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Beyond Diamonds and Bars: The Cultural Production of Amish Quilts

Introduction
During the last half of the 20th century, Amish quilts underwent a cultural transformation, starting as objects given as gifts within Amish families but unknown to the outside world, becoming valuable works of art, and eventually commodities sold by Amish entrepreneurs to consumers.  Although connoisseurs have been most interested in Amish-made quilts from the late-19th   and early-20th centuries, pieced from solid colored fabrics in simple geometric designs, quiltmaking in this community is far more than the now iconic graphic diamonds and bars.  This exhibition traces the cultural production of Amish quilts by demonstrating the diversity of Amish-made quilts, the influence of consumer culture on quilts made by Amish women for both their own use and for outsiders, the enduring outsider interest in Amish quilts as art objects, and some unexpected outcomes of the current quilt revival.

The Old Order Amish are an Anabaptist religious group with roots in the 16th-century reformation in Europe.  Amish began immigrating to Pennsylvania in the mid-18th century in search of religious tolerance and economic benefits. Since then, they have fanned out to establish settlements in 29 states and Ontario. Amish doctrine varies from settlement to settlement, but in all communities religion is embodied in all aspects of life.  The Amish have strived to maintain a separation from the outside world by maintaining restrictions on automobile ownership, high-wire electricity, and worldly dress.

Amish quilts are products of Amish homes, and thus often reflect principles of this Anabaptist religious group.  Some of these ideals are those outsiders have long admired—simplicity, hard work, modesty, authenticity—but these quilts also reflect a de facto Amish practice that is in many ways responsible for the persistence of this group: an ability to adapt selectively and be in a constant state of negotiation with the dominant society.  Amish culture, and in tandem Amish quilts, have not existed in a fossilized state; they have been constantly under flux, changing at a pace distinct from the outside world.  Quilts are in fact a relatively recent addition to Amish cultural practices; the Amish only began making quilts in any significant number in the late 19th century, often using fabrics leftover from making their family’s clothing, usually solid-colored cottons and wools.  Initially many Amish quiltmakers chose fairly simple graphic patterns, often consisting of squares and triangles. By quilt authority Barbara Brackman’s count, there were only 380 different patterns in use in the United States in 1875, around the time Amish women began making quilts.  By the end of the century this number had greatly increased because commercial enterprises published dozens of patterns, which both Amish and non-Amish quiltmakers quickly adopted into their repertoires.

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Bow Tie
Veronica Miller Beachy
Sherwood, Ohio
c1920
Collection of the Illinois State Museum acc.#1998.152.69

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Bars
Maker unknown
Lancaster County, Pennsylvania
c1890
Collection of the Michigan State University Museum acc.#2007:107.18

The Diversity of Amish Quilts
Since the late 19th century, members of the Old Order Amish church have made quilts.  The Amish did not have their own quiltmaking tradition when families emigrated from central Europe to North America in the mid-eighteenth century.  Like other American women, they picked up the craft once commercially produced fabrics were abundant and cheap.  Some quilts look distinctly Amish, with dark solid colors and simple geometric patterns. Today Amish individuals sometimes refer to these as “old dark quilts,” while collectors and connoisseurs often call them “classic Amish quilts.” Other quilts reflect the patterns and colors fashionable within the dominant society, demonstrating that despite the church’s intentional separation from the outside world, Amish women often accessed the same commercial sources for fabrics and designs.

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Center Diamond
Maker unknown
Lancaster County, Pennsylvania
c1910
Private Collection

The Center Diamond pattern is one of the most recognizably Amish designs, made with frequency in the Lancaster County Amish settlement in the early 20th century.  The large pieces of fabric were a perfect canvas for intricate quilting designs.

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Unequal Nine Patch
Maker unknown
Arthur, Illinois
c1870
Collection of the Illinois State Museum acc.#1009.152.141

Amish quiltmakers, like many other American quiltmakers, used the simple nine patch pattern to create striking designs often executed in the same colors from which they made their clothing.

