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Amish Quilts - A Dying American Art

Amish quilting has been a tradition for more than a century here in rural Pennsylvania. Amish women create quilts, often in groups called quilting bees. This "bee" affords them the opportunity to gather in a social setting as well as give a rare opportunity to be creative and expressive in a community that frowns on pride and fanciful possessions. Because the quilts are a functional creation for use in the home, the women are permitted to create these amazing pieces of art. They boldly experiment with contrasting colors, exquisite designs, and a variety of geometric shapes to create wonders that please the eye and bring delight to those who appreciate the complexity of the construction.

Since the Amish do not have electricity much of the stitching is done by hand or with the aid of a treadle machine. The designs of the quilt are pieced together from pieces of fabric cut into various shapes and then sewn into what will become the top of the quilt. When the top of the quilt is complete, the bottom fabric and batting are added and then quilted together with intricate stitching that form infinite numbers are patterns themselves. The quilt is then bound at the edges. This process can take weeks or even months depending on how many quilters are working on the quilt and how much time is afforded to the project, depending on the season in which it is being created. During harvest time, in addition to their busy household schedules of cooking three large meals, cleaning, raising the children, making the family's clothing, these women are often involved in working along the men to help in the harvest.

Today, however, I fear this wonderful tradition is becoming slowly a thing of the past. The young Amish women I have spoken with are becoming more involved in other areas of Amish life. In what I perceive as a type of women's movement in the community, many are learning the trades previously only taught to their young male counterparts. Many are learning carpentry and help their families crafting furniture and cabinetry. Some can be seen driving team of draft horses along with their fathers in the fields. Many are working in their family's stores, keeping books, ringing registers, selling the goods that they have to offer. They do not seem to have the interest in the "bees" as their mothers and grandmothers did since it seems to be increasingly accepted that they take a more active role in the family businesses.

There is also the ever present "English" world outside their community which offers constant shortcuts to the traditional Amish life. Recently, the big news in our little corner of the world was that a Wal-Mart was being constructed about 10 miles from our little community. When the store opened, I must say I was saddened, but not surprised to see in addition to the vast parking lot, there was a hitching post. What this meant to me was that the retail world was sending a special invitation to these simple folks to come and let us replace your century old traditions with a $69 mass produced factory bedspread. It makes sense for these women to accept this invitation. They have long days filled with countless tasks and here is an opportunity to send less money than they do on fabric and get a completed item and countless hours back!

To further my concern about this, I recently met an Amish gentleman at a local quilt sale. We began speaking as we both sell Amish quilts. I was surprised to learn he had traveled here to Lancaster from Ohio to buy quilts. When I inquired about this, as I know Ohio has a substantial Amish community, he replied that they aren't making many quilts there and he had better luck coming all the way to my neck of the woods to find them!! How long will it be until this happens in my community!

Well, that is all on this subject for now. I will close in saying that if you, the reader, own an Amish quilt, cherish it! You have a treasure that may someday soon become a rare commodity. If you do not, and you love art, find one! Support this artform before it is lost!

Maggie Prichard


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