The Medallion quilt pattern originated as a teaching exercise for sewing and quilting projects. Initially comprised of various compass and star medallions, as the quilter’s skills improved, the Medallion patterns became increasingly difficult. By the mid-1700’s simple Medallion quilt patterns had come a long way, becoming the preferred and most popular quilt pattern of the day. Today it remains a favored pattern. A Medallion pattern can be created via an applique technique and via paper piecing, but the truly prized Medallion quilts are those that are hand pieced, and this is how the Amish piece their quilts: fabric is connected to fabric so that all pieces are within the same plane. A good example of a pieced Medallion quilt is the Jinny Beyer Moon Glow quilt sold by Amish Spirit: hand pieced and of course, hand quilted.
Star and star patterns are popular with many cultures, so it’s no wonder we often see stars in Amish quilts. The pattern names are as varied as the stars: Lone Star, Texas Star, Star of Bethlehem, Broken Star, Mariners Star and Radiant Star are just a few quilt patterns containing stars. A star pattern quilt is typically constructed of hundreds (and in some case, thousands) of sewn-together diamond shaped pieces of fabric. Only skilled quilters are able to perfectly align the sides of the diamonds to create star patterns. These difficult to make and much-prized patterns are in the permanent collections of museums including the Carnegie Museum and the Smithsonian.
In the case of Amish quilts, a star pattern contains a great deal of symbolism. A star represents good fortune, love, hope, harmony, energy, fertility and protection from fires. There are also finer design criteria pertaining to the number of points in a star, which also has significance. For example, eight points symbolizes abundance and good will.
If society can be distilled or simplified down to its ingredient cultures, and if cultures come from and are based on traditions, then a society’s art based on component cultures and their respective traditions means, by extension, that all art is folk art. Handmade quilts are art and as such, the folk art of the Amish. They symbolically present beliefs, whisperings, conventions, habits, lifestyles and memories of a culture that began in Europe in the late 1600’s. However, even back then the culture and its traditions were based on conventions that arose from previous times. So it goes back and back, reflecting what came before until the echoes eventually fade. A handmade Amish quilt should be seen as patterns and colors that may not have originated with the Amish. However, the Amish make pattern and color their own, filtered through their beliefs and lifestyle. What is particularly fascinating is how some Amish quilts reflect not back but forward to the future! (We’ll discuss this in an upcoming post.) We’ve written 8 articles that discuss, from a folk art point of view, the basic types, designs, patterns and colors used by the Amish in their quilt making.
Log Cabin Quilts
Basic Log Cabin quilt blocks are hand-pieced strips of fabric around a central square. One half of the strips are usually dark and the other half light. During America’s Civil War, the term “Log Cabin” was coined and may have had a connection to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. However, similar Log Cabin-like designs are found in English quilts predating 1830. An interesting historical point pertains to folklore suggesting that the signals for stops along the Underground Railroad were indicated by Log Cabin quilts hanging on clotheslines, with the color of the central square indicating special instructions. Specific to Amish culture, a red center square symbolizes the hearth of home and a yellow center square indicates a welcoming light in the window. The most interesting aspect of the Log Cabin quilt pattern is its capacity for manipulation into different patterns. The simple strips around a center block can be varied in size to create the curves seen in a Log Cabin in the Round quilt. A quilter can also make diagonal cuts into the “log” strips, sew them back together and create stars as seen in the Colorado Log Cabin quilt. Other variations include the Star Log Cabin and the Pineapple Log Cabin.
Anyone who thinks that Amish quilts are too traditional, old fashioned or stuffy, this is for you. Here are images of a client’s bedroom – with Amish quilts.
Our client liked two quilts enough to purchase both of them. The bedroom is modern and clean of line and in design, texture and color. The designer of this bedroom makeover worked with the quilts. Originally an area rug was chosen that had a white geometric pattern over a dark field. However, it was felt that this rug would fight with the quilts. The designer ended up choosing a large white area rug framed by a newly exposed hardwood floor to set off and contrast nicely with the quilts. It’s a great look and a job well done!
Amish Spirit markets and sells hand quilted quilts made by Old Order Amish quilters who are members of a small community in rural Pennsylvania.
Thus far, our articles have in small part described some of our Amish friends, taken a stab at explaining why they make quilts and have described what a quilt is. This (our 4th) article discusses three commonly used terms which we fell people get wrong or at least not quite right: 1) “Handmade quilts” 2) “Good quilts” 3) “Hand quilted quilts”
“ Handmade Quilts:”
When someone uses the term “handmade quilt” or calls a quilt “handmade”, they are saying nothing. All quilts are handmade! Every quilt is made by hand. The quilter might use a sewing machine to piece or to quilt a quit, however, these are not technically mass produced machine made quilts. They are handmade quilts created by a person who is enjoying the process of making a quilt.
