Friday, November 16, 2007

Amish Country Quilts - “Chained Together”

Pictured here is an Amish Nine-Patch wall quilt that I made from an unfinished project belonging to my husband’s great grandmother, Mary Ann (Yoder) Coblentz born July 26, 1880 in Sugarcreek, Ohio, married Andrew M. Coblentz on January 30, 1902 in Farmerstown and died on March 13, 1976 in Stark County Ohio. In her later years she was a member of the Old Order Amish church in Hartville, Ohio. This was one of her unfinished projects which I set together with new fabrics. When I inherited this project, all of the squares were “chained” together, except for four nine-patch squares which Maryann had already completed. The nine-patch in the upper left-hand corner of the quilt includes an “odd” piece of fabric, or what some call the “humble block”,  typical of older Amish quilts. The red and black plaid square would not be a fabric that an Amish person would wear. In speaking to an older relative, I learned that for many years, an “English” man lived with the Coblentz family as a hired hand.  It could very well be that Mary Ann obtained this fabric from the hired hand’s discarded clothing.

THE “HUMBLE BLOCK” MYTH – It is common to see odd-colored and unexpected fabrics incorporated into old Amish quilts. Within the last few decades some writers and teachers have perpetuated the notion that the purpose of the Amish integrating an odd block into their quilts was to serve as a “humble block”, because “Only God is perfect.” Since first hearing of the “humble block”, I have asked some of older Amish women in my family and community about the “humble block” and not one has ever heard of this reason for odd fabrics. Historically, Amish quilt makers have been practical and frugal, utilizing every snippet of fabric available. Remember that they were an agrarian society, often remote, always frugal and resourceful. Their quilts included their fabric remnants as well cast offs from friends and neighbors. It is more in keeping with the Amish way of life, that they utilized what is at hand, wasting nothing. Thus, I have concluded that the “humble block” is simply a myth conjured up in the creative minds of people who do not understand, nor have thoroughly studied the life patterns of the Amish .

Because Maryann’s junctions were not as perfect as I would have liked, I picked apart and re-stitched Great Grandmother’s four blocks, keeping them in their original placement. Handling these fabric squares required much care since the fabrics are quite brittle.
Close examination of these 7/8” squares reveals stains and signs of wear. These were apparently cut from worn garments. Some of my remaining fabric squares reveal holes where stitching was removed, as in the hem of a garment.
I have intricately quilted this with black thread, using feather designs, so typical of late 19th and early 20th century Amish quilts. The one area where Amish women were given allowance for creative expression was in the choice of patchwork and quilting designs. Nearly everything else in life was prescribed. Certainly, even today, an Old Order Amish woman cannot re-design any of her clothing to reflect personal taste. In quilting; however, she can find gratification and take delight in the work of her hands, as she is rewarded with compliments from within and outside her community.