Plain Geometry: Amish Quilts

Amish Quilt. Courtesy/MIFA

Plain Geometry: Amish Quilts explores the origins and aesthetics of a tradition that has evolved in a changing world.

Opening at the Museum of International Folk Art Sunday, March 3, 2013, 34 quilts will be on view from the museum’s collection and from local collectors.

These remarkably crafted textiles illustrate the influence of religious proscriptions, westward migration, and interaction with “English” neighbors. The exhibition runs through Sept. 1, 2013.

The Amish practice a very conservative form of Protestantism. A set of rules that vary with each community govern all aspects of behavior including what colors are permissible to wear and what toys children are allowed.

Community life is based on self-denial, simplicity, and obedience. Amish quilts reflect this value of simplicity.

Often made from the same bolts of dark solid color fabric used for family clothing we don’t see print fabric or decorative imagery.

Nonetheless there was remarkably intricate needlework—complex swirls, curves, and grids most notably on the early quilts.

Quilt making was uncommon among the Amish until the late nineteenth century. Before this, bedding represented the German tradition—feather-filled comforters and woven blankets.

The height of production for home use took place during the 20th century. Today, quilts are made for home use and for sale with quilters adapting to the needs of the market.

Quilts in the exhibit will illustrate the changes in everyday life that occurred when families moved west and established communities in Ohio, Indiana, and other Midwestern states.

A somber color palette gave way to brighter colors and more complex pieced patterns (although always a few decades after their height of popularity in the general population.)

The use of cotton or wool fabrics, border width, and color choice were regionally specific as well and color preferences differed according to settlement and time period.

Some quilt designs on view will be Diamond in Square and Bars. These large-piece patterns are related to an even earlier form called whole cloth quilts that were not pieced but made from one-color cloth.

These quilts are the most recognizably Amish with their strong contrasting colors and fine quilting. The Pennsylvania Amish continued creating these patterns long after their brethren left for lands further west.

Another is Log Cabin which is made of strips of cloth sewn in a concentric square. The arrangement of color within the block and how the blocks are fitted together create the variations.

Log Cabin quilts are often quilted only on the borders or are tied at intervals and called comforters. Log Cabin blocks were made from small pieces that could be cut from fabric scraps or worn clothing, whereas new fabric was often purchased for “best” quilts made for weddings.

Many best quilts were made from wool while everyday quilts were made from cotton.

Also on view will be crib and doll quilts. These were made by an expectant mother or grandmother to welcome a new baby into the world. Crib quilts were more frequently made in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois than in Lancaster County.

It is noteworthy that Amish quilts, appreciated and collected today as an art form, were originally intended as utilitarian objects made by isolated groups of women to accord with strict religious precepts.

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