AMISH QUILTS

by Beate Bermann-Enn


Quilt, "Star of Bethlehem", artist unknown, Amish ca. 1920-30, cotton, 217.8 x 213.9 cm

(Fowler Museum of Cultural History, UCLA, West Los Angeles) Once appreciated only by craft lovers for their combination of beauty and utilitarian value, quilts have long since been accepted within the context of fine art. With the development of abstraction in the modernist tradition of the West, appreciation for the abstract geometric designs of quilts as fine art became inevitable.

Cindy Tietze and Stuart Hodosh have assembled this collection of Amish quilts over the years that date from the late 19th-century to the 1940s. They range in origin from Pennsylvania settlements to Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. The aesthetic strength, beauty and simplicity of these quilts derive their very appeal from the close connection to those same qualities in Amish life.

The unerring sense of design found in Amish quilts is not a matter of invention, but in the fitting together of venerated traditional patterns: Nine Patch, Sawtooth diamond in the Square, Double Wedding Rings, Irish Chain, Star of Bethlehem, Baskets, Tumbling Blocks and many other variations. The handling of borders, the preference for centralized designs and
especially the most striking feature: their superb colors. This is where the connection to modern art is most strongly felt.

Quilt, "Double Wedding Ring and Chinese Border", artist unknown, Amish ca. 1930-40, cotton, 238 x 206 cm


The Amish are a religious community originating from Protestant reforms, especially in 16th-century Switzerland. They avocate intense and sincere dedication to the fundamental teachings of the Bible, taking these often very literally. To this end they maintain a very conscious separation from their worldly neighbors and shun the infringements of "modern" society: The "Old Order Amish" will not use electricity from public utility lines, use no automobiles or tractors, live mostly from agriculture, wear plain dress, not send their children to school beyond the eighth grade, and have taboos on televisons and computers. Their ideal is one of serenity, humility, dedication, truth and obedience.

The joyful acceptance of tedious work is a key characteristic of Amish life, as witnessed in the thousands of tiny hand stitches each quilt needs in the piecing and stitching together of backing, filler and top. However, there is no easy explanation for the irrepressable delight and unquestionable gift for the subtle color combinations that these quilts exhibit.

For the making of quilts, the use of remnants of their plain clothes--no patterns--is a central feature. That clothing remnants are the source of fabrics explains the predominance of somber dark browns, greens and blues, but the deft color combinations within the same hue, going from darker to lighter shades, is a skill that most artists have to be carefully taught. Originally, bright colors such as yellow and orange were not worn and therefore not found in quilts. But a softening of these strict rules for quilts allowed the later inclusion of these colors.

 
 Susan Einstein, "Amish
Children at an Auction",
photograph, 1982


Susan Einstein, "House
Set Up for Church",
photograph, 1982

The fabrics too have changed: from the exclusive use of woolens, cottons and silks, more recent vintage quilts now may have rayon and polyester fabrics. These changes reflect different outlooks in the varying communities. From an original count of about 5,000 Amish the communities have today grown to about 150,000, with new settlements and communities ranging from the original in Pennsylvania to Indiana. East Coast patterns and a preference for wool as a material was supplemented by a midwestern preference for cotton and a tradition of finer piece work. Also, individual quilters would carry their own styles and preferences with them to new communities, where they would be exercised--if permitted by the local variant of the "Ordnung," the Amish oral tradition that spells out rules of conduct.

Some most amazing feats of needle craftsmanship were hidden in the almost invisible stitches of the quilting patterns. In these hidden stitches the quiltmaker also was finally able to use representational designs, rather than the simple geometrics of the colored tops: feathers, leaves, wreathes, birds etc. were used for the quilt stitches that held the layers together. The usefulness of the quilts were a perfect reason to spend so much time on a work which we may consider art, but which were made strictly for their utility.

Accompanying this exhibition will be a show of photographs by Susan Einstein, Views of an Amish Community: Photographs by Susan Einstein and a superb catalogue, "A Quiet Spirit," that includes essays on the Amish that will serve as a guide that lends background and documentation to this ever fascinating pocket of American life, one that is so different in its rejection of the hectic qualities generated by modern societies striving for personal achievement and material success.