Quilting the Amish Way
by Kyle Valentini
Randy L. McKee photo
Quilting for the Amish began as a practical art that stemmed from the need to stay warm as they had settled in parts of the country known for their harsh winters.
Having learned the art from people who had settled in the United States earlier, the Amish did not bring the tradition of quilting with them when they first arrived in the 18th century from Europe.
The history of quilting goes back as far as ancient Egypt, but for the Amish community, the practice did not become popular until the 1880s.
Fabric was expensive and a luxury reserved for clothing. Not until the end of the Civil War did industrialization allow the price of cotton and wool, desirable fabrics for quilting, to become affordable.
Early Amish quilts reflected the dark colors typically seen in Amish attire. These colors are meant to symbolize a devotion to God. Dark blues, purples, greens, browns and reds would be common colors for quilts that at first were made from single pieces of fabric and later, had simple designs that included geometric pattern rather than patchwork patterns. Some quilts would have been made from scraps of fabric.
As time went on, Amish quilts became more complex and sometimes included a single design in the center of the quilt as opposed to a repeating pattern seen in quilts made by women outside of the Amish community.
Amish quilters used intricate stitching to make their designs unique. “Quilting artists all over the world use their own patterns and designs when they create their quilts and the same is true of the Amish,” said Viola Hershberger, of Helping Hands Quilt Shop in Berlin.
Despite the tradition of remaining plain, the Amish create beautiful quilts that are indeed works of art. Because quilting requires great skill and produces a useful item, Amish women are encouraged to express themselves in this simple and artistic way.
Amish women begin to teach their daughters the art of quilting when the children are just toddlers. Beginning with the skills of threading needles and then later cutting fabric, Amish girls will learn stitches that are mastered with years of practice. By the time an Amish girl reaches her late teens, she can make her own quilts.
Amish women enjoy quilting together and it is considered an acceptable practice in their communities. “Amish ladies like to keep busy even when they are visiting.
They enjoy getting together. Three days a month we have groups come into the shop to quilt together,” said Hershberger.
Winter is when most Amish women do their quilting. Because women are in charge of the family garden, there is more time in the winter months to dedicate to quilting.
While Amish quilts are made mostly by hand, the use of sewing machines is permitted as long as they are powered by treadle, battery or a diesel generator.
Where once the Amish only quilted for themselves, it is acceptable for them to quilt as a means of making an income, which will support the family and community.
Today’s Amish quilts that are marketed to mainstream shoppers have little resemblance to the quilts that were originally made by the Amish for use in their own homes.
Because of the high quality of Amish quilts, they are in demand. Not all of the shops in the region have handmade quilts and those seeking an authentic Amish quilt can expect to pay $700 or more for a quilt made by hand. Mass-produced quilts can be recognized because they usually have a tag from the manufacturer.
As the art of quilt making becomes less and less popular in the modern world, it remains a source of enjoyment for Amish women and girls. Making quilts can be difficult work, but it can also be relaxing and time well spent socializing with others, catching up and laughing together. “Taking out stitches and planning the quilt can seem like work,” said Hershberger. “But I have never felt like sewing was work.”