The Amish 1890 Cheater Quilt

The Amish 1890 Cheater Quilt ©2020 Leah Sorensen-Hayes

My favorite part of the quiltmaking process is stitching the top, batting, and backing together. I turn on an audio book, park it in front of the sewing machine, and zone out while I fill in the quilting lines. It’s so relaxing. (I use a walking foot exclusively as I’ve tried free-motion quilting and find it to be the exact opposite of relaxing.) The part of the quilting process that I don’t find quite as enjoyable is marking the quilt lines before quilting. 1. I haven’t found a single marking tool that is satisfactory. 2. It’s difficult to get the motifs to fit perfectly. 3. If I simply echo the piecing or appliqué, the results are boring. So! I designed a cheater quilt with the quilting lines baked right in.

I adore lavish quilting patterns like feathers, pinstripes, and wreaths, and if I’m going to go to all the trouble of quilting, I want the quilt lines to show up. They tend to disappear on highly detailed fabric patterns, so I prefer to quilt over solid colors. For my cheater quilt maiden voyage, I went with an Amish-style quilt based loosely on a quilt pictured in A Treasury of Amish Quilts, written by Rachel and Kenneth Pellman in 1990. The original was made of wool about 130 years ago in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. My color selection was borrowed from this quilt, but I brought in different quilting patterns.

I designed the quilt to be printed at Spoonflower on their Petal Signature Cotton, which measures 42 inches wide. As Amish “Center Diamond” quilts are typically square in shape, I engineered my quilt to fit a yard of fabric, so a 36-inch measurement was predetermined. I filled the remaining six inches with a solid pumpkin color to match the outermost border. The extra little bit can be used to make a complete, single-layer, straight-grain binding. No additional fabric necessary.

The quilt in its digital form (left) and hanging on my design wall after it arrived from Spoonflower (right).
Detail of the printed quilt top.
My basting process: 1. tape backing fabric to cutting table; 2. square up quilt top; 3. pin baste in place.
Quilting in progress. Yay! The lines in the fabric were easy to see, but once I stitched over them, they disappeared.
I was able to find three spools of Gutermann’s 100% cotton thread that almost perfectly matched the three colors in the quilt: Pumpkin #4970, Celery #8975, and Camel #2620.
Detail of the completed quilt.
Quilting finished and four single-layer, straight-grained binding strips cut from remaining 6” of pumpkin fabric.
Binding in progress. The four strips are stitched together to create one long strip that will encircle the entire quilt: 1. stitch strips end to end; 2. trim seams to ¼”; 3. press seams open.
The binding was machine sewn to the quilt’s front using ¼” seam and the miter method at the corners. Then it was folded, wrapped to the back, and pinned into place. Ready for hand stitching.

Because of uneven shrinkage (the width tends to shrink more than the length), after washing and quilting, the final quilt measures 35” x 34”. Not exactly square, but close enough. The Amish 1890 Cheater Quilt can be found in my Spoonflower shop. The three colors I used in the quilt—pumpkin, celery, and camel—are available as solids, and I created a few coordinating fabrics for backing and binding, as well as a couple of tea towels because I was having so much fun playing with the color palette. You can find the entire collection here. Happy quilting!

The Amish 1890 collection at Spoonflower: 1. Amish 1890 Stripe; 2. Amish 1890 Stripes & Diamonds; 3. Amish 1890 Block Setting; 4. Amish 1890 Tea Towel Symmetrical; 5. Amish 1890 Tea Towel Asymmetrical.

To Quilt . . . or Not

Being a quilter does not give me a strong standing in the art world. When I started quilting in the 90s, “quilt art” was the hot, new thing. Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof had made a valiant attempt to bridge the gap between art and craft with their exhibition of Amish quilts at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1971 generating an upsurge of enthusiasm for the art form, and many artists hopped on the wave to take advantage of the unexplored territory. Almost 50 years later, however, that show has been mostly forgotten, and those who have fought the good fight to elevate the status of quilts—Nancy Crow, Michael James, Jan Myers-Newbury, Terrie Mangat, and Pauline Burbidge to name just a tiny few—have not changed many minds.

Quilts may be beloved as heirlooms, but generally they’re not well respected. Anecdotal cases in point:

  • On a semi-recent episode (that I wish I could find) of NPR’s “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!,” a guest called from Paducah, Kentucky. The host, Peter Sagal, asked for more information about her hometown, and she mentioned the National Quilt Museum. He was incredulous. To paraphrase his gasps of amazement and dismissive comments: “A museum? Devoted to quilts?? That’s hilarious!”
  • I’ve often heard quilters say that when someone has been interested in commissioning a quilt from them, they’ve had to reply, “You wouldn’t want to pay what I would charge.” The sad truth is that the final product is generally worth less to the consumer than the value of the quilter’s time and skill.
  • I’m aware of a quilt artist who was told by a gallery owner that if she were a painter, he would represent her, but as she worked in thread and fabric, he wasn’t interested.
  • Some galleries are now asking artists who quilt to frame their work, ostensibly to make the quilts appear art-ier and more attractive to collectors.
  • In episode 132 of “The Jealous Curator” podcast, Danielle Krysa, who has a good handle on the art world, introduced her guest, Terrence Payne, by saying that he has “put his oil pastels down for just a minute to make—wait for it—quilts! Yes, quilts!” She continues, “I’ve written about plenty of women who blur the line between fine art and craft with their material choices, but I honestly can’t think of one male artist. I’m sure there are some, but off-hand, none jump to mind.” If quilts were more accepted and mainstream, artists like Aaron McIntosh or Shawn Quinlan wouldn’t be so far off the radar.

(Side notes: I love Danielle Krysa and her wonderful books, podcast, collages, and blog. She’s done a great service to artists. And if you want to see more work by men who quilt, you can check out these semi-recent exhibits: “Man-Made” at the Asheville Art Museum and “Ambiguity and Enigma” by Michael James at the International Quilt Study Center.)

The art scales have never fully tipped in favor of quilts, and I don’t fully understand the prejudice. Is the concept of quilt-as-art still too young? Are we still fighting a battle to make “women’s work” relevant? Is it a concern about the relative fragility of textiles? To judge a work—any work—simply by the material with which it was made seems petty to me, but here we are. Quilting is still a fringe medium, and the quilt world remains insular—quilters making quilts for other quilters. It may be that artists who might have worked with quilts have seen that the medium hasn’t gained any traction despite the best efforts of the trail blazers, and they’ve decided that they’d be playing to an empty house if they stepped into that arena. For purely economic reasons, they’ve chosen to work in other areas. The fish are moving to other ponds, so the quilt pond is shrinking, which makes it even less relevant. It’s a vicious cycle. I’m not opposed to defecting to a different medium myself, but quilts are what I love and know, so for the moment, I’m going to dive in and make the best of it.