March 19 is National Quilting Day. It celebrates quilts and those who make them, which means it is an important day for us at DutchCrafters since the Amish are well known for their quilt making.
I grew up with a quilt frame in the dining room, where my mother would applique pieces of the Tree of Life quilt pattern during brief moments of free time. Every year, the women at the Mennonite church we attended gathered to piece and hand stitch a quilt they donated to an auction that benefited a local Mennonite charity. The quilts always brought the highest bids, fueled by those who traveled miles for an authentic Mennonite quilt. I understood quilting as an intrinsic part of the Mennonite and Amish culture. But the history of Amish quilt making is not as old as one might think.
The Sunshine and Shadow is a classic Amish quilt pattern and often selected by art museums to represent Amish quilts.
History of Amish Quilt Making
Not much is known about how quilting became common in the Amish and Mennonite communities, but it is understood that the Amish did not have their own quilt-making tradition when they emigrated from Europe to the United States. Instead, they started making quilts in the late 1800s, likely influenced by non-Amish women around them. Nevertheless, quilt making is a natural fit for the Amish. Quilts combine a utilitarian use with artistic expression. Anyone who has visited Amish country and seen the colorful and well-manicured flower gardens know that the Amish have a taste for beauty. It is also important in the Amish culture that work have a practical purpose and not be frivolous or for arts-sake alone. Quilt making allows a person to express herself artistically while producing a product that is useful. This is very similar to furniture making and likely why the Amish have taken to making furniture so naturally as well.
During the second half of the 20th century, Amish quilts transitioned from being used at home and gifted between community members, often marking a family milestone, to being identified as works of art and sold outside the Amish community. New York collectors Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof are identified to have discovered Amish quilts during a trip to Lancaster County, PA in the late 1960s. Since then, Amish quilts have found solid footing within the American folk art scene and are a part of the permanent collections of many well-respected art museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Denver Art Museum.
The Log Cabin is a very well-known quilt pattern. The blocks can be set together in many ways to create a wide-variety of designs. This Stars in Log Cabin quilt is a unique variation on the pattern.
Amish Quilt Patterns
Early Amish quilts were pieced from solid colored fabrics (usually leftovers from clothing) in simple geometric designs. Some of the first Amish patterns were the Bow Tie, Amish Bars, Center Diamond (and other diamond patterns), and Nine Patch. The Amish also adapted commercially published patterns, such as the Dresden Plate (which my mother made for me), Login Cabin, and the many star patterns. In response to interest in the broader culture, Amish quilt makers have expanded the patterns they use.
Purchasing Amish Quilts
Even though the Amish have discovered a market for their quilts outside their community, their lifestyle can make it hard to find these quilts. There are some organized quilt auctions in Amish communities that are open to the public, but finding these quilts usually involves driving the back roads of Amish country and locating small “Quilts for Sale” signs or just asking around.
Meeting Amish furniture makers can be a very personal encounter. Their woodworking shops are often located on their home property with kids or grandkids riding their bicycles on the same driveways that shipping trucks use to pick up the furniture. Quilt buying can be even more intimate. It usually involves entering the woman’s home and flipping through quilts piled on the bed of a guest room while the quilt maker herself talks about the hours she has put into the design of each piece. Though a lot of fun, it’s a lot of work too, so we’ve done the digging for you. View our Amish Quilts and Quilt Racks section to see bed quilts and other quilted items. These are one-of-a-kind creations of art, for sure, and they can keep you warm at night too.