Patterns of Life
Amish women create heirloom-quality quilts that are prized for their beauty and workmanship. Discover where to find the quilts and the quilters in Ohio's Amish Country
We are drawn to Amish Country, like bees to honey, because we love the images we see there: the horse-drawn buggies; the little boys in Buster Brown haircuts; the little girls in braids wound tight to their heads. We especially love the imagery of the Amish at work, because their work lives are so different from ours. The quiet industriousness of the Amish farm, with its absence of noisy machines; the resin smell of the woodworking shops; the cinnamon aroma of the bakeries.
Of all those homespun images, it's the Amish quilters who most warm our hearts. Maybe it's the way they look, clustered around an old wooden quilt frame in their plain cotton dresses and prim white caps. They are a lively fellowship of women, united in common cause.
In recent years, quilt-making has become an important part of the local economy, especially in those Amish communities where dairy farming is on the wane and tourist-related businesses are taking up the economic slack. Many Amish women do quilting at home, in a kind of piecework arrangement with the quilt-shop owners who sell their wares.
A few do their quilting in public. On a recent sunny afternoon at Gramma Fannie's Quilt Shop, two Amish quilters were providing the wholesome nostalgic images that tourists love, and shopkeepers try to provide.
At this huge shop - once an Amish bishop's barn - Lydiann Miller makes the quilt tops, cutting out the intricate shapes and piecing the fabrics together to create the design. Her partner, Ella Schlabach, does the actual quilting, hand sewing thousands of tiny stitches that hold the whole thing together: the fancy top, the plain bottom and the warm layer of batting that's sandwiched in between.
She sits at an enormous quilt frame, her back slightly bent, her right hand seeming to glide with a mind of its own along the lightly stenciled lines. Her tiny stitches create wonderful patterns of feathers, scallops and diamonds, lines as delicate as spider webs.
Schlabach says it's calming work. Her eyes are good, and her hands are steady, although it's hard on the back; she has to remind herself to stand up, roll her shoulders and walk a few steps. Each morning she measures her thread, cutting off 20 yards or so. When she's done for the day, she makes a note of how many yards she's used - that's the factor that determines her pay, and ultimately, the cost of the finished quilt.
Most shop-made quilts are created this way, by a two-woman tag team: the piecer and the quilter.
"This is a more efficient way to make a quilt," says shop owner JoAnn Hershberger, "and the quality is excellent and uniform, since each lady is a specialist at what she does."
It's different when Amish women are making quilts for their own homes, for a daughter's wedding, perhaps, or for one of the fund-raising auctions that support local Amish schools. On these purely social occasions, the quilt-making is done the old-fashioned way, with the women gathered in somebody's parlor, aligned along the sides of an enormous quilt frame. The women talk while they work. The conversation is varied and lively, conducted in the unique German dialect the Amish use in conversation.
"We talk about everything most women talk about: children, husbands, a new recipe worth trying," says Lydiann.
In Old Order Amish society, women who can quilt lead more active social lives than those who can't. "Women who can't quilt don't get invited to these quilting parties," she says. "I think I'd miss that."
Nowadays, quilters are in demand for economic reasons, too â€“â€“ especially those like Lydiann, who manages the shop and does not mind talking to strangers all day. Some very strict Amish shy away from this level of engagement with outsiders. But they're able to make quilts at home for sale in the shops, thereby increasing the family income without sacrificing their natural reticence.
Some Amish women won't sign their names to the quilts they've made. Others are pleased to do it. At Gramma Fannie's Quilt Shop, Lydiann smiles when customers admire her work. "That's me," she says, pointing out her signature on the small label sewn into the backing.
Gramma Fannie's stocks hundreds of fabrics, including a small selection of the dark, solid-colored cottons used in traditional Amish quilts. But the biggest-selling fabrics are the brighter colored and patterned prints that most customers want. The shop stocks a huge line of homespun in lovely subtle shades, and a great selection of feed-sack replica patterns, reminiscent of the 1930s.
Sports and hobby-themed fabrics are popular. Cartoon characters sell well for kids' rooms. Christmas themes are big, but some holidays are problematic. One year, an Amish quilter objected to the "satanic" images of ghosts and goblins in the Halloween fabric line, and those patterns were dropped.
For her own quilting projects, Lydiann says she is partial to pretty pastel prints and the bright floral designs on the old feed sack line.
When she was a little girl, Amish women were not permitted to use bright colors or patterns of any sort in their quilts. After years of discussion and debate (within each congregation), the people began to vote on the issue and the rules were relaxed.
"Amish women really do like some color â€“â€“ and [they] vote," she says.
Quest for the Perfect Quilt
We scouted the Amish Country of northeast Ohio and found some excellent shops that specialize in Amish-made quilts and quilting supplies. (For some tips on the Amish quilt scene in southern Ohio, see "Adams County in Stitches," below.)
