What Makes a Quilt “Amish”?
By Beverly Hicks Burch
This is the second in our series on the Amish and their Quilts.
Because Amish families and family life tends to be patriarchal, most duties and chores carried out by Amish women are related to home and family. The women are responsible for creating a lot of the utilitarian items a family might use…for example, the family garden, food, jams, preserves, clothes, towels, bed linens and yes, quilts. Those wonderful quilts have kept many Amish boys and girls warm on cold Pennsylvania nights.
Just because something is “utilitarian” doesn’t mean it has to be unpleasant to look at or even uncomfortable. Most of us go to great pains to make our homes as comfortable and attractive as possible, but basically, a home…a house serves a very utilitarian purpose…shelter. The same can be said about well-planned, beautiful Amish quilts. Creativity, however subtle, can be present in a beautiful, breathtaking Amish quilt.
First, let’s look at a brief history of quilt making among the Amish. Quilting evolved a little differently among the Amish than it did among the “English” or outside world. At first, the quilts were basically nothing more than whole cloth quilts…a single piece of fabric sandwiched with batting and a backing and heavily quilted. The colors were usually brown, rust, blue or the black we associate with the Amish.
What made this simple quilts stand out? The quilting. These simple, solid color whole cloth quilts were embellished with intricate flourishes of hand quilting in feathers, shells, grids, and curves…patterns that covered the whole quilt. This elaborate quilting became the hallmark of Amish quilts. And, while the elaborate quilting may not be “simple” it is allowable because it is “needed” to hold the quilt together.
Eventually Amish quilting evolved and piecing began to show up in Amish quilts. But, even in piecing and patterns, simplicity ruled…at least at first. There were fewer and larger pieces. The Amish Center Diamond, also known as Diamond in a Square, is the quintessential Amish quilt. It is probably the simplest and best known. Many think it originated in Lancaster, PA and is perhaps the oldest Amish pattern.
The Sunshine and Shadows, or Trip Around the World (also called Postage Stamp) pattern is also thought to have originated in Lancaster, PA. It shows that piecing and patterns evolves and became more intricate. Also, pieces became smaller and more abundant.
Since Amish women tended to use what they had on hand and not go out and buy specific fabric for a quilt, the quilts began to develop a distinctive look. (An exception would have been for a wedding in which case fabric would have been bought.)
We know the Amish live by a simple and modest creed. Realism in quilts was discouraged by the Amish church and as a result appliqué was a rarity. Instead, as quilting evolved, so did piecing. More and more piecing became a standard in Amish quilts. The fabrics were…and are…the bold, bright solid colors juxtaposed with black, navy or dark gray….these colors became par.
Unlike their Mennonite cousins, Amish women do not use prints or tiny calicoes in their quilting…with one exception. That is for quilts they make for sale to the “English”. Yes, today, Amish women can be enterprising women. They will produce their quilts for a living for the outside world and many times, not always, but sometimes they will use the fabric of the “English”. I observed this personally when visiting Lancaster, PA in 1994.
In Lancaster County there is a little community called Intercourse. It is a wonderful place to visit and spend time and absorb the surroundings…especially if you are a quilter. The Old Country Store is run by Mennonites Merle and Phyllis Good since 1984 and they do an excellent job. The store vends fabric, quilts supplies, trinkets and locally made quilts for the tourist trade. Here you can stock up on any “Amish” color you could dream about…and I did.
Above the store is The People’s Place Museum that exhibits Amish quilts. When I visited, the quilts on exhibit were all antique…no quilt was more recent than from the 1930’s. It was a rare treat and an education wrapped up in one.
It was while viewing one of these rare antique quilts I discovered what I knew in my heart…that if Grandmomma or a smart Amish woman had a sewing machine…by Jove, she would use it when making her quilt! Thus killing the old adage that “all quilts have to be hand-pieced to be a real quilt”. You see, some of these antique Amish quilts had some machine piecing in them. What quilters don’t realize nowadays…if Grandmomma had a sewing machine back then…it was a real status symbol…and she was going to use it! (By the way, the Amish used the treadle type machines.)
A few things to consider…just like Amish communities vary, so do the quilts. The communities in the East, especially Lancaster were usually more economically stable and therefore more conservative. The more conservative the community, the more conservative the quilts. Likewise, quilts from Midwestern Amish areas tend to be brighter and have more and smaller pieces.
And just a little tidbit I always found interesting and showed the Amish were, well, “equal opportunity”…it wasn’t unheard of to hear of men participating in the quilting process. Especially as they got older and couldn’t work in the fields, the men were known to help cut the quilt pieces and do other little tasks around the quilting frame…
So if you wanted to make an “Amish” quilt what do you need to do? Well, first understand this…you can’t make an Amish quilt. You are not Amish. But, you can make an Amish reproduction using a few guidelines:
Guidelines for making an Amish reproduction:
1. Keep it simple
2. Use wide borders. DO NOT miter your borders! It’s okay to piece your borders.
3. Use solid color fabrics only. Keep the “Amish” palette in mind. They use colors from left over fabric used in everyday life from projects such as clothes making. Color hues run light to dark.
4. For a traditional Pennsylvania Amish look avoid warm colors like bright red, red-orange, orange, yellow, yellow-orange and yellow-green. DO use cool colors like burgundy, blues, purples and blue-greens.
5. Amish quilts outside Lancaster, PA – especially those from the Midwestern USA add the warmer color palette like orange and yellow.
6. Use white sparingly.
7. Don’t forget the black! Think of this as “basic Amish”. Some quilts used dark grey or navy instead of black.
8. Many colors can be used in a quilt, but try to avoid more than two colors in one block. The exception would be in patterns like Roman Stripes or Ocean Waves.
9. Use black quilting thread when quilting! Be sure to use a generous amount of quilting…remember…antique Amish quilts are covered with fine hand quilting!
Amish Pinwheels, by Beverly Hicks Burch
© 2008 Beverly Hicks Burch All Rights Reserved.