Amish quilts made prior to WWII have a distinctive style and appearance, regardless of the state in which they were made, or the Amish order of the quiltmaker. The quilting patterns are an important design element as is the way the colors chosen interact across the quilt’s surface. Known provenance or family history is highly valued when these quilts are offered for sale.
Mennonite quilts are thought of in much the same way, although not quite as distinctive in fabric choices and they do not demand prices as high as that of the Amish-made quilts.
Much has been written about the Amish and their quilts in recent years. Quilts have been collected, photographed, displayed, bought and sold for some time now. Today there are only a few old quilts left in the homes of Amish families. Many Amish have sold their quilts to pickers and antique dealers who have filled the marketplace with Amish quilts of all ages, sizes and descriptions. In the rush to gather these quilts for sale, often little attention as been paid to the oral and written histories that accompany these textiles.
The quilts made by Amish women in the years between the last quarter of the 19th century and the midpoint of the 20th century represent a unique achievement in American quiltmaking. The work of a small and relatively insulated group of women, these textiles are an expression of both personal and group sensibilities about the use of color and design. Their creation and use in the home are part of a way of life that centers on simplicity and places a high value on symbolism.
Textiles provide visual clues about the interests and concerns of any cultural group. They offer a subtle reflection of the emotional make, up of a group, as well as its individual members. The motifs, colors and designs In the quilts made by Amish women also reflect the group’s history and its collective outlook on life.
We enjoy these quilts for their decorative or visual impact and marvel at their surprising similarity to works of modern art. Their appeal is immediate and apparent to even the most casual viewer. If, however, we limit our interest solely to what we see, we lose a large measure of the meaning of these textiles. By examining Amish quilts in in the Light of their particular cultural and historical background, we can understand and appreciate both the objects themselves and the unique society that has created them.
AMISH QUILTS – THEIR BEGINNING
Early 19th Century Quilts
Though the written record attests to the existence of quilts among the Amish as early as the 1830s we have only a vague idea of what these first textiles might have looked like. The overwhelming majority of Amish quilts known today were made between the 1880s and the 1960s, and most of these quilts were produced in the 20th century. The number of quilts dating from the 1890s is relatively small and the number from the 1880s is even smaller. While estate inventories do indicate the ownership of quilts among the Amish in the years between the 1830s and the 1870s, it is important to remember that only a few quilts are listed in these documents and existing quilts from this time period are extremely rare. At present we have only two known examples dated before 1870.
Between the late 1860s and the early 1880s the practice of quiltmaking, particularly of pieced quilts, seems to have developed rather suddenly in the Amish community. The number of quilts listed in estate papers during these years Increases noticeably, and there are a handful of examples which are either dated or reliably traced to this period.
Since the historical record offers so little information about the appearance of early Amish quilts, we are forced to rely solely on the few examples which have survived.