Believe it or not, early German-speaking immigrants warmed their beds with woven coverlets, not quilts. They learned how to quilt from their “English”neighbors. By the end of the Civil War, Amish women were creating the graphic wool quilts that eventually would be displayed in museums around the world.
One quilt in Lancasterhistory.org’s collection is the epitome of Amish quilts for sale, from the design to the colors and the quilting. Wendell Zercher, a Lancasterhistory.org curator, shared more about the piece in a recent talk about the history of quilting in Lancaster County.
Similar to Amish culture, there are unspoken rules about how to make a quilt, Zercher said.
“There were certain things Amish women knew that they could use, certain fabrics, certain colors, certain designs and they should not step over the boundary,” he said. “They could dance real close to the boundary, but by and large, they were of one mind and they knew exactly, even if it wasn't written down, what they were supposed to use.”
This quilt made in 1910, has dark colors and geometric design. It was featured on the cover of the catalogue of “AMISH: The Art of the Quilt” at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in 1990.
Amish women loved quilting with thin wool when the fabric was available. Often, the fabrics were the same to make clothing, in reds, blues, purples and greens.
“They loved these deep, rich, saturated colors,” Zercher said. “They just almost glowed. In the earlier days, the colors tended to be more muted, a little darker and a little more reserved. As time went on, we have brighter colors. Usually, black was not used.”
In other Amish communities, like Holmes County, Ohio, black is everywhere.
The earliest Amish quilts were simple framed squares. Later, a center medallion was added with a square or a square tilted on point, like a diamond.
The quilt is part of the Esprit collection of the late Doug Tompkins. Tompkins co-founded Esprit and the North Face. He fell in love with the abstract quilts and collected Amish quilts with a focus on those made in Lancaster County.
Tompkins displayed several of the quilts at Esprit’s San Francisco headquarters and said he hoped they would influence employees.
“We have found that living among such masterpieces of design, color and workmanship has inspired designs, tuned all of our senses to design and left us all a little bit, if not a lot richer,” he wrote in a 1985 quilt collection catalog.
In 2002, he sold 82 of those quilts from his collection to the former Lancaster Quilt & Textile Museum. The quilts are now part of Lancasterhistory.org’s collection and travel around the world for exhibits.