Although quilted bedcovers were being made in Europe when America was being settled, it was in North America that quilt making flourished. Amish and Mennonite women collectively represent a group whose quilt making tradition claims a significant contribution to the current worldwide craft, a contribution ranging from collecting to documenting, design, and construction.
American quilt making traditions, a rural life-style, and a religious view of women as householder imposed upon Amish and Mennonite women placed them dutifully alone or together around the quilt frame. As Mennonite churches became less rural and as the role of women changed, quilt making changed. Amish women have experienced fewer changes so the social structure of quilt making has remained the same over the past 100 years.
For Mennonite women the coming of the sewing circle concept as permitted by the church fathers after World War I has been significant in their continuing quilt making tradition. The ongoing householder role and the Amish preference for "plain style" has contributed to the popularity of the Amish woman's quilt.
Together the women of both groups were positioned in their religious and socio-economic cultures to receive, from the 1960s onward, the attention of Americans pursuing ways to balance their lives in response to problems of technology and warfare. During this time two factors popularized Amish and Mennonite women and their quilts. First, the interest in quilt making stemming out of the "grass roots," "back to our roots," and "back to nature" encouraged many women to seek out quilt makers and to learn quilt making. Amish and Mennonite women were among these quilt makers. A quilt making revival then flourished and continued in the late 1980s. The success of quilt sales at Mennonite relief auctions has been due largely to the momentum of this revival. A second factor involved the outcome of the Mennonite sewing circle movement. The average age of the sewing circle quilter bad been increasing at this time and fewer younger women were quilting. The quilt revival drew some younger Mennonite women to quilt making. The quilts made by these sewing circles represent the majority of quilts donated to Mennonite relief auctions. These sewing circles were often asked to do custom quilting and many have done so, donating the money to the church. The demand for custom quilters inspired many Amish and Mennonite cottage quilt industries.
However, it was the declaration of quilts as art that popularized them, especially Amish quilts. In 1971 antique Amish quilts were included in an exhibit at the Whitney Museum in New York City. This exhibit titled "Abstract Design in American Quilts" drew thousands of people and helped to change the course of the Amish quilt.
The antique Amish quilt pattern most focused on, admired and collected was the "Center Diamond." A minimal pattern, allowing the interchange of colors to create a bold centering mandala-type design also facilitates an optimum plain field for displaying stitches. The Amish Center Diamond pattern, unique to the Amish of eastern Pennsylvania, rarely appeared in other Amish communities. Its regional existence may be related to the early American whole cloth, "linsey-woolsey" quilt. Also, center medallion designs appeared in quilts of early Americans as well as Europeans. The Amish application of the design, however, is unique.
From the interest in the Amish center diamond quilt and others displaying bold design such as "Bars," and "Sunshine and Shadow" interest expanded to include all Amish quilt making traditions. it was the use of solid color fabrics rather than printed fabrics that distinguished Amish quilts from others. The pieced design of Amish quilts of Midwestern United States were the same as "English" quilts.
In the 1980s there are fewer older examples of Mennonite and Amish quilts held by Mennonite and Amish people. When quilts became popular they were actively sought after and many quilts left their family owners and are now found in museums and corporate or private collections in the United States, Europe, and Asia. That these quilts have left the culture has surprised some, but can be explained by the practical view (especially of the Amish) that places value on the process rather than the product; on the fact that grandmother quilted and so does mother and so do I, rather than focusing on grandmother's quilt.
Even with the strong interest in quilting in the 1980s there is little interest among Amish and Mennonites to document and collect this form of woman's art. A major exception has been the work done both through publication and exhibition by The Peoples Place -- a Mennonite and Amish educational interpretation and information center in Intercourse, Pa. Documentation of decorative arts by Mennonite museums or other institutions has concentrated on items such as Fraktur and furniture, both done primarily by men. Serious documentation of quilts has been carried out instead by larger state or national institutions. For instance the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis made a major purchase of 277 Indiana Amish quilts from a private collector in 1988. The Museum of American Folk Art in New York owns another significant collection of Amish quilts.
The popularity of Amish and Mennonite quilts has had an influence on quilt design and construction done currently (1987) by women from these groups. Because of the popularity of the eastern Pennsylvania Amish quilt designs mentioned, many quilters including these from Midwestern United States have reproduced them. It is not unusual, therefore, to find today the Amish Center Diamond quilt design in Indiana or Iowa.
As quilts have been viewed as art and have moved from use on the bed to art on the wall a new smaller size of quilt has emerged, uniquely different in function-the quilted "wall hanging." This trend developed in the early 1970s and its popularity is visible at Mennonite relief sales and quilt shops in Amish country.
While the demand for art quilts such as the "wall hanging" has aided the custom-quilting business and has influenced the increase in earnings it has been suggested that generally the quality of quilting has declined. Those women who first turned to Amish and Mennonite quilt makers as their teachers now often can claim superior execution of the craft. Another concern commonly voiced by potential buyers at Mennonite relief sales is the lack of more traditional looking Mennonite and Amish quilts. This is a response to the fact that contemporary Mennonite and Amish women have been influenced by the designs done for custom-quilt buyers, prefer to try new designs and fabrics and have less time to quilt.
Quilt making trends of Amish and Mennonite women will most likely continue to be influenced by the delicate balance of values of their religion and the larger world in which they live out their religious values.
For more detailed information on Amish and Mennonite quilt patterns, fabric, and quilting motifs see:
Duttinger, David. Quilts From the Indiana Amish. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1983.
Mennonite Quilts and Pieces. Intercourse, Pa: Good Books.
Pellman, Rachel T. and Kenneth Pellman. The World of Amish Quilts. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 1984.
Quilting Designs from the Amish. C. and T. Publishers.
Mennonite and Amish Folklore and Folk Arts Bibliography (by Ervin Beck at Goshen College; see Quilts section; also search Goshen College website for "quilts")
Cite This Article
Haarer, Rebecca. "Quilts." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 19 Apr 2018. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Quilts&oldid=93335.
Haarer, Rebecca. (1989). Quilts. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 19 April 2018, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Quilts&oldid=93335.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 740-741. All rights reserved.
©1996-2018 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.