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Double Wedding Ring
Elizabeth Ann Miller Bontrager
Arthur, Illinois
c1955
Collection of the Illinois State Museum acc.#1998.152.61

Although many Amish women used darker colors, some Amish quiltmakers embraced lighter colors including white and pastels to make quilts. Bontrager used the Double Wedding Ring pattern, popular among both Amish and non-Amish quiltmakers, to make this small quilt.

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Amish School Teacher's Quilt
Student's of an Amish schoolteacher
Conawanto Valley, New York
1936
Collection of the Michigan State University Museum acc.#2007:107.22

Within the Amish culture, quilts often played a sentimental role as gifts given to mark milestones and solidify community and familial ties: when adult children moved away from home, when a neighboring family was in need, or in this case, as an appreciation gift for a schoolteacher.  Quilts such as this featuring embroidered initials or names linked the community members together, just as they did within non-Amish communities.

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Dresden Plate
Magdalena Bontrager Helmuth
Arthur, Illinois
c1940
Collection of the Illinois State Museum acc.#1998.152.11

Some Amish quiltmakers used commercially published patterns popular among mainstream American quiltmakers, like Dresden Plate.  Amish women adapted patterns published in sources including the Ladies Art Company catalog, farming periodicals and newspapers that printed patterns, and Mountain Mist batting wrappers.

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T Quilt variation
Anna Mast Gingrich
Kalona, Washington County, Iowa
1930-1949
Private Collection

No strict rules governed Amish quiltmaking; as within other communities, personal preferences and community fashions dictated how quilts looked.  In some midwestern Amish settlements, including the one near Kalona, Iowa, blue and white quilts were popular during the first half of the 20th century.  Resourceful Amish quiltmaker Anna Gingerich made this quilt using feedsacks marked with the name of a local company.

Quilts Become Art
Prior to the early 1970s, the pairing of the adjective Amish and the noun quilt was unknown. Around this time—as quilts were capturing the attention of art enthusiasts, home crafters, feminists, and back-to-the-landers—burgeoning collectors including New Yorkers Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof began to notice distinctive quilts pieced from solid colored fabrics with intricate quilting designs. To their modern eyes, these quilts looked like abstract paintings by artists such as Josef Albers and Barnett Newman. Early collectors began to buy these objects to hang on their walls.  By the mid-1970s, Amish quilts were status symbols within the art world and their prices had begun to rise.

In 1968, during a trip through Lancaster County, Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof spotted this quilt covering the springs of a brass bed in a small antiques shop. After haggling over the price, they paid $5.75 for the quilt, which Holstein initially thought was “some extraordinary work of genius.” They soon realized it was too precise and too consistent to be, in Holstein’s words, “a singular example from any culture we knew anything about.” After showing their find to anyone who would look at it, they eventually learned that it was an Amish quilt. Then they asked, “how are we going to get more of these?” They began looking for more examples in the Lancaster County countryside. And soon they began to find them, eventually assembling one of the foremost collections of these objects.

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Framed Scrap Quilt
Elizabeth Kauffman Hershberger
Arthur, Illinois
c1900
Collection of the Illinois State Museum acc.#

Although Lancaster County quilts were initially the most recognizable forms—with the now iconic Diamonds and Bars—by the early-1980s quilts made in other communities were also sought after for their graphic qualities, such as this example by Elizabeth Hershberger from Arthur, Illinois.

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Chained Nine Patch
Maker unknown
Topeka, Indiana
c1890
Collection of the DAR Museum acc.#86.11

Following the display of select Amish quilts in early exhibitions including the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 1971 “Abstract Design in American Quilts,” institutions and private collectors began acquiring these objects, elevating their prices and bestowing them with status as art objects.  The Esprit clothing company, with its headquarters based in an old winery in San Francisco, began displaying quilts including this one on the walls of its offices and design studios.

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Double Nine Patch
Maker unknown
Indiana
1876-1900
Collection of the New England Quilt Museum acc.#2007.08

Both private quilt collectors and museums added Amish examples to their collections. Collector Gail Binney owned this striking Indiana example before donating it the New England Quilt Museum.

