Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Amish Inspirations-Again

Way back in 1971 (that's more than forty years ago!) some Amish quilts were part of a groundbreaking exhibition of American antique quilts at the Whitney Museum in New York City. The urban art scene was abuzz with talk about the newly rediscovered craft of quilting and especially those Amish quilts. With their fields of plain color and subtle but always there hand stitching, the Amish quilts were hailed as high art from people who otherwise never gave a nod to needlework. Suddenly antique dealers and folk art collectors, auction houses, and museums were hot on the trail of Amish quilts. And the Amish people have had to deal with the publicity ever since.

Some of the publicity was good for the Amish people. When their antique quilts made it to auction, they often commanded high prices. And since quiltmaking was a way of life for many Amish women, when they purposefully made quilts to sell to 'the English' (any non-Amish person) their work was recognized and appreciated. Infatuation with Amish quilts has led to romanticizing the people and their quilts and there have been ups and downs in popularity. But quilt scholarship has also led to understanding that different Amish communities make different styles of quilts. Favorite patterns and colors can guide the astute scholar in recognizing a 20th century Lancaster, PA Amish quilt will likely be quite different than an 1880s Indiana Amish quilt. In other words, Amish quilts are not homogeneous and have their own quirks and qualities. The quilt here is a Lancaster PA Center Diamond quilt in muted colors made from wool, c.1930.

One again Amish quilts are inspiring quiltmakers and reappearing in exhibitions. The Modern Quilt Guild movement has led to a resurgence in the use of solid-color fabrics. What better body of work to inspire solid color quilts than Amish examples?

The use of solids immediately leads to the question of the quilting, those stitches that hold together a quilt's three layers. Traditional Amish quilting designs combine straight-line stitching with folk art motifs like baskets and flowers and their quilting stitches really shine when sewn in wide borders that frame the patchwork.

Some of my favorite Amish quilts are somewhat scrappy in appearance. These probably were never meant to be seen outside the Amish home but I feel lucky that the owners shared these images with me. The pale Shoofly quilt below is from Miflin County Pennsylvania.

A Rabbit's Foot pattern quilt from the Honeyville, Indiana area, c. 1940.

A hired man's quilt (long and narrow for a cot or twin-size bed) from Holmes County, Ohio. The pattern is called Railroad Crossing.

This Double Nine Patch in brilliant colors was never used and likely given as a wedding gift in the 1940s. From the Goshen, Indiana area.

I could look at Amish quilts all day long. There are so many variations and they have much to teach us about color use, both strong and subtle shades used in the same quilt, and above all, the stitching. If color is the soul of the Amish quilt, then quilting stitches are the heart.