I’m happy to welcome Janneken Smucker, author of Amish Quilts: Crafting an American Icon, who will be sharing her Amish quilt expertise with us here.
Janneken is Assistant Professor of History at West Chester University, consulting curator for the International Quilt Study Center & Museum at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and author of multiple publications on quilts and quilting (read a Q-and-A with Janneken on Amish quilts).
Janneken recently visited a collection of Ohio Amish quilts on display in the Bay Area in California, and shares what she found in today’s post.
Ohio Amish Quilts on Exhibit in California
The San Jose Quilt And Textile Museum has a rare treat to behold: an exhibit of over 40 Ohio Amish quilts from the collection of Darwin D. Bearley, one of the few remaining outstanding Amish quilt collections in private hands. Distinct in part because if its regional focus, Bearley’s collection makes clear that Holmes and Wayne Counties were home to some powerhouse quilters in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Many of these Ohio quilts are particularly well documented with makers’ names and dates, since many Ohio quiltmakers stitched these details into their quilts. Bearley also had the benefit of buying quilts directly from Amish families by knocking on doors, targeting advertising directly to Amish families through the Sugarcreek Budget, and attending auctions at Amish farms; and significantly he had the foresight to record makers’ names, towns, and dates when he was collecting these objects in the 1970s and 1980s.
The dates in particular give great insight into what we know about Amish quilts. We can see the earth tone shades of fabric dominate during the late 19th century, with a preference for black emerging in the early decades of the 20th. Even the earliest quilts in the exhibit are quite complex, with quilt makers tackling the intricate piecing required by Railroad Crossing, all variety of stars, and Log Cabin quilts.
Like any collection, we need to read between the quilting lines and remember the group of quilts on display says as much about the visual preferences of Mr. Bearley as it does of the Amish makers. Collectors choose what suits their taste, and Bearley acknowledges that over the course of several decades he has honed and refined the collection, replacing quilts when better examples became available. And like most collections of Amish quilts, left out are the quilts that did not fit the collector’s eye: ones that might look more “mainstream” with lighter colors, appliqué, or printed fabrics.
I had trouble choosing a favorite among the amazing quilts in this exhibit. I loved the broken dishes quilt pieced almost entirely of lush cotton sateen, aside from a few unexpected white triangles of a twill fabric, that dazzle like moths wings in the night sky.
Another quilt pulls at my heartstrings because of one particular technique: the sawtooth binding on the outer edge. This intricate detail was a specialty in eastern Ohio: in fact my mother’s family had a couple great examples of quilts with this treatment. My grandmother once explained to me that a certain quiltmaker in their community was gifted at applying the sawtooth border and my great-grandmother traded her specialty—quilt marking (applying pencil lines in an ornate design to show where the quilting lines should go)—for binding.
The Californians here to see the exhibit seem to universally love it. Many of these quilts have never been exhibited before in the United States. If you’re lucky enough to be in the Bay area, stop by to see these historic quilts, along with a small gallery of modern quilts inspired by the Amish. The exhibit runs through March 1, 2015.