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Quilts have come along way from grandma's feather bed. They have withstood the machine age (just barely) and come to be regarded as the epitome of blending the craftsman's steady hand and the artist's keen eye. Not all that long ago, quilts were just bedcovers stored in the attic and taken for granted. But not anymore. Quilts and those who create them have found a new and appreciative audience. What was yesterday a necessity is today a luxury.

Quilting fabric is an ancient concept. For centuries the Chinese, wisely reasoning that two or three layers were warmer than one, used quilted cloth to make padded winter clothing. Later, the Crusaders discovered their adversaries, the Arabs, wearing quilted garments beneath chain mail. This extra thick layer provided additional protection and prevented chafing more effectively than garb of a single layer. Some historians believe this quilted clothing, when brought back to Europe, provided the idea for the bed quilt as we know it today.

The idea of piecing together several layers of cloth spread rapidly at that time, since most of Europe experienced unusually bitter cold winters during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Quilting, as the decades passed, was done not only for practical purposes but for adornment. Queens quilted in the palaces and peasant women quilted in the cottages. Then as now, quilting skills and designs were passed along from generation to generation. Very early examples of quilting have been found in coiffure supports, prayer rugs, carpets and draperies, while quilted waistcoats for men were the height of fashion during the seventeenth century and later. This early quilting became so elaborate it could easily be mistaken for embroidery.

By the time the Pilgrims set out for America in 1620, quilts were part of their baggage. Little did they know how long these precious items would have to last, as ships carrying bolts of cloth to the new world were few and far between. All clothing, blankets and quilts had to be patched until they could no longer hold stitches.

The mother country didn't make life particularly easy on the pilgrims. England wanted the colonists to buy only their goods, including woolen cloth, so the manufacture of any and all cloth was prohibited in the new world. Flax seed, sheep, and tools for cloth manufacture, when shipped into the colonies, were labeled contraband. Though in the end, these restrictions were troublesome to enforce from such a great distance. Smugglers gradually succeeded in satisfying the demand for flax seed and sheep.

Though we have few written records about quilts or quilting at this time in American history, it can be surmised early settlers were forced to cut up their well-worn quilts and remake them. Thus the crazy quilt was born of necessity, made from pieces of fabric of miscellaneous sizes, shapes and colors.

The Amish and Quilting

The Amish have come to be closely associated with quilts. Today, at auctions such as the Mennonite Relief Sale held each September in Goshen, Indiana, Amish quilts are bringing in record dollar amounts for charity. The relief sale routinely sells over 300 quilts. Antique Amish quilts are currently in vogue for collectors and can be valued at thousands
of dollars each.

Though austere in their lifestyle, the Amish highly value the marriage of beauty and usefulness in a quilt. Often considered a "salvage art," the re-use of scraps makes good sense to these practical people. For both the Amish and Mennonites, to waste anything is considered irresponsible.

Certain fabrics and quilt designs are favored by the Amish. For example, fences surrounding pastures create straight line imagery, depicted in Bars and Rail Fence patterns. Because realism is frowned upon by the church, geometric designs predominate in their quilts. Squares, rectangles, diamonds and triangles make up the basic group of designs used by the Amish. In addition, they tend to use more conservative, solid colors rather than printed fabrics.

As in times past, Amish women participate in quilting bees, which are sometimes just called "a quilting." Usually, a full day is dedicated to stitching and socializing. A typical Amish quilting involves between eight and sixteen people. The host provides a hearty dinner at noon, in exchange for the help with her quilt. It's interesting to note Susan B. Anthony, the women statesman who gave half a century of service to help women of America, delivered her first talk on equal rights at a quilting bee.