Our Unique Amish Quilt Heritage


Many people have examined and studied the folk art of the Amish, particularly the traditional quilts that have now become famous and which are displayed in some of the world's most prestigious museums. Recently, the Heritage Center Museum of Lancaster purchased one of the finest collections of antique Lancaster County Amish quilts, the Esprit Collection in San Francisco. Thus, the many Lancaster Amish quilts were saved from being dispersed to various buyers at an auction and have returned "home" together. Hopefully, before too much time goes by, we will be able to see some of these quilts on display.

In their book DECORATIVE ARTS OF THE AMISH OF LANCASTER COUNTY, Daniel and Kathryn McCauley write that "the Amish skepticism toward art did not result in rejecting beauty, but led instead to its refinement and simplification. The result has been the evolution of a decorative material culture that is neither over-designed nor austere." While in the beginning Amish decorative art was not much different from that of their Pennsylvania German neighbors, the McCauleys say it was between 1850 and 1870 that the unique "Amish look" began to develop. Scholars believe that it was the English settlers, particularly the Quakers, who introduced the idea of quilting, as opposed to simple bed coverings or coverlets used by the Pennsylvania Germans

But it took some time before quilting became part of the Amish tradition. In fact, Amish women came to quilting even later than their Pennsylvania German and Mennonite neighbors. Amish women rejected art for art's sake, and often "did not adopt an art form until it was no longer fashionable among other Pennsylvania cultures." And when they did quilt, changes came slowly. But soon the Amish went from whole cloth quilts (one color with quilting) to pieces of different colors arranged in particular patterns. Almost all of the traditional Amish quilt designs were simply variations of squares and rectangles.

The best Lancaster Amish quilts are bold, yet simple, often contrasting bright against dark traditional colors. Tulips, feathers, baskets and grapevines were common patterns quilted in the borders and corners. The McCauleys have a good rule of thumb concerning Lancaster Amish quilts --- "the less prolific the quilting and the larger the quilt, the more recent the year of execution." Quilts larger than 82 inches square were not common until after 1920.

Eve Wheatcroft Granick in her book THE AMISH QUILT, writes that "a Lancaster Amish quilt is probably the most easily identified and the most distinctive in its differences from Amish quilts made elsewhere in North America." Traditional Lancaster Amish quilts tend to be square, with wide borders and corner blocks. Also, while unusual outside of Lancaster, Amish here often used patterned fabrics for the backing, even though such material was never used on the front.

Granick also notes that Lancaster Amish mainly used wool batiste and wool cashmere, rather than cotton, in their quilts until the 1940's. The extensive and fine quilting also distinguishes the area's traditional Amish quilts. In fact, Granick states that "the quilting done on Lancaster County quilts is often considered the finest done by Amish women anywhere. "The colors, of course, were reflections of those used in Amish clothing, mainly blue, purple, green and red.

The Center Square, Bars, and Diamond in the Square designs were the most common in the early Lancaster Amish quilts. The Diamond in the Square pattern was also known as "halstuch." It seems the border triangles reminded Amish women of the shoulder cape worn over their dresses (halstuch) which has a triangle shape in the back where it is fastened. This "Cape Design" is so unique to Lancaster that Granick says, "any use of this pattern outside Lancaster usually indicates a close family link to the Lancaster community."

Quilt scholar Jonathan Holstein goes so far as to say that the "Lancaster Diamond is perhaps the supreme triumph of traditional Amish quilt design, and it is certainly among the aesthetic Olympians of all American quilt types. In proportion, balance, harmony, efficacy of color combinations, dignity, and the power to move, none tops it."

Even though the solid Center Diamond pattern was very common, there were many variations. Sometimes the center diamond had a sawtooth trim. Other quilters inserted the Sunshine and Shadow pattern into the center diamond. The Sunshine and Shadow designs, with their carefully arranged squares of graduating colors, are beautiful works of art. You might find over 1500 squares in over 25 hues.

The traditional Amish quilt has had a strange voyage. It began as a practical object or dowry item, and evolved over time into a highly sought after work of art. After the 1970's, when these quilts first became "recognized," perhaps because of their similarity to modern painting and "Pop Art," there were incidents of Amish quilts being stolen off washlines or robbed from homes.

Nowadays, these traditional colors and patterns are not what one tends to see being made. Savvy Lancaster quilters try to make quilts that will appeal to the tastes and fashions of the visitors who come here. Techniques have become elaborate. New designs have been created. You can still find the traditional patterns, but they are less common.

And so it is that over time, Amish quilts have been a reflection not only of traditions and changes in their individual communities, but also of the fashions and trends of the world around them. Amish quilts certainly helped to generate a new interest in quilts and quilting in general. As Granick notes, "Despite their small numbers and their restricted lifestyles, the contributions of Amish women to the art of American quiltmaking has been unique and far-reaching.

We are again celebrating the annual Quilters’ Heritage Celebration in April at the Lancaster Host Resort. Anyone going to the exhibit halls, whether a quilt enthusiast or not, will be amazed at the incredible variety of designs, colors, creativity, themes, and workmanship. What is the fascination with quilts all about? There are many explanations, but perhaps Holstein says it best. "Quilts exert their great force in our minds and imaginations because they combine in single objects so much information of importance to us: the potent congruence of beauty, sentiment, history, utility, and significant function. People were born and died under them. They cover our dreams."

To learn more, refer to:

THE AMISH QUILT by Eve Wheatcroft Granick, Good Books, 1989.

DECORATIVE ARTS OF THE AMISH OF LANCASTER COUNTY by Daniel and Kathryn McCauley, Good Books, 1988.

A QUIET SPIRIT by Donald Kraybill, Patricia Herr, and Jonathan Holstein, UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1996.

We also recommend a visit to the People’s Place Quilt Museum at the Old Country Store in Intercourse.

 

Amish Country News Feature Article (Spring 2003)

 

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