Thoroughly Modern Amish Quilts

Amish quilts had a heyday in the ’80s and ’90s.  Their bold colors and graphic patterns worked well with contemporary interiors and evoked the rural Amish lifestyle that was portrayed so appealingly in Peter Weir’s thriller “Witness” and  Sue Bender’s bestseller “Plain and Simple: A Woman’s Journey to the Amish.”  In an age of increased technological complexity, simplicity sold.

Though Amish quilts are used less frequently in today’s home decor, any time they’re exhibited they tend to draw a crowd.  If you live in the Bay Area you’ll find some excellent examples at Antique Ohio Amish Quilts from the Darwin D. Bearley Collection, a new exhibit opening this weekend at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles.  A companion exhibit of  twenty modern quilts from three Bay Area modern quilt guilds (including the quilts shown here) shows the continuing appeal of hand-sewn simplicity.

You can read more about the exhibits here in my BANG article, but I wanted to share two other things that San Francisco-based quilt expert Joe Cunningham had to say when I interviewed him for the story. First, he pointed out that the modern quilter’s aesthetic is not only inspired by the past but also developed in reaction to it.  “Young quilters don’t want to shop at their moms’ favorite fabric shops or join their mothers’ quilt guilds,” said Cunningham. “And they really don’t want to make their mothers’ quilts.”

I can imagine their mothers’ quilts—elaborate constructions made possible through improved cutting tools and exposure to a wide range of techniques demonstrated in quilting publications, workshops, and fabric stores. Some of those women made spare Amish-like quilts, but most tackled complex patterns with an incredible variety of fabrics. Then they appliqued and embellished the layers of fabric and batting to within a 1/4 inch of their mitered borders. More was more.

So it’s no surprise that in order to create something that they can call their own, a new generation of quiltmakers has embraced a more spare, Amish-like, style of quiltmaking.

The young quilters I interviewed told me that they’re busier than their mothers—working full time while raising kids–and not able to devote as much time to their craft. I hear what they’re saying, but I also think that women have always been busy.  Certainly 19th century quilters had plenty to do but still managed to produce intricately pieced quilts covered with exquisite hand-quilted stitches. So I’d propose that we all seem to move more quickly through our obsessions nowdays. None of us are spending hours, weeks and months working on a single craft or art project any more.  Simpler quilts mean quicker turn around times which is in keeping with the pace of our modern lives.

The other point Cunningham made is that women have always made quilts not because it’s the most efficient way to cover a bed, but because it’s one of the loveliest.  “You could make warm bed coverings by simply tying whole layers of fabric together without going to the trouble of piecing fabric scraps into artistic patterns and then covering them with hand stitching,” says Cunningham.  “Historically quilts were works of art that allowed women to get together and make gifts for the people they loved. That hasn’t changed.”

Modern quilters may purchase materials, learn techniques and share their art online, but my guess is that they’re still motivated to quilt because they want to make something beautiful–and warm–for real live people.

 “Antique Ohio Amish Quilts: The Darwin D. Bearley Collection” and “Amish: The Modern Muse” open Saturday, November 15 at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles. 


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  1. kelly o!
    Posted November 18, 2014 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Thank you for a wonderful article! I’m a member of the Bay Area Modern Quilt Guild, one of the guilds invited to submit quilts for this exhibit.

    There were so many gorgeous quilts entered for consideration, and so many accepted, that there will be a second show of additional Amish-inspired modern quilts beginning in early January.

    Members of the three guilds, Bay Area MQG, East Bay MQG and the South Bay Area MQG, are very excited to have worked with the Museum to showcase some of our amazing local talent.

    Thank you, again, for shining a light on a terrific exhibit!

    • kathryn
      Posted November 26, 2014 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

      You’re so welcome, Kelly! I’m excited to see all these quilts in the exhibit.

  2. Melania
    Posted March 8, 2020 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Mansplaining women’s work.

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Kathryn Pritchett

writes about Things Elemental — where we find shelter, why we connect, what sustains us and how we strut our stuff.