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The Quilt Scout

by Mary Fons

Column #20

On The Amish Bar Quilt

I have great pride in announcing myself as someone who makes “scrap quilts exclusively.” I have probably said this several times, which is unnecessary, but a quilter is proud of her practice and we like to be known for it, not just for the amazing cookie bars we bring to guild meetings.

 

But as this exclusively scrappy quilter was looking through Jonathan Holstein’s The Pieced Quilt—that essential, eternal book every quilter should have on her bookshelf—I found myself mesmerized once again by several Amish bar quilts from around 1890.

                                                                                                                           Photo Above: Wool quilt, (76 x 68). Lancaster Co., 1886


Amish bar quilts are the opposite of scrap quilts. There are not dozens of different fabrics in this patchwork: on the contrary, these quilts are made with often four or five fabrics only, and nary a print among them. Are there exceptions? Surely, but I’ve never seen a super-scrappy Amish Bar quilt myself and besides, when you do a Google image search for “scrappy Amish bar quilt” nothing comes up, so that proves everything.

Photo left: This one is a diamond-in-a-square pattern, but same idea.

Lancaster Co., 1886.

The restraint shown in these quilts is a marvel to me. The golden age of the Amish bar quilt, from what I have put together in looking at a lot of them, seems to be from roughly 1870-1930. (Please, please correct me if that is wildly off.) At that point in our country’s history there was plenty of printed cotton available, so the limited number of fabrics used in the quilt comes from active editing, not from a lack of options.

 

The simplicity of these quilts is a reflection of the importance the Amish people place on being “plain.” To be plain via clothing (there are other applications, e.g., machinery, social interactions, etc.) is to wear modest dress made from almost exclusively (there’s that word again) solid-color fabrics. There are a lot of aprons, a lot of high-waisted pants worn with crisp cotton shirts and suspenders.

This simple, humble clothing is intended to

 

display obedience to the church and conformity to the separatist, deeply religious community. Feather boas and hot pants need not apply, in other words.

 

When you look at a group of Amish people, specifically Pennsylvania Dutch Amish, you definitely do not want a feather boa to obstruct your view.

 

 

Photo Above: A real-life Amish clothesline, more attractive than 90% of the stuff I saw at a big gallery show in

Chicago recently.

 

The Amish employ such deep, rich colors—inky blacks, rust reds, robin’s egg blues, deep, mossy greens—that massage some part of the brain and you begin to think, “I could be very happy wearing those clothes for the rest of my life.” For my part, I get over the clothing temptation fairly quickly; I’ve got too much money invested in my hotpant collection at this point. But the quilts, the quilts! The simple, restrained quilts tempt me and so far, I have not shaken the desire to do a reproduction Amish bar. Soon.

 

Using five fabrics in a quilt goes against everything I do as a quiltmaker. It’s my belief that if two pinks are good, 20 are better. You see, I love fabric so much, I want to use as much as possible so that I can go buy more. But the Amish show us that if there’s just one pink in a quilt, that pink becomes more beautiful somehow. It’s the only pink that matters. If there are only five fabrics in a quilt, those five fabrics have more power: they were the five best fabrics, the five that made the cut from a veritable sea of options. It’s pure elegance.

 

The best thing a person can do, if she or he be a quilter, is to never rule anything out. Did I think I’d ever make a mini-quilt? No, because I like people-sized quilts. But I made one the other day for a Quilts of Valor auction event and you know what? It was really fun and boy was it faster than making something queen-sized. And now, contrary to my typical preferences, I have every intention of making a “plain” Amish bar quilt.

 

It’s simple, really. When I look at these quilts, I am happy. And that is what a quilt should do: it should make every man, woman, and child—in somber dress or feather boas evening gowns—plain, old happy.