Amish quilts earning recognition as art form

SANTA FE, N.M. — “Plain Geometry: Amish Quilts” an exhibit at the Museum of International Folk Art, in Santa Fe, explores the origins and aesthetics of a tradition that has evolved in a changing world. Thirty-four are on view from the the museum’s collection and from local collectors. These remarkably crafted pieces of textile art illustrate the influence of religious proscriptions, westward migration and interaction with “English” neighbors. The exhibition runs through Sept. 2, 2013.

The Amish practice a very conservative form of Protestantism. A set of rules that vary with

Amish quilt Block Star patterm

25 Block Star, circa 1930. Lancaster Co., Pennsylvania. Cotton, 83 x 84.5. Gift of Stuart and Cindy Hodosh. (Photo courtesy Museum of International Folk Art)

each community govern all aspects of behavior. These rules includes what colors are permissible to wear and what toys children are allowed. Community life is based on self-denial, simplicity and obedience. Amish quilts reflect this value of simplicity. Often made from the same bolts of dark, solid-color fabric used for family clothing, the quilts lack print fabric or decorative imagery. Nonetheless, they feature remarkably intricate work — complex swirls, curves, and grids most notably on the early quilts.

Quilt making was uncommon among the Amish until the late 19th century. Before this, bedding represented the German tradition—feather-filled comforters and woven blankets. The height of production for home use took place during the 20th century. Today, quilts are made for home use and for sale, with quilters adapting to the needs of the market.

Quilts featured in the exhibit illustrate the changes in everyday life. Especially the events that occurred when families moved west and established communities in Ohio, Indiana and other Midwestern states. A somber color palette gave way to brighter colors and more complex pieced patterns (although always a few decades after their height of popularity in the general population). The use of cotton or wool fabrics, border width, and color choice were regionally specific. Color preferences differed according to settlement and time period.

Some Amish quilts on view will be Diamond in Square and Bars design. These large-piece patterns are related to an even earlier form, called whole cloth quilts. These quilts were not pieced but made from one-color cloth. These quilts are the most recognizably Amish, with their strong contrasting colors and fine quilting. The Pennsylvania Amish continued creating these patterns long after their brethren left for lands further west.

Amish quilt, bars design

Intricate bars design, circa 1920, from Lancaster Co., Pa., made of wool and cotton, measuring 84″ w. by 76″ t. (Photo courtesy Museum of International Folk Art)

Another is Log Cabin, which is made of strips of cloth sewn in a concentric square. The

arrangement of color within the block and how the blocks are fitted together create the variations. Log Cabin quilts are often quilted only on the borders or are tied at intervals and called comforters. Log Cabin blocks were made from small pieces that could be cut from fabric scraps or worn clothing. Elsewhere, new fabric was often purchased for “best” Amish quilts made for weddings. Many best quilts were made from wool, while everyday quilts were made from cotton.

Also on view will be crib and doll quilts. These were made by an expectant mother or grandmother to welcome a new baby into the world. Crib quilts were more frequently made in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois than in Lancaster County.

Amish quilt Double Irish Chain pattern

Double Irish Chain, circa 1935, Ohio, cotton, 81 1/2 inches by 71 inches. Gift of Stuart and Cindy Hodosh. (Photo courtesy Museum of International Folk Art)

It is noteworthy that the Amish quilts appreciated and collected today as an art form were

originally intended as utilitarian objects. These quilts were often made by isolated groups of women to accord with strict religious precepts.

The Museum of International Folk Art is a division of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs and is located on Museum Hill (Camino Lejo off Old Santa Fe Trail). The Museum is open seven days a week from Memorial Day through Labor Day from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. For more information, call 505-476-1200 or visit internationalfolkart.org.

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