Blending Tradition and Modern: Amish Quilts

“The more basic the color, the more inward, the more pure.” – Piet Mondrian

As a first year teacher, the goal for my wardrobe was to be “minimalistic.” The term had been batted around by art students and the concept appealed to me. The Minimalists include artists like Piet Mondrian who use geometric shapes in simple arrangements, relying on the vivid colors to make a statement. To my great surprise, I found a scarf with a pattern like a Mondrian painting, and stitched a canary yellow sheath to wear with it. Teaching fourth grade in style.

Fast forward to homemaking and quilting. Glancing at the patterns in quilting books, I found myself gravitating toward Amish comforters. The simple geometric lines, clear cut graphics, and vivid colors that resounded against a black background took my breath away. According to the pattern instructions, the prominent center diamond symbolized balance, harmony, and dignity in the Amish community. Traits desirable in my own home. These women who sewed 8-10 stitches per inch intrigued me.

Early Amish Quilt

The Beginning of Amish Quilts

The art of Amish quilting is a modern evolution in a tightly traditional society. During the 1700 and 1800’s, while prairie wives and East Coast socialites created quilts from varying materials, the Amish still slept with old German featherbeds and coverlets. In the community’s desire to remain apart from the temptations of the modern world, only centuries old traditional ways of living were acceptable in the Amish culture. As the world included telephones, electricity, and gas powered machinery on their farms, the Amish men relied on horse power to produce grain for the animals and substance for their families. The women baked from scratch, canned garden harvests, washed clothes with a treadle machine. An Amish homestead re-created an early agricultural complex. Nothing changed on their farms.

But women are made in the image of a Creator God, and long to bring beauty into all phases of life. Wearing only black or white clothing stifled their ability to express their creativity. In 1878, Amish quilts began to appear on homesteads. These quilts were constructed from solid colors, but their choices were restricted to brown, blue, rust or black. Using this plain background like a canvas, the stitchers drew their needles into the layers of fabric and created intricate and flowing decorative designs from the natural world that they loved. Swirling feathers, curves, grids: a contradiction between the severity of Amish life and the rolling contours of the landscape surrounding the farms. These quilts were made to celebrate a birth, marriage or death, and the woman who designed the quilt was judged by the quality of her stitches. She judged herself by her creativity of design and self-expression within extreme restrictions. An Amish quilter might agree with Piet Mondrian when he said, “Every true artist has been inspired more by the beauty of lines and colors and the relationship between them than by the concrete subject of the picture.” Amish quilters mastered lines and color contrast.

Piet Mondrian painting

Modern Interpretations

The bonnets and buggy women pushed their needles in a new direction. Not satisfied with stitching a design on solid fabric, they began basic piecing and added colors to the large diamond in the middle of dark material by creating wide borders around the diamond. The rich hues that the community approved included pumpkin, olive green and deep red. Only recently have pink and white been included in the list of acceptable pallet colors in the more liberal Amish groups. If a family moves between the conservative or liberal factions, their quilts might be put away or sold as not to offend. But black is the integral part of the Amish quilt. In the hands of these creative women, the play of dark fabric against saturated hues produces a vibrant quilt with simple, clean-cut lines. The end result is reminiscent of modern abstract art and pop art despite the adherence to tradition and history by the stitchers. A quilt that is not plain, but filled with unexpected color and excitement.

The Art of Quilting

Amish life is based upon community and family. The concept of living in harmony with the soil by working hard and being thrifty fits with the minimalistic life style. The elderly live with their grown children. Although conscientious objectors, Amish men hold a firm grip on the morals of the group. No one has insurance because the church assists those with major losses. The men are known for their Barn Raisings. But the women also enjoy getting together as a group and work their needles in harmony as they share their hopes, dreams, fears and misgivings in a Quilting Bee. The children thread needles for their mothers to keep the pace of sewing going. In no time, a quilt is finished for a family.

The time spent with fabric, needle and thread is precious to a woman in a closed community. The task presents a time to think private thoughts. As Kelly Martinez expresses the quilting experience: “Slow stitching means setting aside time to find myself somewhere in the thread and spread myself out on a piece of fabric.” The intricacy of the Amish comforter attests to the value of quiet work.

The modern Amish quilter has stepped out of the box a bit by adding applique to her comforters. Nothing showy. Nothing fancy. Just purposeful stitching that reflects the desire of the creator to bring beauty into a plain world. Art from fabric. Minimalistic. The bonnet and buggy rival to a Piet Mondrian painting in a high end gallery. Soul satisfying.

“The truly modern artist is aware of abstraction in an emotion of beauty.”

                                                                                                                        Piet Mondrian

One of the first bits of wisdom imparted to a novice quilter is that the Amish, who make some of the most simple but exquisite quilts in the world, purposely plan a mistake into each of their projects because they believe attempts at human perfection mock God.  Of course, any quilter knows that you don’t have to plan for imperfections in your work; they come quite naturally on their own, so I don’t know if this bit of Amish rings true or not, but the idea does.”

                                                           A Single Thread, by Marie Bostwick

There are many novels written about the Amish and their quilts.  Cuddle up in a comforter and read a cozy book that will warm your heart.


Main photo credit:   https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lancaster_County,_Pennsylvania._These_two_Church_Amish_women_are_engaged_in_quilting._Quilting_bee_._._._-_NARA_-_521135.jpg

Quilt on bed: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lancaster_County,_Pennsylvania._This_is_a_bedroom_in_a_conservative_Mennonite_household._The_bed_a_._._._-_NARA_-_521054.jpg

Diamond quilt: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sunshine_and_Shadow,_Amish,_Lancaster_County,_Pennsylvania,_1890s_-_Museum_of_Fine_Arts,_Boston_-_DSC02689.JPG

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