Ask an Amish quiltmaker when Amish women started making quilts, and she’ll likely answer that Amish women have “always made quilts.” Yet when Amish families began emigrating from Europe to North America in the mid-1700s, they brought neither quilts nor quilting know-how with them. Like other Germanic transplants, they used a bag stuffed with straw as a mattress, a featherbed to provide warmth, and perhaps a woven coverlet as a top layer. Compared to their non-Amish neighbors, the Amish were relatively late to quiltmaking.
Although we do not have a coherent narrative about how and why Amish women did eventually begin making quilts in great numbers, we do have a large body of physical evidence in the form of quilts. These quilts reveal a complex story rooted in intersections between the Amish and the outside world. By making quilts, Amish have participated in industrialization and mass consumer culture, using factory-produced cloth and commercially published patterns to create handcrafted bedcovers. Through the mid-1900s, Amish typically used two techniques: piecing and quilting, and the occassional use of embroidery and appliqué. Amish quiltmakers gravitated toward geometric patterns, including frequent use of repeated blocks, as well as medallion style quilts like Center Diamond and Sunshine and Shadow. Preferences varied not only from settlement to settlement, but from family to family, with patterns shared among co-religionists and relatives, from one generation to the next. Just as in the rest of American society, subsequent generations brought their own taste adapting color palettes, quilting designs, and patterns.