The Amish Quilt Buyer’s Guide
Made by the “Plain People”
Just how can one tell a “good” quilt from a poorly made one? Are there some quilts you should avoid even if the design happens to be appealing? When an impeccably made quilt is found and purchased, how does one care for one of these very special quilts? With this guide you’ll learn, among other things, how to make yourself a knowledgeable judge of quilts and therefore be able to choose prudently in your purchases. So read on to discover some hard-to-find facts – many from our expert quilt makers themselves – about the wonderful world of Amish quilts. And, we’d like to add, particularly about those considered the best – those offered by Cabinfield.
Amish women began to make quilts in earnest and as part of their winter work in the mid 19th century. As is typical among the Amish, not only did they succeed in creating something practical, in this case bedding that was comfortable and provided much-needed warmth for the harsh winter months, but they also created items that were aesthetically appealing: quilts that were oftentimes exquisite in their creativity and craftsmanship. Fortunately, some of these antique quilts, along with their remarkable artistry and handiwork, have been secured and preserved in museums and in private collections. Those who appreciate the intelligence and talented labor invested in the making of these works of art recognize their value. It is not difficult to understand, if you know what goes into the making of an exceptionally handcrafted quilt, how some antique Amish quilts have sold in the past for $10,000 and more.
Cabinfield has been fortunate enough to find several individuals among the Pennsylvania Amish and Old Order Mennonite women whose backgrounds in quilt-making date back to their earliest years.
Many times, calling upon the talents of fellow women quilters among their neighbors and church district fellowship, these women join together in “quilting bees” to create these textile works of art suitable not only to place upon a bed, but also to display on a quilt rack or hang on a wall as a dramatic decor statement. Sometimes, however, a quilter works solo or with only one or two other artisans to do the intricate piecework, appliques, and other elements that go into these fabric masterpieces. All quilts are made one by one, by hand, in local Amish and Mennonite homes.
Some of our Amish quilters “sign” their work with their name or initials, along with the year the quilt was completed. Never ostentatious, these “signatures” are done in meticulous and exquisitely hand-wrought embroidery in a discreet corner area of the quilt.
One exception to the machine sewing of quilts tops involves the use of appliques in the quilt top’s design: To prevent bunching and puckering, many times when appliques are used, they are carefully and painstakingly hand sewn to create a top and thus become part of a totally handcrafted quilt. Because of the extra labor involved, these hand-appliqued quilts must be fairly priced higher than quilts with treadle or standard machine-sewn tops.
The quilting, the actual joining together of the top, middle (batting), and back layers of the quilt, is always done by hand. The type of fabric used for this back layer is most often a single sheet of very soft white or cream-colored cotton muslin, which is 100 percent preshrunk to help prevent shrinkage when cleaning. And here is where the fine, meticulous hand stitching so beautifully rendered is found. Fine, uniform hand stitching – usually six to eight stitches per inch (about 100 to 110 and no less than 90 linear stitches per square foot, on average) – is used for the actual quilting of each quilt, which is accomplished as the artisan attaches the completed quilt top to the backing. Some of our more meticulous Amish quilters are so detailed in their handiwork as to hand-quilt their pieces with up to 120 linear stitches per square foot, attention to craftsmanship that bespeaks the true dedication of Cabinfield artisan quilters.
When a change or transition of design occurs in a quilt, it often dictates that some space must be left unquilted. The rule of thumb (which might be called “rule of fist”!) amongst expert quilters is that no space larger than a clenched hand or fist (about three square inches) should be without quilting.
Many Amish-made quilts feature what could almost be denoted as a “secret” beauty – the elaborate quilting that subtly decorates the entirety of the piece. Because the quilting is done with a fabric-coordinating thread color, one must look closely to discover the wonderful intricacies found in some of the more intricately sewn examples of Cabinfield Amish quilts. These marvelously wrought designs render even quilts with the simplest top-piece designs into something full of exquisitely understated beauty.
The actual quilting – the sewing of the three layers together – cannot be focused on enough. This important feature in the making of a quilt helps establish the talent and experience of the individual quilter in a very important way. Turning a quilt over to view its “back” side helps to more easily determine the pattern and density of the quilting, as well as the fineness and evenness of the stitching. In a first-quality quilt, not only should these hand-sewn stitches be tiny, uniform in size, and equally spaced, but also, as mentioned above, the spacing between any portion or section of quilted fabric (for instance, between design shifts) should not be larger than three square inches. We are proud to acknowledge our Cabinfield quilts fit well within these “rule of fist” standards – hallmarks of the best Amish quilts made.