Amish Home Craft Shop
Emma Miller's folksy shop caters to Amish customers as well as non-Amish visitors. All the quilts are locally made. Miller has a nice line of Amish-made baskets and small furniture, too, as well as ready-made suits and dresses for Amish people who no longer make their own clothes at home. 16860 Kinsman Rd. (just east of Middlefield), 440/632-1888. The phone is outside the shop, so let it ring a long time. Closed Thursday and Sunday.
Mary Yoder's Amish Restaurant
Geauga County's largest selection of ready-made quilts line the walls at this popular "Amish-cooking" restaurant and gift shop. 14743 N. State St., Middlefield, 440/632-1939. Closed Sunday.
Helping Hands Quilt Shop and Museum
This famous nonprofit shop is a challenge to walk through - it seems like acres of fabric (some 3,000 bolts) and miles of ready-made quilts (200, at least). Church groups come in for quilting bees three times a month (first Tuesday and first and last Wednesday). 4818 St. Rte 39, Berlin, 330/893-2233. Closed Sunday.
Miller's Dry Goods
Every quilter's favorite stop for the sheer number of fabrics - some 8,000 bolts - and friendly atmosphere. Even though this venerable store is for sale (see "The End of An Era," page 39), the inventory is still as impressive as ever. 4500 St. Rte. 557, Charm, 330/893-1117; www.millersdrygoods.com. Closed Sunday.
Gramma Fannie's Quilt Shop
Enormous selection, stunning fabrics, interesting Amish quilters on hand to show how it's done. This is also a great place for a family visit, with kid-pleasing attractions like buggy and wagon rides, a petting zoo in the barn, and a 16-gauge railroad for a ride through the woods. Shrock's Amish Farm, St. Rte 39, east of Berlin, 330/893-3232.
Hearthside Quilt Shop
"Ocean Waves," pieced by Kathy McComb, quilted by Susan Yoder.
Photo by Thom Sivo
This recently expanded store has an enormous inventory of exquisite ready-made quilts and premium quality yard goods with ultra-high thread count. You can find bargain-priced cottons at Wal-Mart, but why would you scrimp on material when there's so much time and effort involved in constructing a quilt? 3110 Emerson Rd., Kidron, 330/857-4004.
Adams County in Stitches
Who says a winner never quilts? Drive about an hour east of Cincinnati, to Adams County in southwestern Ohio, and you'll discover a varied selection of quilt shops, as well as the Quilt Barn Trail, or "Clothesline of Quilts:" a collection of 20 painted quilts on the sides of area barns. (A detailed brochure and Quilt Barn Trail map is available from the Adams County Travel & Visitors Bureau, 937/549-8515, www.adamscountytravel.org. A road map is also inserted in Adams County Crossroads, the bureau's annual magazine guide.) Make sure to visit the following:
Blake's five-and-dime is known for its vintage soda fountain and its wide array of collectibles, sundries and handmade quilts. 206 N. Market St., West Union, 937/544-2451.
Keim Family Market
Stop by this shop for quilt squares, quilted rocker cushions, Amish dolls, sunbonnets and a full line of children's dresses. 2621 Burnt Cabin Rd., Seaman, 937/386-9995.
Miller's Bulk Foods
While better known for its selection of blackberry turnovers and bulk baking supplies, Miller's carries a varied lineup of Amish pinafores, sun bonnets and other clothes with quilt designs. 930 Wheat Ridge Rd., West Union, 937/544-8449. - Felix Winternitz
Linda's Quilter's Retreat: Girls' Night Out
Berlin is the promised land for non-Amish quilters, with a dozen great fabric stores within a 10-mile radius. Now, it's got a lodging that caters to their needs.
At Linda's Quilters Retreat, a four-unit condo complex located behind Helping Hands Quilt Shop, each suite is stocked with full-size cutting tables, irons and washer/dryers. There's even a giant sticky-board design wall where you can slap on your quilt squares and see how they look before committing your project to needle and thread.
Retreat owner Linda Mitchell says she got the idea from the novels of writer/quilter Jennifer Chiaverini, whose Elm Creek quilt series centers on a group of quilters who share a big house.
At Linda's Retreat, each unit sleeps six and has two bedrooms, a large living room and modern kitchen. Guests bring their own food and quilting materials. Mitchell says some groups come to work; some come to eat and have fun. She can tell the difference by the number of pizza boxes and take-out dinner cartons she finds in the trash. Cost for six people sharing one unit for three nights: $115 per person. 3474 S. Market St., Berlin, 330/893-3359, www.sew2000.com/crsewing/accessories_event3.html.
