Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Quilt, Center Square and Bars pattern

Amish maker
A. K.
Made in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, United States
84 3/4 x 78 1/8 in. (215.3 x 198.4 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Tananbaum, 1973
Accession Number:
Not on view
The top of this quilt has large squares and bars in solid green, rust, purple, and maroon wool with a blue-green binding. The backing is of navy-blue wool, All the fabrics, except for the backing, seem home dyed. The quilt was pieced and bound on a sewing machine. The quilting is hand stitched; the center square and narrow sidebars are diamond quilted, the corner blocks are quilted with baskets of fruit, and the border is quilted with tulips and fiddlehead ferns.
Our simply designed Center Square and Bars quilt, pieced from what may be home-dyed fabrics, was most likely made in Lancaster County. Signed and dated Pennsylvania-Amish quilts are very rare, and the inscription
"18 A K 92," embroidered in red wool chain stitch at the bottom of the center square, makes this one of the few Amish quilts that can be properly documented to the nineteenth century. The earliest known Amish quilts were simply composed, with a strong central focus--a type of design thought to be based on the central medallion quilts popular in the "English" community during the early nineteenth century. The Lancaster County Amish considered a limited number of pieced patterns to be acceptable. This quilt shows an unusual variation on the more common Center Square pattern. The dark orange fabric on the top border, which does not match the other three sides of dark red, and the inner border on only two sides give the quilt a less rigorously symmetrical appearance than later Amish examples. The influence of Lancaster County’s Germanic heritage can be seen in the traditional Pennsylvania German tulip motifs quilted into the ends of the wide borders.
In the 1971 Whitney Museum exhibition "Abstract Design in American Quilts," boldly graphic quilts like
these were compared to American modern abstract paintings. This exhibition set off a rush of Amish quilt collecting; the Museum acquired its first Amish quilts in 1973. In the early days of collecting, the outside world knew little about the traditions of the Amish communities. For this reason, and because most elaborately quilted mainstream American quilts were made in the nineteenth century, there was a tendency to date many of the Amish quilts to the latter part of the nineteenth century. As scholarship progressed, however, it became clear that the vast majority of the Amish quilts seen today in collections and publications were made in the first four decades of the twentieth century. The Amish came to the practice of quilt-making about fifty years after the height of its popularity in the outside world, and employed both quilting motifs and some patterns well after the
peak of their use among other quilt makers.
The golden age of Amish quilt-making occurred between 1890 and 1940. Quilts from Lancaster County in this period are distinguished by their generally dark coloration, fine quilt stitching, and natural-fiber fabrics. In many cases, the look of Amish quilts made after 1940 began to change. Shortages of fabrics during World War II, and, later, a preference for man-made fabrics, which were considered more durable than natural-fiber cloths, as
well as synthetic batting that is easier to sew through than the cotton batting of the earlier period, all contributed to the change. From a collector’s point of view, these new materials do not enhance a quilt’s appearance because synthetics such as rayon and, later, polyester, have a reflective sheen that affects the depth of the fabric’s color, giving it a lighter look. Further, synthetic batting has more loft than cotton batting, and, because of this added thickness, the number of quilting stitches per inch tends to be reduced, resulting in less-intricate quilting patterns.
When Amish quilt makers realized that the outside world was interested in purchasing their quilts, they began to tailor them specifically for sale to that market. These are often made to fit modern queen-and king-size beds, an enlargement in overall size that has led to an increase in the scale of many of the patterns. Some new Amish quilts are made in light colors to coordinate with modern interiors, and some even include printed fabrics.
However, quilt-making is still an important part of Amish life today, and many quilts are made for use within the community. Girls learn to make quilts at an early age and usually make several quilts to be taken with them after they marry. In many Amish communities, quilt-making for the outside world has become a highly profitable cottage industry. It is considered a good way for women to contribute to their community, especially as farming becomes less profitable and land less readily available; the extra money from selling quilts helps to preserve the traditional Amish lifestyle.
[Peck 2015; adapted from Amelia Peck, "American Quilts & Coverlets in the Metropolitan Museum of Art," 2007]
Inscription: embroidered in red cotton thread at center bottom of central patch: 18 A K 92
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