Amish quilts are fascinating

Amish quilts are among the most distinctive, best known quilts in America. They are famous for the quality of their craftsmanship and their use of color and bold designs.

Amish are a religious group of the Anabaptist Christians, which broke from the Mennonites in Switzerland around 1690. They wanted to model themselves after the early, pure form of Christianity. The name “Amish” derives from the name of their leader, pastor Jakob Amman. Because of religious persecution, they fled from Switzerland to other European countries, and from there, to the New World, invited by William Penn. They settled in Pennsylvania and managed to maintain a strong sense of their faith and community spirit by keeping away from non-Amish, the “English”, as they are known. Amish arrived in two waves of migration, the first during the middle of the eighteenth century, and later between the early and middle years of the nineteenth century.

They lead their lives according to the rules of the Ordnung, divided into two parts. The rules must be followed by all andsunshine and shadows they affect every aspect of life, like clothing or the way they can decorate their homes. The Ordnung is conservative in nature and it directs Amish towards a life of simplicity, humility and practicality. From the first part: “No ornamental, bright, showy, form fitting, immodest or silk-like clothing… dress, coats to be black only… women to wear shawls or bonnets or caps in public.” The second part of the Ordnung directs customs and traditions. These can different among different sects and groups within the Amish.

The Amish didn’t start making quilts when they first arrived in the continent. They did not bring a quilting tradition with them, but rather used blankets and coverlets, as they did in Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands, the countries from where they arrived. The Amish probably started making quilts learning from their “English” neighbors, but adapting them to their moral rule as dictated by the Ordnung. There are mentions of quilts in Amish household inventories as early as the middle of the eighteenth century, and there are a few dated quilts (dates quilted in the quilt) from the Lancaster, PA area from 1849 and 1875. These early quilts were probably either whole cloth woolen quilts or English style medallion quilts, with a central diamond surrounded by plain borders. It seems as if the Amish borrowed quilting styles that were outdated to the non-Amish.

As the years went by, new waves of migration within the country affected the Amish as well, and many moved from the Pennsylvania area to the Midwest during the middle of the nineteenth century. The new communities that settled in the Midwest developed their own style of quilting, distinct and different from the Pennsylvania Amish. While the broken starPennsylvania Amish used a darker, more subdued color palette, consisting of black, purples, greens and blues in somber hues, the Midwest Amish, less restrictive, used brighter colors that included pale yellow or light pink against blue, navy or dark green backgrounds. Midwest Amish quilts made “summer quilts” with pastel colors. There are fewer examples of these, as less quilts are used during warm summer months than winter.
The medallion style quilts of the Pennsylvania Amish were replaced in the Midwest with pieced quilts, using patterns such as Broken Star or Crown of Thorns. Both groups’ quilts share one trait: the lack of printed fabric. The use of printed fabric is not allowed for clothing or household linen.
Amish only used plain fabric, solid colors either wool leftover from capes or coats or purchased for the quilt, or cotton scraps from other clothing. The use of printed fabric is prohibited by the Ordnung. Appliqué patterns are considered “worldly”, so neither the Pennsylvania nor the Midwest Amish make appliqué quilts for their household use.

Amish quilts are traditionally pieced by one maker, but often times quilted by a group of women in a “bee”. The quilting is exquisite and heavy, with motifs such as feathers, wreaths, baskets and urns, reminiscent of appliqué patterns. Their quilting is often times done in black thread to match the dark backgrounds, adding dimension, texture and richness to the quilts, but without distracting from the strong and bold overall impression the quilts make. Fancy quilting is allowed because it serves a practical function: the more heavily quilted the quilt, the more durable it becomes.

Although Amish conservative groups do not use electricity, they are allowed to use treadle sewing machines. Many quilts are machine pieced on this type of machine from early on.

Amish did start using commercial patterns at the beginning of the twentieth century. These were the patterns included in cotton batting rolls, from such companies as Mountain Mist. Some very traditional, old-fashioned groups still prohibited the use of pieced patterns until well into the twentieth century.

During the late twentieth century, Amish women starting making quilts for sale, taking advantage of the renewed popularity of quilting. These quilts made for sale are not restricted by the rules of the Ordnung, and are made to suit the taste of the buyers.

Just a beautiful quilt

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