The Amish have always been an enigma to the rest of the world. In order to maintain their prescribed lifestyle, Amish people willingly chose conditions and restrictions foreign to the contemporary world. This is an important historical factor in understanding the effect it had on their quilts made between 1880 and the 1930s. Amish quilts were not part of the culture in America until the 1880s.
There are many different Amish, also known as the Plain People.
While their basic principles and beliefs are shared, there are degrees of tolerance that vary from one group to the next. However, the respect for the values of the past is reflected in every Amish family, including what they wear. Avoiding certain bright colors also provides anonymity or the ability to blend rather than stand out.
Between 1880 and the 1930s, eighteenth-century clothing styles were preferred—most often solid wool plaincloth (no prints), and as you might expect, limited to earth colors. When you consider the color of wool produced at that time, it was either the natural color of the sheep or limited to hues created with natural dyes. Needless to say, the clothing was drab. When the Amish began to wear cotton, it was in the same color range as their wool fabrics.
Dark colored clothing was a practical choice because it didn’t show dirt or need to be cleaned as often. White was worn “for dress,” such as church and special occasions, but usually restricted to shirts for men and boys, and bonnets and aprons for women and girls. White was also more commonly used during funeral services. Children often wore more colorful clothing until the time they agreed to be baptized around age 18 to 22. Then they adopted the prescribed fashions of the community. Black was commonly worn by all ages. Everything had to be done by hand or with the treadle sewing machine or other devices that could be operated without electricity.
Amish women learned from the “English.”
This was any group that spoke English, not necessarily people from England. However, the Amish learned quilting from fellow immigrants from England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.
The designs were graphic and large in format, with geometric center medallions with simple borders and inner frames that extended to the edges of the quilt. These styles were in keeping with those of the British Isles. This form and its variations allowed for many different interpretations. Conforming to simple geometry also allowed Amish quilters to reject fancy and frivolous appliqué designs, as well as complex geometric repetitive patterns found in mainstream quilts.
All Amish practices fell under the watchful eyes of their bishops, men who were appointed by the members of each community to be their leaders. They had no special training for this position, simply a great deal of respect in the community for being fair and just. Historically, Amish societal standards and traditions helped to keep quilt designs in line with their plain culture. Quilters were aware that their quilting should not be too elaborate, lest a bishop or other members of the community suggest they be more humble in their sewing and their manners.
Creating with everyday fabrics
Amish women only used the fabrics that they would use in their everyday life, both in their clothing and home furnishings. White and light colors were impractical for everyday use because they would soil quickly. Colors starting with yellow-green and moving through the color spectrum to yellow, yellow-orange, orange, red-orange, and red were very seldom used by the Amish. The only exception to this was more muted and tonal shades of these colors.
Fabrics used by the Amish were plain—no prints, plaids, or stripes appeared on the front of a quilt. Wool was most commonly used, but some quilters used cotton and cotton blends. The quilts that resulted from within these restrictions were very similar. They were not a style or a type that developed by choice, but grew out of strict limitations. However, the variety within these confines was amazing. When teaching my art classes, I would often limit my students to the same restrictions. The results were often the same as in early Amish quilts—clearly the result of a limited palette, rather than free choice.
Some Amish quilts represent color activities theorized by Josef Albers much later in his seminal 1963 book, Interaction of Color. Albers played with the relativity and interaction of colors when they were placed next to each other, reduced to those of limited contrast, and when they shared the same values such as light with lights, dark with darks, dull with dulls, and bright with brights. This allowed colors to visually interplay, lend, and borrow from one another, rather than being restricted.
In early classic Amish quilts, we find these kinds of consistent color relationships. Later, as quiltmaking filtered into a more widespread geographic area, changes and differences occurred with respect to the beliefs of each community. More complex pieced patterns, similar to those in traditional quilts, became more common, especially in Midwestern Amish communities that had broken away from those in Pennsylvania.
In time, materials such as cotton, cotton blends, polyester, and other synthetics also became acceptable. Even the occasional print, plaid, or stripe might have appeared, as well as white and sometimes even yellow. Even as more complex patterns and designs became acceptable, color relationships of the early quilts remained in evidence. Interaction is combined with the more traditional use of contrasting colors. While distinct differences are obvious, they are unmistakably Amish.
Collector and certified quilt appraiser Gerald E. Roy is also a quilter, painter, and antique dealer.
Check out more quilts with Amish inspirations in this the July/August 2019 issue of Love of Quilting.