The Commercial Market
By the early 1980s, the Amish “brand” of quilts was well established in many Amish settlements. During the second half of the 20th century, farming remained the ideal Amish vocation, but rising prices for agricultural land coupled with increasing Amish population challenged farming as a way of life in many settlements.  Amish in some communities increasingly turned to small businesses as a primary means of earning a living. The 1970s and 1980s growth of small businesses among Old Order Amish coincided with intense outsider interest in the religious group’s “old dark quilts.” Obsession with the old quilts helped establish “Amish” as a reliable brand name for new quilts.

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Amish Strip Quilt
Katie Yoder
Clare, Michigan
c1991
Collection of the Michigan State University Museum acc.#7248.1

Some quilt entrepreneurs, like Katie Yoder, who made this quilt, crafted quilts for the retail market using solid colors and pieced designs.  Many Amish quiltmakers liked using cotton/polyester blend fabrics and polyester batting because they found these materials easier to work with than natural fibers. They had also adopted synthetic blends for making their own clothes because these materials were much easier to care for.

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Dahlia Star
Maker unknown
Michigan
c1980
Private Collection

Many quilts that Amish businesses sold looked nothing like the “old dark quilts,” such as the Dahlia Star pattern, popular among consumers looking for quilts in Amish country. In many communities Amish taste had changed by the late 20th century; moreover, Amish businesswomen learned to make quilts that would appeal to outsiders.  Customers often brought with them swatches of curtains or carpets so they could order custom made quilts to match.

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Pineapple Medallion
Maker unknown
Lancaster, Pennsylvania
2006
Private Collection

White whole cloth quilts were a style popular among Amish quiltmakers and their consumers during the late 20th century.  Many Amish families considered such bedcovers as their “best quilts.” This example, intricately quilted with a ring of pineapples at its center, is signed Emma Witmer, an Old Order Mennonite quilt shop owner from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  According to the quilt’s owner, a disabled Amish woman quilted it.  Upon request from her customers, Witmer signs most of the quilts she sells from her rural shop.

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Star
Sarah Brennanmann
Stanwood, Mecosta County, Michigan
1996
Private Collection

Once Amish-made quilts had become commodities outsiders to the community were interested in buying and selling, these objects took on a life far beyond Amish settlements.  But elements of the traditional culture in which these objects originated persisted. As discovered as part of the Michigan Quilt Project, in the 1990s an obstetrician in Michigan received payment for delivering Amish babies in quilts.  He then sold the quilts to interested consumers. This quilt is typical of the pieced quilts made by Amish businesses for the consumer market.

The Hmong Connection
Amish quilt businesses expanded their design repertoire to include new appliqué patterns that began attracting a different sort of consumer in the mid-1980s: those interested in a country aesthetic, rather than the stark modernist appeal associated with the “old dark quilts.” But not enough Amish seamstresses were skilled at the hand stitching required for intricate appliqué quilts; they usually pieced quilts with sewing machine (powered by treadle, air compressor, or generator) and hand quilted them, distinctly different skills from that of appliqué.  Luckily for Amish quilt businesses, Hmong refugees living near Amish settlements in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and elsewhere had the necessary sewing skills, experience selling their own textile arts, and a knack for learning and adapting others’ cultural practices.
 
The Hmong are a minority ethnic group historically based in the areas of present-day China, Vietnam, and Laos. At the end of the Vietnam War, many Hmong attempted to escape Laos by crossing the Mekong River into refugee camps in Thailand. From these camps, Hmong refugees awaited asylum, with tens of thousands resettling in the United States during the late 1970s and 1980s. Hmong women of different clans living in the camps learned from one another and integrated new techniques and designs, priding themselves on being able to quickly adopt new styles. 
 