Many quilts are sold on the simple fact that they are “handmade.” It’s true that quilt-making is on the decline, and quilt buyers are looking for a product with a demand that far exceeds the supply. But we at Cabinfield encourage buyers to learn the difference between a quilt that is simply handmade and one that is handmade well. Choices of fabric, design, and proportion play critical roles in the making of an exceptional quilt.
It’s true that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Yet there are certain design conventions utilized that are known to make a difference between an unattractive quilt and one that’s sure to be admired. Colors in a quilt should look like they “go” together, rather than a hodgepodge of hues with no link in shade, tone, or texture to connect them into a unified whole. For instance, a variety of fabric prints, stripes, or plaids may be used, as long as there is at least one color among them that is the same. There are also exceptionally beautiful quilts that are made using only a single color, but this color is expressed in a bevy of fabrics that may have many different printed patterns and textures, but when put together, these fabrics form a cohesive, unified feel to the total design. Most quilts that catch and keep the eye and attention of quilt admirers are those that use a small number of colors that are repeated in an attractive and consistent design throughout the quilt.
Many patterns and designs of Cabinfield quilts come directly from those used in quilts from the 19th century. Some of these include Sunshine and Shadow, Log Cabin, Lancaster County’s famed Diamond in Square, Broken Star, and Wedding Ring, with many more too numerous to list.
Sunshine and Shadow, an excellent example of traditional Amish quilting patterns, features a center-placed diamond created by a melange of small, carefully pieced squares that flow into hues contrasting – sometimes dramatically – from light to dark.
The Log Cabin design consists of graduated rectangular lengths of fabric fashioned into a square repeated over the length of the top quilt piece. The colors and sizes of these rectangular pieces, as that of the squares themselves, can vary according to the artisan’s own individual version and adaptation of this historical pattern.
The renowned Diamond in Square design, originating from the Amish of Lancaster County, features a large solid-color diamond centered within a square, which is actually four large diamonds at each side of the center diamond. The whole is then surrounded by a large, wide border, which can also, depending upon the quilter, feature squares in the corners. Another border may or may not be present, also at the discretion of the artisan. One quilt scholar has lauded this particular pattern as being the height of Amish quilting daesign in its harmonious balances of proportion and efficient use of color arrangements.
The traditional, yet dramatic, Broken Star pattern exhibits an outer “broken” or expanded star-shaped design that surrounds and touches the points of a center star pattern. Complementary shaded fabric squares – usually lighter than the star designs and in the same color as the outer portions of the quilt – fill in the spaces between the inner and outer stars.
The Wedding Ring pattern may be one of the most familiar to quilting enthusiasts. This design features interlocking circles of as many different patterned or solid pieces of fabric as the quilter decides upon, forming a design that spans the whole of the quilt. This pattern has been the favorite of many as wedding and anniversary gifts throughout history.
The number of fabric pieces in some of the designs – notably the Postage Stamp patterns (sometimes called Rainbow Around the World or Trip Around the World), which can encompass nearly 4,600 individual pieces – gives further testament to the prowess and skill of our remarkably gifted Amish and Old Mennonite quilt crafters. Not only does this pattern feature highly elaborate quilting, but also, the top piece consists of tiny, one-inch squares of fabric meticulously sewn together into this design, as it is interpreted by the artisan.
The classic Irish Chain design is another favorite of Amish quilters, as well as Cabinfield customers. This quilt pattern, thought to have first come to America around 1814 with the seeds of its design originating in Ireland, is another time-honored design that can be found with single, double, or triple its main motif (as in Single, Double, or Triple Irish Chain) of small, conjoined squares (“chains”). These chains are created in the quilter’s choice of solids, plaids, or prints and when put together, create a center area that is sometimes decorated with appliques, sometimes left alone, the beauty of the fabric and surrounding design deemed by the maker to be the best ornamentation for that particular quilt. With this seemingly simple, basic design, a world of creativity comes forth as it is beautifully reinterpreted again and again by quilters whose imaginations seem only to expand with each new version.
