Today they hang as masterpieces of American art in prestigious museums such as the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. They are revered the world over for their composition, creativity, and color. But the quilt’s origins are neither American nor particularly prestigious.
The Origins of "Quilt"
A quilt, by definition, is simply two layers of cloth stitched together with a soft filling. Though mainly known today as bedcoverings, the word quilt is thought to come from the Latin culcita, meaning literally a "stuffed sack," or mattress.
The Early History of Quilts
Fabrics are fragile by nature and thus tracing their origins can be an inexact art. Some claim that quilted fabrics have been around since the first Egyptian dynasty (as clothing, not bedding). However, references to these fabled fabrics as bedcovers do not appear with regular frequency until the Middle Ages.
Quilts may have made their way to Europe on the return trips of the Crusaders. But whatever their route, by the 17th century quilted clothing and quilted bedcovers had become popular in Europe and the tradition naturally immigrated to America. It was there that the tradition of quilting was raised to an art form with the quilting explosion of the mid 1800s. Perhaps no group of quilters epitomized the quilting revolution more than Amish.
The Amish and Quilting
Considering their separatist nature, it is not surprising that most Amish came to quilting later than other American women. But what we may find surprising is that this conservative group pioneered the use of vibrant, sometimes shocking color combinations. And it was the Amish, when quilting waned in the years following World War II, who helped keep the tradition alive.
Quilting fit quite naturally into the Amish life—self sufficient, family-oriented, and skillful handwork. It was an occasion for Amish women to gather together, work as a community, and pass on their traditions.
The of their quilts naturally followed the of their clothing, combining somber and drab colors with more vivid ones. This juxtaposition of colors, especially when played out in simple geometric designs, created quilts of amazing energy.
Because they approach change gradually, Amish quilters have helped keep alive some of America’s most beloved and traditional patterns, including Sunshine and Shadow, Around the World, Diamond in the Square, and the multi-hued Roman Stripe.