When you think of Amish people, you think of horse-drawn buggies, plain clothes, barn raisings, farms and quilts. However, the Amish came rather late to the quilt making. Long after their neighbors were piecing quilts the Amish still used the old German feather beds and coverlets. There was a good reason for this. Amish communities were formed so that the members could remain apart from the temptations of the modern world. At this time, quilts were considered something new and modern. But what is considered ‘modern’ changes over the years.
The Amish do gradually make changes as well, but often a few decades later. Amish quilt making is a good example of this. Very few quilts are known to have been made by the Amish before the 1870s. Then over 15 years quilting became quite common. It is now considered commonplace and expected in the Amish community.
As we follow the evolution of their quilt making we find that the Amish always used conservative styles compared to what was popular in quilting at any given time. The first Amish quilts were made in one solid color, of brown, blue, rust or black. Often worsted wools were used, and though the fabric was plain, the quilting done to hold the layers together was intricate and decorative. Swirling feathers, curves and grids were typical quilting patterns. So even though they had adopted the quilting process, they still did not do the modern art of colored swatches and patches.
Gradually some basic piecing and additional colors were added. For example a quilt may have had a large diamond in the middle of a dark fabric with only wide border around it. Fabric colors evolved to include pumpkin, olive green and an occasional dark red. These new colors were still deep and solid.
As the general population moved on to elaborate Crazy quilts the Amish adopted some of the more basic of the block patterns. Nine patch, Around the World, and Sunshine and Shadow were popular. Only solid colored fabric was used but with more varied colors. Amish quilts were made of wool or cotton, as popular silks were considered too worldly.
Most people assume that Amish quilts were done completely by hand but this was not the case. Many Amish quilts were pieced using a treadle sewing machine but the beautiful quilting was always done by hand.
Although most piecing was done at home, when the top was ready to be quilted it was often an occasion for women to gather around the quilting frame. This sense of community and the importance of complying with community standards had a great influence on Amish quilting.
Changes in how quilts were made occurred slowly and only with community approval. Interestingly, this also brought about a good deal of variety from community to community as each community had its own, often unwritten guidelines as to how things should be done. Pink or white fabric may have been considered unacceptable in a more conservative area, while drab browns may have been thought dull and old-fashioned in a more liberal one. A quilt made in one community might be put away or sold when the family moved to another one.
In the early twentieth century new brighter colors became available. During World War II natural fiber was hard to come by and the Amish had to turn to the synthetics available. As most of the nation turned away from quilting, considering it old-fashioned and a waste of time, the Amish continued the tradition.