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This book offers a sampling of quilts made by Mennonites across North America between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The quilts shown here represent, in broad strokes, the geographical spread of Mennonites at that time.
We have defined a Mennonite quilt as one which was made by a member of a Mennonite group. In contrast to Amish quilts of the same period, which are easily identified by their use of only solid colored fabric and bold geometric shapes, Mennonite quilts use a wider variety of fabrics, patterns, and styles, which makes it difficult to establish a quilt as "Mennonite" without knowing its provenance.
All of the quilts shown here can be traced to their families of origin. While many of them are still in the hands of the quiltmakers' direct descendants, few are in the communities where they were made. As Mennonites migrated to new places because of marriage, jobs, educational pursuits and other interests, their quilts have gone with them.
The quilts shown in this book are not representative of the majority of quilts made by Mennonite women of that period. Many of the ones included here were made to commemorate a special time or occasion, and thus were lavished with care and attention to detail. They were used only on spare beds or were kept in chests and brought out to adorn beds only when company came. This kind of care preserved them well and explains their healthy condition.
Countless other quilts were also lovingly made, but were used until threadbare. Quilts were, after all, made with function as their first priority; aesthetic concerns were secondary. Despite that, a love of beauty and attention to design are clearly evident in these fabric creations. These are more than blankets to warm sleeping bodies. The makers of these quilts used quilting as an avenue for individual creative expression.
Quilting also played a role in the social fabric of the community. Church sewing circles made quilts to give as appreciation gifts to pastors and to other members of their congregations who moved away. Quilts were also made and sold as fund raisers for Mennonite relief agencies who assisted the needy around the world. Women's groups met together to quilt and, in that time, visited and reinforced the values of Mennonite life and thought.
Mennonites have changed over the years. They are, at the end of the 20th century, less homogeneous, spreading from farms to cities, living on every continent, and representing many different cultures and traditions. Quilting, though still practiced actively or in the recent memory of many North American Mennonites, is no longer a cultural tradition for the majority of today's Mennonites.
Quilting, however, remains a precious legacy-both the process of creation and the end result. May this exploration of a traditional treasure open all of us to the precious symbols of other cultures and traditions.
-- Rachel and Kenneth Pellman