A World of Sunshine and Shadow

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Ahead of the Festival of Quilts in Birmingham this summer, Upper Street Events talk to Carolyn Ducey at the International Quilt Museum about their planned exhibition of historic Amish quilts.

Carolyn, what an exciting gallery you’re bringing to The Festival of Quilts this summer. A World of Sunshine and Shadow is a collection of historic Amish quilts from the International Quilt Museum. What’s the historic significance of these quilts and why are they museum pieces?

Amish quilts are American-made but retain such a unique look and style. They are rarer and much more unique than the more predominant patchwork quilts we typically find in the U.S. And Amish quilts are some of the most striking quilts made. Their deep colours and large fields of solid wool make them easily distinguishable from any other quilting tradition. In addition, Amish quilts, particularly those from Pennsylvania, are also know for exceptionally fine quilting. So, I think it is in part that they are so unusual, but also because they simply are so beautiful.

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Birds in Air, Miller. L, Circa 1975. The International Quilt Museum Collection.

What are the trademark features of Amish quilts and what do they tell us about Amish life and culture?

Amish quilts are known by their deeply saturated colours in large solid patterns, the predominant use of wool fabrics and their tiny quilting stitches used in very original designs. Each community follows their own guidelines and makes quilts that have a unique appearance. Some of these ‘rules’ are broken in Amish quilts in the Midwest, where you’ll see a much brighter and more colourful overall look, but the use of black frames and unusual colour combinations and limited choice of patterns makes them stand out.

Amish Quilts -Bars, Maker unknown circa 1920 Pennsylvania

Bars, circa 1920, Pennsylvania, maker unknown. The International Quilt Museum Collection.

When originally made, would aesthetic design have been important for these quilts or was function the priority?

Such an interesting question, and one we think of often! Of course, quilts are functional in nature, so a woman stitching on a quilt was seen as being busily involved in a project that had merit and respectability. However, so many quilts were never used after they were completed! Never even washed! I think that stems from the fact that the quilt was a woman’s masterpiece. The maker took great pride in completing a quilt and carefully preserved it.

Amish Quilts - Center Diamond, maker unknown, Pennsylvania c 1910

Center Diamond, maker unknown, Pennsylvania circa 1910. The International Quilt Museum Collection.  

In addition, often Amish quilts were made to commemorate a special occasion, such as marriage, so they were saved as a commemorative piece. I feel like quilts function on so many levels – many were used and used up, but many more were carefully preserved because they were symbols of pride and perseverance and a special memory.

Amish quilts have been compared to abstract modernist paintings. Is there a collectors’ market for original Amish quilts and how much are they worth?

Prior to the economic downturn of 2008, Amish quilts were selling at very high prices – some of the highest in the market. They remain a highly desirable style of quilt, and one that many individuals outside of the typical American quilt market collect, but today the market is soft. In the past, we saw a single quilt sell for tens of thousands of dollars – especially the style we recognise as from the Lancaster Pennsylvania Amish communities.

What do you hope visitors to The Festival of Quilts will take from viewing the collection close-up?

I hope visitors appreciate the unique qualities of Amish quilts and appreciate the opportunity to get ‘up close and personal’ with the real thing.

“I’ll never forget the first time I saw an Amish quilt – I’d seen them in books and marvelled over them but it wasn’t until I saw a real one “in the flesh” that I realised the stunning glow created by the fine wool fabrics they were using. The quilting stitches still amaze me. I like to hand quilt, but I don’t think I’ll ever reach the level of quality we see in many of the Amish examples!”

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Thousand Pyramids, Miller. L, circa 1975. The International Quilt Museum Collection.

We know that Festival visitors will have lots of questions for you about the collection. If you get a chance to explore the Festival, what are you looking forward to seeing or doing?

I had such a wonderful time at my first Festival in 2019. I chatted with people from all over the world. I also was able to take time to enjoy the incredible variety of quilts that were exhibited there. There is so much to see and do and of course, I brought home some pictures and fabrics to inspire my next project! I just love to soak in all the creativity. It gives me such a sense of wonder and makes me excited to get home and get to work!

Carolyn Ducey is Curator of Collections at the International Quilt Museum, Nebraska. A World of Sunshine and Shadow: Amish Quilts from the International Quilt Museum is at The Festival of Quilts, NEC Birmingham, from 30th July-2nd August 2020. Carolyn will be giving a lecture, Uncover the World, at The Festival of Quilts on Saturday 1st August, in which she will discuss the International Quilt Museum’s outstanding global quilt collection.

(Featured image at top: Diamond Center, Maker Unknown, Pennsylvania circa 1935. The International Quilt Museum Collection.)

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