August Afternoon with a Traditional Amish Quilter

August 18.  Ah…bare feet on grass, shade breeze surrounding me, I plop onto a welcoming garden chair, catching my breath and soul after a fun but very busy week in Shipshewana quilt country.

Amish Quilter’s Home
on a quiet August afternoon
I’m a long stone’s throw from my shop, sitting in a friend’s former Herb Garden, now cared for by a new owner and open to visitors, a few of whom are too enjoying the beauty of this off the beaten trail, northern village block of Shipshewana. As the late summer illuminates bees exploring rosemary, sage, thyme, yarrow and lavender and shadows deepen over the fairy garden, I contemplate my “catch-up Thursday,” which included a very, very long over-due trip to one of the treasures of LaGrange County, an 82-year-old traditional Amish quilt maker.

I cannot tell you the whole story, or share the name of this quiet and very private quilt maker of Amish faith, but let me tell you this:

Her house, except the top roof line, is hidden from sight by roadside wild growth, an orchard and garden. Who would know that from inside this plain white house would emerge colors of cloth, arranged in the patterns of her mother and grandmother.

Three wooden steps lead up to her screened door, and when I knock, I hear voices…and someone getting out of an Amish hickory rocker.

Happy faces greet me and I am welcomed into the kitchen which is part of the small home’s living room; everything is centered around the oil stove, which defines the separate spaces.

Windows are pushed open to let in more summer breezes, and I am invited to sit, then, told of her spring hospital stay, her declining eye sight, and her granddaughter, who earlier this year said, “Grandma, I want to make a quilt just like this one you have made for Rebecca.” And she did, and both grandma and grandpa agreed that it was so very well done, especially for a 17-year-old.

Before long, she takes several short steps to her dowry chest of drawers (which is traditionally displayed in an Amish living room) and reaches into the bottom drawer, pulling out small quilt after quilt after quilt…each one different and representing winter, spring and summer work; each one made for me, from cut lengths and scraps of cotton that I had dropped off over the years.

Traditional Amish Quilt
Next a stack of rag rugs made from old black Amish shawls and left over clothing and quilt fabric scraps was presented. The colors were expertly placed by her experienced “quilt maker eye,” and woven into place by her husband. Often it is the elders in the community that are the “carpet” weavers and they are kept busy by family, neighbors and friends.

Once the rugs were shown and ok’d by me, the Mister went off to work at the rug loom, leaving the ladies to quilt business.

Several quilts were made of wool, cut from old Amish women’s dresses and aprons and sewn into traditional “Nine Patch” and “Irish Chain” patterns. Then out tumbled an amazing circus of colors worked into six quilts, all but one made into a special variation of the “Log Cabin-Barn Raising” design. This pattern has been a family favorite and some family quilts have made it to the pages of books featuring Amish Quilts.

Surrounded by color and cloth, years of quilt making expertise (but strip piecing is not on the quilt construction menu here!), mixed with the sadness of acknowledging an aging quilt maker’s diminishing eye sight and loss of strength, we sit, digging thru the tub of fabrics, selecting cloth for the next project, two “Double Nine Patch” quilts. Probably, she noted, that she would piece them and her daughter and granddaughter would quilt them. The sparkles in her eyes grew, as we discussed the details, which ultimately, are her choices.

Arms full of quilts and rugs, I left thru the garden, accompanied by this traditional Amish quilt maker friend.

I’ll be back with more fabric, I said, waving her bundle of cloth swatches.

And one day soon, as summer eases into autumn, I will select the colors of her grandmother, and mother…and make the journey to the little house behind the orchard once again.

Thank you for taking this little trip with me.

The sun has disappeared behind the herb garden tree line and a patchwork-like gang of three teenage kitties, each one a different color, have slipped on stealth paws thru the hedge line, and surround me cautiously and briefly, before continuing a silent tour of the evening garden. That’s a good sign, I’d say, that this story, for now, has come to an end.

Traditional Amish quilts can be seen in some of the area shops, but most shops now feature a “modern take” on old tradition, or new non-Amish, contemporary designs, which are, nevertheless, hand quilted by local Amish women.

As you visit our lovely community, know that somewhere, there is a grandmother, carrying on her tradition and also a granddaughter, who has just learned to make grandmother’s quilt.