Lancaster are among the finest ever made. But what’s so special about the quilts made by the Amish of Lancaster County? Why did these designs and colors make them so highly prized by collectors?

Hughes says it all has to do with "a spareness of design pulled back from dogmatic rigor by its inventive quirks, a magnificent sobriety of color, a balanced amplitude of conception, a truly human sense of scale." According to Hughes, we find these characteristics of classic Lancaster Amish quilts:

  1. Large, geometrical color fields instead of patchwork patterns

  2. A central design sitting within a narrow inner border (instead of repeated, all-over blocks), and a wider, outer border finished with an added binding, usually of a contrasting color.

  3. Deep, saturated colors, with the use of black only for accent.

  4. Their own peculiar designs, like Diamond in the Square.

  5. Incomparably more elaborate quilting than by Amish in other areas.

  6. Fabric tends to be fine wool, not cotton.

  7. There is no depictive imagery, no patterned cloth.

  8. The quilts are characteristically made from very few pieces.

 

 


Since the Lancaster Amish tended to be more prosperous than those of other areas, there was less concern about using scraps in quilt making. While we may see many pieces in some of these classic Lancaster quilts, other quilts of that time were often made up of some several hundred or even thousands of pieces from saved scraps of cloth. But classic Lancaster Amish quilts consist of large pieces of cloth in solid colors, and Amish women would simply buy the same fabric they used to make shirts and dresses for their quilts. These broad expanses of color, elaborately quilted, gave Lancaster Amish quilts their special quality.

These classic quilts were usually 72 to 88 inches square, and the color of the quilting thread usually blended with the color of the cloth. Later quilts of the 1940’s used more floral designs and fewer abstract and geometric patterns in the quilting. They may be less densely quilted because more synthetic cloth was then being used, and making fine, tiny stitches in such material was more difficult.

Thus, as fabric changed, so did the quilt colors. Before 1900, browns and darker colors were most common. In the early 1900’s, more colors became available, and rayon was being domestically produced by 1910. By the 1920’s, intense, bright colors were seen in Amish quilts in Lancaster.

Many people think every part of these old quilts was done by hand. This was not necessarily the case. Many quilts were top pieced on sewing machines. (The treadle sewing machine was in use by the 1870’s.) The quilting, however, was done by hand and "Lancaster Amish women were long considered the very finest quilters anywhere."

The Lancaster Amish also appeared to be the least experimental of the Amish groups. When there was innovation, it tended to be in the form of combining the most common designs—the Diamond in the Square, Sunshine and Shadow, Center Square and Bars. Where the individual quilter’s personality and creativity did show forth was in the proportion, colors, fabrics and quilting patterns. The casual observer may look at 20 quilts of this time, all in the Diamond in the Square pattern, and comment that they are all the "same." Yet closer examination to the colors, details and design elements shows a marvelous diversity within a limited design range. Indeed, during this classic quilt period, the Diamond in the Square pattern was unique to the Lancaster Amish. Yet what Amish women did with the colors and quilting is astonishing, even to our modern, jaded eyes. Indeed, these quilts "deserve our attention and abundantly repay it."

Today, these examples of classic Amish quilts can best be seen in museums and collections. The stories of the makers and families of these quilts are now lost in time. Quilts made today for the general public are different, and the Amish are quick to adopt new designs they see becoming popular. For many, quilting is now a business, a source of income. Yet these same women make special quilts for their family and friends, particularly as wedding gifts for their children. A quilt, whether old or new, remains a feast for the eyes, a celebration of color, and a work of love, patience and devotion.

When I look at the old quilt I have hanging in my house, I celebrate the colors and lives of its creators…my mother and grandmother. That quilt had long been tucked away in a drawer, out of sight. One day my mother "discovered" it in a drawer. As the two of us unwrapped it, these scraps of cloth took on a new life. It is not a work of art, perhaps, but now it is where it deserves to be. Its varied pieces of cloth are a daily reminder of the love that binds family and friends. It is my family’s "patchwork heritage."

Amish Country News Cover Article by Brad Igou (Spring 2001)

 

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