Research Point – Amish Quilts

The Amish traditionally made quilts out of a necessity to keep warm during the cold winters, and any aesthetic quality was a secondary concern. They initially used wool batting, replaced by cotton in the mid-19th century until the 20th century when synthetic batting became fashionable. In recent years however, these new innovations have been rejected in favour of cotton. The patchwork designs are typically kept simple and geometric, and colour combinations can be bold. Darker colours were traditionally favoured as the fabrics could be obtained cheaply, and washed infrequently. It was typical to use scraps of fabric or recycle clothing, in line with the ethos of fugility.

The earliest design is the traditional Amish ‘Bar’ quilt, which is simply large vertical wide stripes of 2 alternating colours with a wide border. The quilting stitches are where the detailed patterns lay, using cross hatching, geometric and simple floral designs. Designs then evolved into slightly more complex arrangements that retained a strong geometric and symmetrical quality. One of my particular favorites is the ‘Sunshine and Shadow’  design which uses the juxtaposition of small squares of contrasting colour and tone to great effect.

By the 1960’s, quilt makers had begun to incorporate more figurative designs into their work, reflecting images from every day life such as baskets, flowers and the schoolhouse. In the early 1960’s the idea of producing quilts commercially to sell to visitors became popular, and there was more widespread use of patterned fabrics as well as more technically complex designs. The ‘Starflower’ design has a central dahlia, whose petals are depicted with gathered fabric. As Amish communities had more contact with outside ideas, they started using other techniques such as applique in their work.  Quilts are traditionally finished with a wide band of bias binding and a plain backing fabric.

Thinking about consumer concerns in our society relating to bedding, there seems to have been a seperation of the aesthetic ‘function’ served by a traditional quilt, and the duvets that we tend to sleep under. Fashion has moved towards seeking technological advances in the duvet itself in order to regulate body temperature. Some claim to draw heat away from the body using microfibre technology, and store that heat to keep you warm enough throughout the night. The past decade or so has seen clothing chains such as Monsoon, Next and Laura Ashley move into the home decor market, and producing duvet covers that incorporate embroidery, applique and lace to give a more opulent, craft-based feel than the printed cotton covers of the late 20th century.

Reference: “A Quilter’s Guide to Amish Quilts” by Jan Jefferson and Maggi McCormick Gordon (Collins & Brown, 1998)


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