An Afternoon with Essa
Occasionally, Essa Miller entertains a group of fellow quilters in her farmhouse near Mount Hope. She generally works at her big wooden quilt frame, while her guests work small quilt kits they can hold in their laps.
What makes this event so unusual is that Essa is Old Order Amish, and her guests are not.
They're part of an Amish Culture Tour organized by Buggy Trail Tours of Berlin. For a fee of $59, they'll tour several Amish-owned fabric stores and then spend the afternoon quilting with Mrs. Miller, who also serves a light lunch.
They watch her every move, especially when she's doing the difficult task of mitering corners - and making it look easy. And, they hang on her every word, because, when she talks about her quilts (or about her life) she is giving her guests a glimpse into a world that's both fascinating and foreign.
She talks about ordinary things: About growing up on the farm and going to the one-room school down the road. She talks about her children, her friends and how she met her husband. At first the guests just listen, then they ask questions, and pretty soon they're talking about their own friends and families, and how they met their husbands, too. BuggyTrail Tours, 330/893-3248, www.buggytrailtours.com.
End of an Era
In the seemingly changeless village of Charm, a "For Sale" sign suddenly hangs in the window of Miller's Dry Goods store.
Katie Miller was just 18 months old when her mother, Amanda, started the business in her kitchen, selling sewing supplies and a few bolts of cloth. As the business expanded, Amanda kept moving to bigger buildings, but always within a short walk of where she'd begun in 1965.
Little Katie was waiting on customers at age 8, and helping keep the books at 12. By 2005, the local Amish churches had relaxed the rules enough that a now adult Katie could buy a computer and e-mail a monthly newsletter to customers all over the country. In 30 years, Amanda Miller's tiny store had morphed into the biggest quilt and fabric store in Holmes County, with more than 8,000 bolts of fabric on the shelves.
Katie married and had children of her own, but she was never far from her mother's shop. "It was just expected that I would run the business," she says.
"My dream was to go to college and to become a registered nurse, but I never told my mother that I felt trapped in the shop and wanted to get out," says Katie. "I was afraid it would make her sad, so I never talked about it. And when she died last spring, I thought I'd missed my chance. I hadn't asked her permission first, so now I'd have to stay."
Katie says that she was resigned to her fate, when she happened across a letter her mom had written shortly before she died, indicating that she would understand if her daughter decided to sell the store to pursue a different dream.
That letter lifted the burden of guilt, so Katie felt free to list the business for sale. She and her family also decided to leave the Amish church after Katie had what she calls "a born-again experience" that led her to switch to a more Evangelical sect.
In her online newsletter, Katie keeps her readers informed about some of the changes. She writes often of her mom, and how she misses her. She's written about getting her GED and starting college. She's written about how challenging her classwork is - and how much she loves it.
Despite all the developments, things seem remarkably normal at Miller's Dry Goods. Customers keep coming (in person and online), the tour buses still show up, and Amish ladies still gather around the wooden frames for quilting bees, just as they did when Amanda Miller was there.
It's a fairly safe bet that whoever buys Miller's Dry Goods will simply keep on doing what Amanda Miller did so successfully for all those years. And the tourists will never suspect how much has changed.
How To Buy a Custom-made Quilt
Can't find what you want on the rack? You can get a custom-made quilt for the same price as a ready-made one of similar size and complexity, from $800 to $1,000 for a queen-sized quilt.
But you will have a long wait.
All the shops we visited offer this service: Just pick the fabric and pattern you prefer, and the store will farm out the job to local quilters. At Helping Hands in Berlin, for instance, 20 Amish quilters are on call, with one specializing in applique, one in feather stitching, and another in piecing. As many as four women may work on your quilt, which might take a year to complete.
But for an item that's destined to be a family heirloom passed down for many generations, a year-long wait doesn't seem so bad.
This is usually an arms'-length transaction. You're dealing with the store, so you never get to meet the ladies who actually make your quilt. For buyers who want a more personal experience, it is possible to find your own quilter simply by asking around.
This approach can be tricky, since most Amish avoid telephones and self-promotion. So, you must seek out your seamstress in creative ways and be willing to take no for an answer.
It would be crass to stop a stranger on the street, or bother a harried waitress at one of the "Amish-cooking" restaurants. But it's fine to ask at a fund-raising auction where Amish ladies are selling quilts to support the local schools (sales that are often advertised in the area's papers).
It's also okay to inquire at an Amish shop where you've just made a purchase, or at a roadside fruit stand where you make it a habit to stock up on produce.
At Weaver's Berry Farm near Nashville, Irma Weaver said she knew several woman who'd be willing to make quilts for money, and that she could personally set up a meeting between someone who wants a quilt, and an Amish lady who knows how to make one.
For more information, stop by Weaver's Berry Farm, St. Rte. 514, midway between Nashville and Shreve. No phone. Closed Sundays.