Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Quilt, Split Bars pattern

Amish maker
ca. 1930
Made in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, United States
Wool and cotton
Approx. 88 1/2 x 77 in. (224.8 x 195.6 cm)
Credit Line:
Purchase, Jan P. Adelson and Joyce B. Cowin Gifts, 2004
Accession Number:
Not on view
This Split Bars quilt is an example of the type of centrally focused pattern most favored by the Lancaster County Amish, and it is clear how it may have "grown" out of simpler early patterns like the Center Square and Bars (1973.124). The jewel-like colors of blue-gray, magenta, green, and red make this quilt a particularly appealing example of the pattern. As is usual for this type of quilt, the central striped panel is diamond quilted, and the borders around it are embellished with fancier quilting. There is a floral vine in the narrow red border, and the wide border is quilted with a feather vine and additional shorter runs of feather quilting that, as on its older sister quilt, terminate in tulips.
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]
Purchased from dealer Stella Rubin, who sold it on behalf of Julie Silber, the former curator of the Esprit Collection of Amish quilts. This quilt was once part of the Esprit Collection (which was started in 1971 by Doug Tompkins, the Esprit clothing manufacturer) and displayed in the Esprit corporate headquarters in San Francisco.
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