Church organizations such as the Mennonite Central Committee sponsored many of the first Hmong refugees to the United States beginning in the late 1970s. Hmong refugees faced a difficult adjustment with poor English skills and little transferable work experience or education.  Making their traditional textiles, called paj ntaub (pronounced “pa ndau” and translated as “flower cloth”) to sell was a viable means for Hmong women to contribute to their families’ meager incomes, and a practice they could fit in around other domestic responsibilities within their patriarchal society. Hmong immigrant communities in some geographic areas quickly organized craft cooperatives, often with the guidance of volunteers from sponsoring church or aid agencies, that helped build consumer markets for paj ntaub. In communities near Amish settlements, some seamstresses decided to adapt their skills to fit the booming market for appliqué quilts in Amish settlements during the 1980s and 1990s.

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Hmong Quilt
Maker unknown
1950-1975

Hmong women had long decorated ceremonial textiles and clothing with embroidery, appliqué, and batik, three textile practices collectively known among Hmong clans as paj ntaub. This is an example of paj ntaub made by a Hmong immigrant to the United States.

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Hmong Quilt
Chow Lee family
Refugee Camp, Thailand
1976-1999
Private Collection

In the Thai refugee camps, Hmong came to rely on their traditional textile art as a primary source of income. Aid agencies and missionary groups cultivated craft production among Hmong refugees, in hopes that outsider interest in paj ntaub might provide families with a modest supplemental income.  Aid groups then brought paj ntaub to urban markets in Thailand and exported pieces across the globe.  Some Hmong women adapted paj ntaub into a bed quilt format by repeating blocks and adding sashing, just as one finds on many pieced American-style quilts.   The maker of this quilt lived in a refugee camp in Thailand.  She made the quilt to sell in order to raise funds to bring her family to the United States.

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Floral Applqué
Khoua Kha Lee
Toledo, Ohio
1993
Collection of the Michigan State University Museum acc.#7542.1

The reverse appliqué technique Hmong women used to make paj ntaub was easily adaptable to the appliqué quilts sold in quilt shops in various Amish settlements.  Hmong women in fact found making quilts easier than paj ntaub, as the technique was less intricate. And making quilts was far more lucrative than making paj ntaub to sell. This example was made by a Hmong seamstress in Ohio.

Just as many Amish women adapted the craft of quiltmaking in the 19th century—a tradition unknown to them in Europe—many Hmong women have embraced quiltmaking as their own artistic expression and means of earning a living. Many Hmong-made quilts showcase the makers’ strong needlework skills derived from making paj ntaub.  Some Hmong women now make quilts to give to their own children, just as many Amish women have done during the last 100 years. 

Amish Inspiration
Since learning about Amish quilts from museum exhibitions, beautifully illustrated books, visits to Amish country, and the consumer market, many non-Amish quiltmakers have drawn inspiration from the Amish and their quilts to create their own bedcovers and wallhangings. Many quiltmakers loved the aesthetics of Amish quilts pieced in simple geometric designs and solid fabrics. The colors and graphics were strikingly modern; for quiltmakers with a background in color theory from formal art study, approaching quiltmaking as a study in color made perfect sense. For some non-Amish individuals undertaking the paradoxical task of making an Amish quilt, the process of emulating the Amish through quiltmaking—even if only emulating one’s perceptions of the Amish, such as simplicity and hard work—may have connected them to an imagined authenticity they were seeking.

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Amish Center Diamond
Jane Braun
Saginaw, Saginaw County, Michigan
1983
Private Collection

Jane Braun, a non-Amish quiltmaker, used the popular Center Diamond pattern, colors common on Lancaster County Amish quilts from the early 20th century, and quilting motifs including a feathered wreath, tulips, and a cable border to create this wallhanging.  In the early 1980s, when Braun made this quilt, Braun would have had access to recently published books featuring color illustrations of Amish quilts, which she may have used as inspiration for this piece.

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Amish Kaleidoscope
Nadine Keech
Hastngs, Michigan; Winter Springs
1995
Private Collection

Non-Amish quiltmakers could turn to hundreds of commercially published patterns and kits with instructions for making “Amish” quilts.  In this sense, “Amish” had become a style, rather than an attribution.  These patterns usually reflected the aesthetics of the quilts connoisseurs call “classic Amish quilts,” with their simple geometric patterns and dark, solid colors.  Nadine Keech used a pattern called “Amish Kaleidoscope,” published in Quilter’s Newsletter Magazine to make this quilt.

