Drive through Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, or Holmes County, Ohio, and you can’t miss signs advertising quilts for sale. Quilts have become one of the objects most closely associated with the Old Order Amish, and these bedcovers frequently serve as souvenirs from tourists’ visits to these regions. Yet prior to around 1970, no one used the adjective “Amish” to describe quilts.
Amish quilts have become iconic because the old quilts—the ones in dark, solid colors, crafted in simple geometric patterns—reminded art enthusiasts of abstract paintings. As outsiders flocked to Amish settlements in the 1970s and 1980s to buy these old quilts, or purchased ones that had made their way to urban art and antiques dealers’ galleries or even to Sotheby’s auctions, Amish quiltmakers discovered that a viable market existed for their handcrafted bedcovers. They began to make ones tailored for the consumer market.
Many Amish entrepreneurs make custom quilts, designed to match a customer’s curtains or rug. Amish quilt designers follow the latest trends in home decorating and adapt commercially published quilt patterns used by non-Amish makers as well. And these businesses participate in the thriving multibillion-dollar quilt industry, which manufactures an abundance of fabric expressly designed for quiltmaking, churns out books and patterns with instructions for making every conceivable style of quilt, and hosts numerous trade shows and exhibits marketing the latest and greatest trends. Quilting is big business, and Amish quiltmakers are part of it.
Amish quiltmakers informally participated in the business of quiltmaking, long before quiltmakers had adopted the efficiencies of the rotary cutter and long-arm sewing machine. Since at least the early decades of the twentieth century, Amish families hired women in their communities with particular design and sewing skills to piece quilt tops—the decorative top layer of a quilt. An Amish mother might have taken that completed top and invited her sisters, aunts, and friends to a “quilting” to collaboratively complete the quilt by gathering around a quilting frame to stitch tiny running stitches through the three layers of the bedcovering. At least one Amish family in Lancaster County hired a particularly skilled neighbor to quilt their finished tops, although this was much less common than hiring out the piecing.
Quilting for hire is now a mainstay in many Amish settlements, where women quilt in their spare time to supplement family incomes. Amish quilters typically charge by the yard of thread used. More intricately stitched quilts are thus more costly, since the quilter used more thread. And a less expensive quilt, you can be sure, has fewer (and probably larger) stitches.
Janneken Smucker is an assistant professor of history at West Chester University. A quiltmaker herself, she is author of Amish Quilts: Crafting an American Icon, now available from JHU Press.
To read The New York Times 2013 Holiday Gift Guide’s review of Amish Quilts, click here.