The Amish are well-known for their religious devotion, work ethic and simple lifestyle. Yet while many may suppose the Amish to be a straight-laced people, the “simple folk” are celebrated for their brightly-colored and boldly-designed quilts. The tradition of American Amish quilt making is believed to have originated in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (one of the largest and oldest Amish settlements in America) as early as 1890. It was here that disciplined craftsmanship, religious devotion and simplicity blended to create practical works of art that continue to inspire people everywhere. In fact, quilt making has been a major part of Amish life, as noted by the traditional verse:
“At your quilting, maids, don’t tarry.
Quilt quick if you would marry.
A maid who is quiltless at twenty-one,
Never shall greet her bridal sun.”
While Amish quilt designs have been commonly duplicated, few possess the careful attention to detail and beautiful natural materials that make traditional Amish quilts so popular.
The three classic Amish quilt designs are Sunlight and Shadows, Diamond in Square and Bars. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Sunshine and Shadow quilt is the most popular design. It is noted for concentric rings of light and dark colored diamonds which expand outward to form a hypnotic design. According to Sue Bender, author of “Plain and Simple,” “The Amish love the Sunshine and Shadow quilt pattern. It shows two sides–the dark and light, spirit and form–and the challenge of bringing the two into a larger unity. It’s not a choice between two extremes: conformity and freedom, discipline or imagination, acceptance or doubt, humility or a raging ego. It’s a balancing act that includes opposites.”
The Diamond in Square and Bar designs were perhaps the earliest Amish designs and were believed to have been loosely-inspired by traditional “English” quilt designs. However, these designs typically feature hand-stitching (often done at communities quilting bees) and handspun materials featuring natural dyes. Recently, Amish communities have taken the classic quilt designs a step further by creating “quilt gardens,” named for the plots of brilliantly-colored flowers carefully arranged to resemble quilt patterns. These quilt gardens have become a popular attraction in the Midwest, where Elkhart County in Northern Indiana features an annual Quilt Garden Tour through 19 gardens and featuring over 100,000 blooms. Viewing decks and informational plaques make the experience a dazzling one for hundreds of annual visitors.
Today, Amish quilts can be found in museums and in the homes of quilt-lovers throughout the United States. However, many Amish are still creating new quilts using traditional designs and old world quilting methods. Many of the major Amish communities on the East Coast and in the Midwest feature quilts for sale, as well as quilt gardens.