The origin of the Amish quilt has a long and interesting history that can gives us a better understanding of the Amish people themselves. The Amish, as most people know, shun modern society in order to live a simpler life focused on God and family. As the fast-paced world carries on around them, the Amish choose to live quietly and peacefully off the land with little to no help from the outside world. What this means is no electricity, no phones inside the house, no automobiles, and as little contact with the world that goes on around them as possible. Anything to do with the outside world is shunned by the Amish, including art.
Art, for the sake of art, is looked down upon by the Amish people because it serves no real purpose. However, the art of Amish quilting was able to develop within the Amish community because the quilt itself served a purpose, so adding decorative elements to it was considered acceptable. The art of Amish quilting, however, didn’t become a tradition in Amish homes until the late 1800s. Originally brought to America by British Quakers, the idea of quilting did not catch on quickly within the Amish communities. At the time, the Amish used simple coverings for their beds, much like their neighboring Mennonites and Pennsylvania Germans. While quilting caught on with these other groups, the Amish originally rejected the idea of quilting for art and didn’t take on the practice until it was no longer considered fashionable by the local Mennonites and Germans.
Once the Amish did beginning quilting, they slowly began to make it their own with Amish inspired patterns that were unique and simple, yet beautiful. Between 1850 and 1870, the Amish of Pennsylvania began developing their signature quilt designs from simple one color whole cloth quilts to piecing together colored pieces of cloth into a variety of patterns. The earliest Amish designs were basic squares and rectangles, which slowly evolved into more colorful and bold patterns, such as Amish style baskets, flowers, and grapevines. These patterns began to develop slowly over time, first showing up in just the corners and the borders and eventually working their way to the centers and focal points of the Amish quilts. You can easily tell how old an Amish quilt is simply by how prominent the designs are within it. Generally speaking, the fewer the embellishments, the older the Amish quilt.
Many of the Amish quilters of the time worked on their quilts alone during the cold winter months, but then got together with the other Amish quilters of the town to form Quilting Bees in the spring and summer months. These quilting gatherings gave the Amish women the opportunity to catch up on all the town news while finishing the assembly of their specially designed Amish quilts. Initially Amish quilts were crafted for dowry purposes or to be presented to important people as gifts. Eventually the Amish began selling their Amish quilts for profit.
Around the 1970s, the beauty of the Amish quilt became a must-have item for fashionable, young city folk. Amish quilts were suddenly being appreciated as works of art due to their similarities to the “pop art” styles of the time. This created an interesting problem for the Amish people due to their intense desire for separation from the modern world. As more people wanted to own one of the handmade Amish works of art, the Amish would often find that their own Amish quilts were being stolen right off their own clothes lines.
As a result, the Amish began making their quilts for the purpose of selling them at the local markets. While they greatly enjoy their privacy and solitude, the Amish people seemed to find a nice balance between their desire to live a separate and simpler life, yet still benefit through commerce by selling their handmade Amish wares to the modern buyers who desired their work. This balance between simplicity and consumerism has changed Amish quilt making in a variety of ways. In order to attract the eye of a visiting outside, the Amish women began departing from the traditional Amish quilt patterns for more updated colors and styles. Brighter colors, unique patterns, and more elaborate techniques have developed in the Amish quilting world in an effort to attract more customers by offering more updated styles.
The attraction to these beautiful Amish quilts has always been rooted in the desire to look back at our history and to appreciate all the handmade and traditional things of the past. While the Amish quilt makers retain their relative solitary existence, they have greatly impacted the way the world views quilt making. So too, in a subtle way, has the world impacted the way the Amish make their quilts. The current trends and fashions from around the world have impacted the different Amish styles and patterns that the Amish quilter makes. While the old Amish traditions of hand sewing and creating each piece still remain the cornerstone of the Amish quilt, its partnership with the world as a whole has somehow made the relationships between the Amish and the modern communities closer rather than farther apart.
While the simplicity, variety, colors, and designs may have changed over the past hundred of so years, the basic workmanship and subtleness of the Amish quilt still remains the same today. Amish quilts are so rich and full of life, yet have a history and sentimentality to them that makes you want to treasure one for years to come and eventually pass it on to a loved one near and dear to your heart. An Amish quilt is the essence of what it means to be an American today. It expresses the hard work and determination that all Americans, Amish and non-Amish alike, have shown throughout history.
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