Like the Irish Chain design, the Mariner’s Star (also known as the Mariner’s Compass Star and sometimes modified to become the Mariner’s Broken Star) is one more quilt pattern that lends itself to the skillful magic of our Amish quilters. With roots going back to as early as 1726 (or perhaps earlier; it is really unknown), this pattern gets its name from the compass rose, the star-like design on a map that indicates north, south, east, west, northeast, northwest, southeast, and southwest. Over the years, quilters using this design and its variations have given it names relating to both stars and sun (Sunburst, Rising Sun), as well as some unrelated to the heavens, such as The Explosion, Chips, Whetstones, and others. A true depiction of the Mariner’s Star is sure to make use of deep, richly colored fabrics with the primary motif of the star or compass design to have either 16 or 32 points and that emanates from the center of a circular or round area rather than a square.
Other designs and patterns from Cabinfield quilters include original creations from the artisans themselves: Emma’s Love Dove, Homestead, Wreath of Roses, and April Wreath, to name only a few. It is not unusual to find among the original creations of our quilters pieces that appear to have been made in the earlier centuries but are actually modern quilts made with ideas and memories gleaned from yesterday’s way of life.
Also adding to the wealth of motifs are the unique and varied marriages between traditional design patterns from centuries ago and the artisan’s own imaginative constructions that come together to fashion one-of-a-kind creations. Just as with the original classics, these unique quilts are made with careful craftsmanship to be cherished for a lifetime – or longer. And for those customers who wish to have their own designs transformed into the quilt of their dreams, our artisans are delighted to make quilts to our customers’ own specifications.
Fabric used in the making of Cabinfield quilts ranges from preshrunk 100% cotton muslin for the tops and backs to polyester fiberfill for the batting. All-cotton batting can be substituted at the customer’s request and for a slightly higher cost.
While selecting polyester or all-cotton batting ultimately remains a question of personal preference, there are some differences in the two types of fabric that should be noted. Quilts with polyester batting provide excellent, relatively lightweight coverings that wash and dry faster, and with some designs, show the stitching better than those with cotton batting.
Cotton batting, on the other hand, gives an “old” look and a heavier feel to quilts, making them more closely resemble the coveted antique quilts seen in many museums and private collections. Quilts using cotton batting do cost more, however, because cotton is more expensive than polyester, and it is more difficult to quilt. One more thing must be mentioned about quilts using cotton batting: Cotton fabric used in today’s quilts no longer lumps together or bunches when dried like cotton fabric from years past. Today, the quilt made with cotton batting comes out of the dryer or back from the cleaner with this inner layer as smooth and beautiful as the day it was purchased.
All fabric, whether polyester or cotton, used in the creation of our Amish-made quilts is selected to be colorfast and easy to care for following typical quilt-care instructions.
Although all Cabinfield quilts can be laundered at home, it is advisable to have them professionally dry-cleaned unless a small or especially plainly decorated quilt has been purchased. Two reasons suggest the wisdom of this: 1) Appliqued quilts may have small pieces that may come loose during the cycles of a washing machine. 2) Quilts become quite heavy when wet and are difficult to handle when hanging outside to dry and if attempting to dry in a dryer, all-cotton quilts take an exceptionally long period of drying time. Commercial dryers are not recommended because the heat produced may damage the quilt. Quilts used every day need only be cleaned once a year under normal circumstances.
Most quilts in our selection take approximately six months for our artisans to create – depending on the pattern selected. Of course, this varies according to the complexity and intricacies of the design selected, as well as the size. Cabinfield quilts come in queen and king sizes with special-order sizes made at the customer’s request.
Although we can’t guarantee that someday the Cabinfield Amish-handcrafted quilt you purchase will fetch a remarkable amount of money as a collectible or antique example of textile art, we can promise it to be one of the finest available on the market in the way of a future heirloom or collector-quality quilt. Remember: The best quilts combine artistic talent and creativity along with superior sewing skills. Quilts that have one or the other of these components but not both are inferior. Even our simplest-designed and crafted quilts encompass a near-amazing amount of talent and workmanship; many of them are, quite simply, works of art.
At Cabinfield, you, the customer, are our most valuable asset! If you have a question about our Amish quilts, please never hesitate to call us toll-free at 1-866-450-WOOD (1-866-450-9663). During business hours, one of our friendly, helpful Customer Service Representatives will be glad to speak to you, or feel free to e-mail us at Service@Cabinfield.com. We promise to respond promptly!