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Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Star of Bethlehem Quilt

ca. 1845
Possibly made in New York, United States
90 x 89 1/4 in. (228.6 x 226.7 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Schwartz, 1973
Accession Number:
Not on view
Unlike quilts made by the Pennsylvania Amish, those made by the Indiana Amish are often initialed and dated. This example is inscribed with the maker's initials in quilting in one of the four corner triangles of the central patterned area. Each of the other three triangles is stitched with part of the date on which the quilt was completed, January 23, 1930. This is one of the Museum's most recently made quilts, yet it fits into the collection because its design is clearly a continuation of nineteenth-century aesthetics. Indiana Amish quilts are usually quite different in appearance than those of the Lancaster County Amish (see 1973.64), a reflection of the more liberal attitudes of midwestern Amish communities. The makers often preferred block patterns, set as diamonds rather than squares, the pieced blocks alternating with plain blocks that are elaborately quilted.
This unusual quilt illustrates the transition that took place in the mid-nineteenth century, when repeating block patterns began to take precedence over centrally focused quilt designs. Although the large Star of Bethlehem motif in the middle remains the principal focus, the use of blocks with smaller stars in the border signals the approach of the new style. Quilts worked in blocks gained popularity over those with large centralized designs for a variety of reasons. One highly probable factor is that blocks of about twelve-inches square or smaller, which are easily transportable, made it possible for women to work on a section of their quilt while visiting with friends. Although leisure time was on the rise in nineteenth-century America, a woman was still expected to fill most of her hours with some type of work that benefited her family; and the supposedly nonproductive activity of friendly visiting became acceptable when accompanied by sewing.
Another possible reason for the ascendancy of pieced-block patterns over appliquéd designs, which often depended on English chintzes for their decoration, stems from the rise of the printed cotton industry in the United States. By the 1830s, colorful printed cottons made in America were widely available, quite inexpensively and in great variety. In 1836, American mills manufactured some 120 million yards of these fabrics. Traditionally, it has been thought that American quilts were made from scraps of leftover cloth pieced together by thrifty housewives. In fact, there is much evidence within the quilts themselves—for example, in those that employ large panels of previously unused fabrics—to support a theory that many women bought new fabrics for their quilts. Pieced-block patterns made it possible to display a great number of the latest brightly colored American cottons.
The diamond-shaped pieces that form the stars on this quilt had to be joined with great precision, since uneven stitching would have prevented the stars from lying flat. The arrangement of the different colored fabric pieces within the stars was, of course, also a matter of major concern. At first glance, all the smaller stars appear identical in their color progression: They all start with a red center, as is traditional in Star of Bethlehem quilts, and radiate outward in rings of tan, brown, blue, red, tan, and red. One, however, is different: In the middle star of the bottom border, the red center is surrounded by rings of blue, brown, tan, red, tan, and red. Its color scheme, alone among those of all the small stars, repeats the scheme of the large central star. Was this irregularity intentional, or was the block contributed by a different sewer, or did the rigors of piecing so many diamonds cause the quiltmaker to slip?

[Peck 2015; adapted from Amelia Peck, "American Quilts & Coverlets in the Metropolitan Museum of Art," 2007]
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