For Students

Past Exhibitions: Previous

Amish Quilts 1880 to 1940
from the Collection of Faith and Stephen Brown

July 8 - September 10, 2000

Maker unknown
Broken Star (detail)
probably Holmes County, Ohio
cottons, 80 1/2 x 76 inches
circa 1930

Amish quilts possess a mystique for today?s viewers because they are associated with a people who set themselves apart from mainstream American society. The bold and colorful pieced quilts made by Amish women during the classic period of Amish quiltmaking--1880-1940--in Pennsylvania, Ohio and other settlement areas are a unique body of work reflective of the shared spiritual values of their fundamentalist communities, employing distinctive approaches to abstract design and color usage. The harmonious patterns and colors of these quilts mirror the concepts of simplicity, humility, devotion, and community that underlie the Amish faith.

This major exhibition features thirty-four spectacular Amish quilts from a single collection, that assembled by Faith and Stephen Brown, both alumni of the University of Michigan. The Browns first discovered quilts in the mid-1970s at the Smithsonian American Art Museum?s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. when they visited an exhibition of quilts also drawn from a private collection--that of Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof. The Browns were attracted by the graphic power, intense colors, and creative impulses evident in the quilts. Soon thereafter, upon spying a bold Amish quilt in a Chicago store front, they made their first purchase, and their quest for quilts had begun.

Maker unknown
Roman Stripes (detail)
Holmes County, Ohio cotton sateens, 84 x 61 inches

Over about twenty-five years the Browns? collection has grown to some ninety quilts, of which the great majority are Amish. Most of these were created between 1880 and 1940 in the Amish communities of Ohio, other Midwestern locales, and Pennsylvania, so that from this single collection it is possible to mount a rich exploration of the greatest period of Amish quiltmaking. Relatively insulated during this time from the larger American cultural context, Amish women created quilts using certain basic patterns, natural fibers, and extraordinarily vibrant colors. The Browns? collection focuses especially on quilts produced in Holmes County, Ohio, home to the largest Amish settlement in America, while also representing substantial holdings from the second largest--and the oldest--Amish settlement in America, that in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Additional quilts come from Illinois, Indiana, and Kansas permitting study of the distinguishing and distinctive characteristics of Amish quilts produced in the Midwestern states, and the divergencies of these quilts from those produced in Pennsylvania.

Maker unknown
Broken Dishes (crib quilt), (detail)
probably Holmes County, Ohio
cotton and cotton sateens 37 x 32 1/2 inches
circa 1930

Guest curators Robert Shaw of Quilts Inc. and Julie Silber of the Quilt Complex--two of America?s leading Amish quilts specialists--have largely structured the exhibition along geographical lines, in particular, contrasting the quilts produced by the more conservative Amish of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania with those of the more worldly Amish of the Midwestern communities. Lancaster County quilts are tightly organized and are based on a limited array of patterns (all square and strongly centralized), that go back to simple designs from earlier times. Midwestern quilters, more open to outside influences, used a greater number of patterns, often those employed by non-Amish quilters, and formats (usually rectangular and asymmetrical, using repeating blocks) and interpreted patterns with less consistency than their Lancaster County counterparts. The prosperity of the Lancaster Amish allowed them to purchase fine wool fabric expressly for their quilts, while Midwestern Amish women used cotton fabrics--often scraps from clothing.

The exhibition presents a concise survey of the aesthetic achievements of Amish quiltmakers at the same time that it offers insights into the lives and beliefs of the individuals who created these vibrant and expressive works. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue, fully illustrated in color, which contains an introduction by Robert Shaw, an essay by master quilter and author Joe Cunningham on visual aspects of the quilts, and an essay by Amish quilt scholar Eve Granick on their cultural context.


Annette Dixon
Curator of Western Art

This exhibition has made possible in part through the generosity of the Friends of the University of Michigan Museum of Art, Stephen C. and Faith A. Brown, Mr. and Mrs. James Donahey, Marjorie M. Jackson, Mr. and Mrs. Fernando S. Leon, Jane Myers and John Barton, William Charles Parkinson, Dr. and Mrs. Amnon Rosenthal, Mr. and Mrs. Jeffrey Roth, Edward Surovell Realtors, Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Wylie, and all donors to the Museum's Annual Fund 2000 appeal. These donors are too numerous to list here but their gifts have been essential to this exhibition and its companion educational programming.