A “good quilt” only needs to be special to the beholder and well made to called a “good quilt.”
By well made, we mean that the quilt’s top and back should be dye fast quilt grade cotton (not scrap cottons for dresses, curtains or anything else).
Quilt grade cottons will hold stitches, the cotton will not shred or fray and the stitches will remain stitches (rather than loosen, pop or slip) and keep the batting in place.
The batting of a “good quilt” should be cotton, polyester or a blend and from a reliable manufacturer.
If your “good quilt” is hand quilted, there should be no less than six stitches per linear inch.
The above points make up a well and properly made “good quilt.”
“Hand Quilted Quilts”:
As mentioned above, hand quilted quilts are what our Amish friends make. This is a quilt that’s stitched, quilted and bound entirely by hand. There are no machines used in the quilting at all. Each stitch is distinctive – different from the one before and the one after, both in size and in distance. Want to better examine the hand quilting? Turn the quilt over and look at the back of it.
There are some hand quilted quilts that are commercially made. They are units of merchandise that are made quickly and inexpensively. The quilting tells the story. You’ll typically see only 3 to 5 stitches per inch in a commercially “hand quilted” quilt. We generalize here, but good quilting and good quality quilts go hand in hand.
The ability of layered fabrics to insulate against the cold has been known for a long time. Quilts as we know them are made of three layers: the quilt top, the batting and the quilt back. The quilting is the stitching that bonds these three layers together to create the quilt.
The top of the quilt can be one fabric, or, it can be a pieced quilt top, sometimes made of thousands of pieces of fabric sewn together to make the quilt top. The middle layer of a quilt – the batting – is more and more often polyester. Unless asked to do otherwise, even the Old Order `choose polyester batting over cotton batting. You may wonder why quilters use polyester rather than cotton batting? A polyester bat is easier to quilt, it has more loft (better memory) and it shows off the quilting more effectively than cotton batting. A handmade quilt with polyester batting is also easier to care for, it dries faster and the batting will not shift or shrink with use. Also, the quilt does not retain body moisture and it is much warmer than a quilt with a cotton batting.
People and all beings do what they can to survive and to perpetuate. The earliest New World settlers needed to keep warm – so quilt making on these shores began in the early 1700’s. Any materials, burlap sacks, anything, that could be used was used.
It makes sense that the act of quilt making (an activity with a pay off) gave the quilt maker a purpose, comfort and pleasure. Once people’s lives became a bit more secure, quilt making (still very basic) gradually morphed into a creative activity. For the Amish, this was one of the few such activities allowed: It had a purpose, therefore, harmony. No matter how strictly you go about your life, it’s human to at least enjoy and give meaning to the task at hand. It is not unexpected that the Amish, who live simply in harmony with nature, the land, the seasons and the rising and setting of the sun, would apply themselves to this activity and that this activity would reflect their lifestyle.
Their first quilts were wholecloth quilts, but they could never waste pieces of fabric, so, simple pieced quilts were made . . . It is very clear that the best quilts made by the Amish reflect a spirit and force: from nature, family and faith in their beliefs. While the forms and shapes are simple: the harmony – the voice of two fabrics brought together in a quilt ring clear and shining.
Over a short period of time, quilt making which began as a necessity has become a tradition that is now found in the permanent collections of major museums. Because it is highly appreciated and in demand, part of the Amish economy is based on the sale of their quilts. So the original reason for quilt making, survival, remains intact.
The Old Order Amish are the largest group of Amish in America, and, in the world. No organization holds these people together. Rather, they are linked by their faith and traditions.
The Old Order Amish are conservative, non-reform and non-progressive. We understand them by seeing them as entirely “off-grid.” They choose to be separate from the rest of us (off-grid) in order not to be distracted from their faith and from their way of life.
Our Old Order Amish friends love to laugh. They shop at WalMart, will ride a train or call a non-Amish friend for a ride in a car. They will not operate a film camera but if shown how to use an iPad, will do so with enjoyment. They don’t have telephones, but if you leave a message the neighbor next door, they will return your call.
Their children are attentive, sweet and shy. When our Amish friend took her grandchildren for ice cream she had a large banana split. When this friend’s son was ill, he was brought to Pittsburg’s best hospital for tests.
Ted and Karen Milton Amish Spirit (division of RIA Group, Ltd.) www.amishspirit.com 914.564.8089