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Chapter 1 -- Beauty Among the Austere
Why do many Amish and Mennonites who are devoutly committed to a simple, austere life make beautiful quilts? Who are these people who disdain fashion and convenience, yet cultivate exquisite artistry in color and stitching?
There is no denying the fact that life in the Old Order Amish and Mennonite communities is dramatically disciplined. Both large and small matters in life are governed by what the brotherhood believes. One's dress, mode of transportation, vocation, and entertainment are affected by commonly held convictions and strong social pressures within the group. But their boundaries have distinct advantages. There is freedom in knowing limits and inside these limits is great room to grow.
Appreciation for beauty is not lost when life is austere. Rather, it seems intensified. It becomes more vivid in minute details. Flower beds and gardens are tended with love and care. There is delight in the breakthrough of a bean sprout not only because of the food it eventually brings but for the joy of seeing a full straight row of new green shoots. Flower beds bring new delight every year with the marvels of bright colors. Beauty in nature is admired heartily.
Among these people personal beauty is handled more gingerly. There is no room for individual pride within the fellowship. Regulations on dress and lifestyle are in part to squelch temptations toward vanity. But the line here is delicate. In work, a job well done is imperative, yet pride in that job is not tolerated. Doing it well is only doing what is expected. But there are exceptions, and quilting may be one of them. Here is an avenue where a woman may show off her abilities unashamedly. In a community where restraint inhibits public displays of emotion and physical contact, a quilt shows love much the same way a favorite food is carefully prepared as a display of affection.
A Marriage of Beauty and Usefulness
Quilting is not solely a Mennonite and Amish art. It is done by women and men all over the world. With a growing awareness of the world's limited resources and renewed interest in getting back to basics, quilting has surfaced as an art worth reviving.
Quilting has survived among these frugal simple people because a quilt is not only a piece of art. It is also functional. Even though a quilt may be a "good" one, folded away in the bedroom chest except for Sundays and holidays, the fact remains that it could be used.
A quilt legitimately displays a woman's ability as a seamstress, quilter, and color co-ordinator. She may show her quilts for the admiration of relatives or friends without intimidation. These reflect on her personally as does a well-kept home, lawn, and garden.
Quilting has been termed a salvage art. Small snippets of new fabric left over from other sewing projects or old pieces salvaged from yet good parts of worn-out clothing can be used in quiltmaking. Scrap quilts are great fun -- each patch has its own story. For many Amish and Mennonites, the salvage impulse is strong. To waste anything is considered irresponsible. Nature and its bounty, as well as personal talent and abilities, are viewed as gifts from God. Each person is held accountable for using these gifts wisely.
Quilting As a Tradition
Quilting techniques are passed from generation to generation. Quilts themselves are often given to grandchildren or children. Such a bequest is more than just a fabric object. It is hours of time and painstaking effort given in love.
Life in community and on a farm is conducive to quilting. Each small child has chores to do. Boys and girls learn responsibility and hard work early. Little girls, following the example of their mother and grandmother, begin to sew. Additional discipline comes through the tedious work of following a pencil line on small patches. Four or five year-old children are taught to sit and sew on Saturday afternoons. One woman recalls her own experience when as a little girl her mother made her follow a pencil line with tiny, even stitches. When they weren't perfect she had to rip them out and re-do them. In her frustration she cried but that only blurred her vision and made sewing even harder. That woman is no worse for her lessons. Today she is an able quilter.