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Amish Farmyard
Ami Simms, Bee Moss
Flint, Genesee County, Michigan
1983
Private Collection

Professional quiltmaker and quilt teacher Ami Simms first learned to quilt as a college student while conducting research among the Old Order Amish in the mid-1970s.  Since then she has made hundreds of quilts in many styles.  She clearly drew inspiration from the time she spent living with an Amish family to make this small quilt depicting an Amish farm complete with horse and buggy.


Janneken Smucker
Quilt Alliance, 2011
All rights reserved
 

Further Resources
Auther, Elissa. “Fiber Art and the Hierarchy of Art and Craft, 1960-80.” The Journal of Modern Craft 1, no. 1 (March 2008): 13-33.
Bernick, Susan E. “A Quilt is an Art Object When it Stands Up like a Man.” In Quilt Culture: Tracing the Pattern, edited by Cheryl B. Torsney and Judy Elsley, 134-150. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1994.
Clark, Ricky. “Germanic Aesthetics, Germanic Communities.” In Quilts in Community: Ohio's Traditions, 21-45. Nashville, Tenn.: Rutledge Hill Press, 1991.
Colgan, Susan. “Collecting Quilts: Where it all Began.” Art and Antiques, October 1983.
Cunningham, Joe and Eve Wheatcroft Granick. Amish Quilts 1880 to 1940 From the Collection of Faith and Stephen Brown. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Museum of Art, 2000.
Dewhurst, C. Kurt, and Marsha MacDowell, eds. Michigan Hmong Arts: Textiles in Transition. East Lansing, Mich.: Michigan State University Museum, 1984.
Faubion, Trish. “The Amish and the Hmong: Two Cultures and One Quilt.” Piecework 1 (1993): 26-35.
Gibson, Heather. “Embroidered History and Familiar Patterns Textiles As Expressions of Hmong and Mennonite Lives.” MA Thesis, University of Delaware, 2006.
Graybill, Beth E. “Amish Women, Business Sense: Old Order Women Entrepreneurs in the Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Tourist Marketplace.” PhD. dissertation, University of Maryland, 2009.
Henry, Jean. “Hmong and Pennsylvania German Textiles: Needlework Traditions in Transition in Lancaster County.” Folk Art (Summer 1995): 40-46.
Herr, Patricia T. Amish Quilts of Lancaster County. Atglen PA: Schiffer, 2004.
Holstein, Jonathan. Abstract Design in American Quilts: A Biography of an Exhibition. 1st ed. Louisville Ky.: Kentucky Quilt Project, 1991.
Hughes, Robert, and Julie Silber. Amish: the Art of the Quilt. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.
Klimuska, Ed. Lancaster County: Quilt Capital U.S.A. Lancaster, PA: Lancaster New Era, 1987.
Kraybill, Donald, Patricia Herr, and Jonathan Holstein. A Quiet Spirit: Amish quilts from the Collection of Cindy Tietze & Stuart Hodosh. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1996.
Kraybill, Donald, and Steven M. Nolt. Amish Enterprise: From Plows to Profits. 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
Kraybill, Donald. The Riddle of Amish Culture. Rev. ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
MacDowell, Marsha. “Old Techniques of Paj ntaub, New Patterns of Expression.” Folk Life (1993).
Nolt, Steven M., and Thomas J. Meyers. Plain Diversity: Amish Cultures and Identities. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.
Nomura, Nao, and Janneken Smucker. “From Fibers to Fieldwork: A Multifaceted Approach to Re-Examining Amish Quilts.” Uncoverings 27 (2006): 123-155.
Peterson, Karin Elizabeth. “Discourse and Display: The Modern Eye, Entrepreneurship, and the Cultural Transformation of the Patchwork Quilt.” Sociological Perspectives 46 (November 2003): 461-490.
Peterson, Sally. “A Cool Heart and a Watchful Mind: Creating Hmong Paj Ntaub in the Context of Community.” In Pieced By Mother: Symposium Papers, edited by Jeannette Lasansky, 35-45. Lewisburg, PA: Oral Traditions Project of the Union County Historical Society, 1988.
Silber, Julie. Amish Quilts of Lancaster County. San Francisco: Espirit De Corp., 1990.
Smucker, Janneken. “Destination Amish Quilt Country: The Consumption of Quilts in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 80, no. 2 (April 2006): 184-206.
Smucker, Janneken. “From Rags to Riches: Amish Quilts and the Crafting of Value.” PhD. Dissertation, University of Delaware, 2010.
Smucker, Janneken, Robert Shaw, and Joe Cunningham. Amish Abstractions: Quilts from the Collection of Faith and Stephen Brown. San Francisco: Pomegranate in collaboration with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2009.
Walbert, David J. Garden Spot: Lancaster County, the Old Order Amish, and the Selling of Rural America. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Wass, Janice Tauer. Illinois Amish Quilts: Sharing Threads of Tradition. Springfield Ill.: Illinois State Museum Society, 2004.
Weaver-Zercher, David. The Amish in the American Imagination. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, Elizabethtown College. “Amish Studies.” http://www2.etown.edu/amishstudies/FAQ.asp.

