BY BOBBIE SUMBERG
In 1971 the quiet power of dark colors and large, simple shapes seen in Amish quilts exploded into the art world in the Whitney Museum exhibition Abstract Design in American Quilts. At that time, the quilts presented a stark contrast to the intricate pieced quilts museum visitors expected to see. Decades later these celebrated textiles may be more familiar, but they have rarely been on view in Santa Fe. Plain Geometry: Amish Quilts, at the Museum of International Folk Art from March 3 to September 2, 2013, gathers thirty-four Amish quilts from the museum’s collection and from local collectors, and unfurls their spare and disciplined beauty. The visual tradition of Old Order Amish from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, as expressed in quilts, might seem to have sprung full blown from the fertile soil of lovingly tended farms. But in fact, the Amish quilt tradition developed in a unique set of circumstances; understanding these circumstances and subsequent change can add to our appreciation of these stunning quilts and their makers.
Quilt making in North America dates to the earliest colonial times. Settlers both free and captive brought their needle skills and aesthetics with them, adapting to the presence or absence of familiar materials, and finding creative ways to work with scarcity. The followers of Jacob Amman, who espoused a particularly conservative form of Protestantism, arrived in Pennsylvania from Switzerland and Germany between 1737 and 1754. Their lives were built on a foundation of fellowship among the community of believers (Gemeinde), an evolving set of rules that govern behavior (Ordnung), and the belief that baptism must be chosen as an adult. Salvation is obtained not only by faith but by living a life of self-denial and obedience, living apart from the world and in fellowship with the community. The concept of living apart from the world of their “English” neighbors has a lot to do with how Amish quilts look. Their material world is governed by the tenet of plainness. Simplicity, necessity, and functionality are key to the Amish aesthetic.
The plain people continued to make and use the woven blankets and feather-filled comforters they brought with them from Europe for well over one hundred years in the United States. Only in the late nineteenth century did quilt making take hold in this community. The iconic Amish quilt of a large, plain field surrounded by multiple borders, sometimes compared to the work of geometric abstract painters such as Piet Mondrian, Agnes Martin, and Frank Stella, springs from two different quilt designs. The medallion quilt design came from Europe with the earliest colonists. It featured a center motif or medallion, often a piece of printed calico or a motif cut out of precious printed cotton and appliquéd onto the cloth of the quilt, surrounded by borders of varied widths. The whole-cloth quilt, the other prototype, was made from one color of fabric with the quilting stitches that hold the layers in place providing the only decoration. Both medallion and whole-cloth quilts went out of fashion in most of the country in the early nineteenth century, as intricate pieced quilts, utilizing increasingly available American printed cottons, became popular.
When they started making quilts in the last few decades of the nineteenth century, Amish women combined and modified these two styles to fit the strictures of their faith. These quintessentially Amish bed coverings, comprised of large shapes and dark, saturated colors, were deliberately created in an out-of-date style to conform to a conservative ethos. Old Order Amish women from Lancaster and Mifflin Counties in Pennsylvania created the design template readily seen on the circa 1920 Lancaster County bars quilt. They made wide borders surrounding a center motif: here a fourteen-inch-wide strip of purple with brown corners. They used dark thread for quilting regardless of the color of the fabric, and they covered the textile with intricate stitched designs. Feather wreaths, flowers, and a grid of diamonds decorate this quilt. Solid color wool fabrics such as the ones used here were bought from traveling merchants and primarily used for making clothing as well as for the best, or show quilts. The use of printed fabric for clothing and furnishings is forbidden by the ordnung among all the Amish groups. Thus printed fabric never appears on the front of a quilt but is sometimes seen on the back of quilts made by Old Order quilters. This bars pattern, as well as the center square and diamond in square patterns, were made by Old Order Amish women for their own use into the 1960s and continue to be made today for sale.
Amish communities grew quickly from an initial immigrant population of about 500. Always in search of affordable farmland, they began migrating west in the early nineteenth century. Communities were established in Holmes, Wayne, Stark, and Tuscarawas Counties in Ohio. From there, families moved to the Indiana frontier beginning in the 1840s. Smaller settlements were established in other midwestern states and Canada into the twentieth century. A bowtie quilt embodies some of the changes in quilt making that came along with a new environment. This quilt, which pulses with the vibrancy of 1960s Op Art, comes from Holmes County, Ohio, and was made about 1930.
Ohio Amish quilts made from the 1920s to the 1940s are characterized by the usual prohibition against print fabric and two new elements: the color black and a preference for cotton. These two factors set the Ohio aesthetic apart from the aesthetic that developed in Pennsylvania. The use of black, far from creating a somber textile, brings contrast and drama, especially when paired with bright hues. Polished cotton and cotton sateen fabrics shine and have a softer hand than the wools used in Pennsylvania. The strong contrast between the magenta bowties and the black squares and hexagons allows for a modest occurrence of the figure-ground perception problem. Was this intentional on the part of the quilter or a happy coincidence that developed from the cultural guidelines employed in the design and making of this quilt? We have no way of knowing that now; all we can do is to admire the skill of their makers and enjoy the visual treat these textiles give in abundance.
Bobbie Sumberg is curator of textiles and costume at the Museum of International Folk Art and curated Plain Geometry: Amish Quilts. The catalog for her previous exhibition, Young Brides, Old Treasures, was published by the Museum of International Folk Art and is available in the museum’s gift shop.