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October 26, 1991 - Image 24

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1991-10-26

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ehold the Amish quilt.
Strong yet simple, bold yet
restrained, it's an example of
American folk art at its fin-
est. Many of these items,
once used to warm the body, now
warm the soul as they hang in
museums and homes across the na-
tion. Antique quilts in vivid, jewel-like
colors attract the attention of art
critics everywhere, and command
prices in the tens of thousands of
The Amish quilt hasn't always been
an object of such adulation. Thirty or
so years ago, few people outside of
the Amish knew of their existence.
That situation began to change in
1971, when New York's Whitney Mu-
seum of American Art held an exhibit
called "Abstract
Design in Ameri-
can Quilts" which
displayed quilts
not as craft items
but as art objects
worthy of close
"At the Whitney
show, people
started to see
quilts as more
than just some-
thing that covered
the bed," says
Rachel Pellman,
curator of the
People's Place
Quilt Museum in
Intercourse, Pa.,
an Amish quilt
museum, and the author of many
books about Amish quilts.
The Amish quilts included in the
Whitney display elicited the most
praise from onlookers. With their
powerful designs, these "minimalist,
austere quilts looked like strong,
modern American paintings and
seemed completely at ease in their
new setting," writes author and artist
Sue Bender in Plain and Simple: A
Woman's Journey To The Amish.
Soon after the show, public interest
in collecting Amish quilts, particularly
quilts from the early part of the cen-
tury, blossomed. As a result, prices
rose rapidly, quadrupling or quintupl-
ing over the next 15 years. Prime
quilts now sell for as much as
"People started seeing the quilts as



Amish Quilts
are being hailed
as American folk
art at its finest.



worthy of the kind of dollars that have
more regularly gone to other types
of art, such as paintings," says Laura
Fisher, a Manhattan quilt dealer
whose store is called antique quilts
& Americana. Still, she notes, "even
the most expensive Amish quilt does
not compare in price to contem-
porary art."
In some cases, interest in these
quilts became quite intense. In 1971,
Douglas Tompkins, co-founder of
Esprit, began collecting quilts to
decorate the clothing company's new
building in San Francisco. Mr. Tomp-
kins fell in love with Amish quilts and
began to purchase them exclusively.
Although it's now been divided, at
one point the Esprit Quilt Collection
consisted of about 300 Amish quilts,
about half of which were made be-
tween 1870 and 1950 by women of
Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
The striking appearance of many of
these quilts accounts in no small part
for their appeal. The prototypical
Amish quilt — that is, one made be-
tween 1900 and 1940 in Lancaster
County, Pa. — combines pieces of
solid, jewel-toned wool fabric in sim-
ple geometric patterns such as "Dia-
mond in the Square" and "Bars."
(Geometric patterns were used since
the Amish forbade representation of
actual objects in quilts, or anywhere
else.) The color combinations were
often quite sophisticated: purple
paired with bright red, electric green
coupled with navy blue.
Countering and balancing the forth-
right juxtaposition of color was the
actual "quilting," the tiny, intricate
stitching that held together the quilt's
front, padding, and back. Often in or-
ganic shapes such as flowers and
leaves, this quilting seemed to lie atop
the geometeric pattern like a delicate
spider's web.
More than one art observer has
noted the similarity between the
quilts and modern art which followed
it. "If you look at contemporary art
of the 1960s and the 1970s, a lot of
the large-scale color field paintings
look remarkably like their Amish quilt
antecedents,' says Laura Fisher of an-
tique quilts & Americana. She adds
that "many artists knew of the work
of the Amish and respected it."
The quilts possessed one character-
istic that the paintings lacked,
however: the textile element. Made
of fabric, hand-sewn, the quilts "bring

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