Quilt Title

Artist Name     Contributer

1800     Location, Place

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Integer nec odio. Praesent libero. Sed cursus ante dapibus diam. Sed nisi. Nulla quis sem at nibh elementum imperdiet. Duis sagittis ipsum. Praesent mauris. Fusce nec tellus sed augue semper porta.

Quilt Size: 61 inches x 61 inches

Fabrics: Cotton, Geometric, Novelty, Solid/plain

Construction: Machine Piecing

Quilting Techniques: Machine quilting

1-1-0

  • Documentation Project

    Minnesota Quilt Project

    Minnesota Quilters Inc.

  • Museum

    New England Quilt Museum

    Massachusetts Quilt Documentation Project, MassQuilts

  • Documentation Project

    Massachusetts Quilt Documentation Project, MassQuilts

    New England Quilt Museum

  • Museum

    DAR Museum

    DAR Museum

  • Documentation Project

    Michigan Quilt Project

    Michigan State University

  • Museum

    Michigan State University Museum

    Michigan Quilt Project

  • Museum

    Illinois State Museum

    Illinois State Museum

  • Documentation Project

    Iowa Quilt Research Project

    State Historical Society of Iowa

  • Documentation Project

    Kentucky Quilt Project

    University of Louisville

  • 1901-1929

    Bow Tie

    Beachy, Veronica Mi...

  • c1890

    Amish Bars

  • 1901-1929

    Diamond

  • 1850-1875

    Unequal Nine Patc...

  • 1950-1975

    Double Wedding Ri...

    Bontrager, Elizabet...

  • Oct. 1936

    Amish School Teac...

  • 1930-1949

    Dresden Plate

    Helmuth, Magdalena ...

  • 1930-1949

    T Quilt variation...

    Gingrich, Anna Mast...

  • 1876-1900

    Framed scrap quil...

    Hershberger, Elizab...

  • ca. 1890

    Chained Nine Patc...

  • 1876-1900

    Double 9 Patch

    Maker, unknown

  • c1991

    Amish strip quilt...

    Yoder, Katie

  • 1992

    Dahlia Star

  • 2006

    Pineapple Medalli...

    _________, Elizabet...

  • 1996

    Star

    Brennamann, Sarah

  • 1950-1975

    Hmong quilt

  • 1976-1999

    Hmong quilt

    Chow Lee family

  • 1993

    Floral Appliqué

    Lee, Khoua Kha

  • 1983

    Amish Center Diam...

    Braun, Jane

  • 1995

    Amish Kaleidoscop...

    Keech, Nadine

  • 1983

    Amish Farmyard

    Simms, Ami; Moss, B...

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