By all accounts Hwy 1 in rural Johnson County, Iowa is a great road for cycling. It’s a hill and dale kind of road with curves and long vistas that stretch out over checkerboard farm fields. Groomed farmsteads hug the road offering up antique shops in converted farm buildings, fruit and vegetable stands, hand woven baskets, jams and cheese.
My drive that August morning included a bit of traveling down memory lane. I attended the university in Iowa City about ten miles east. Catching the occasional glimpse of Old Cap’s shiny gold rotunda on the horizon, it beckoned memories of a very much enjoyed collegiate life. The inevitable “have I done anything important?’ question flitted through my mind, but I shooed it away with the good feeling that what I was doing that day was very important to me.
I was going to a quilt meeting. It was my first step along the Midwest Fiber Arts Trails. And how perfect it should begin in the part of the Midwest I call home! The Iowa Illinois Quilt Study Group (IIQSG) was celebrating their 10th anniversary and they spared no expense to mark the occasion. They flew in keynote speaker Julie Silber from California who is an expert on Amish quilts. Let me back up a little. In tiny, Kalona, Iowa, home to quite a large community of Amish and Mennonite families, there are quilt blocks on every downtown street corner and over flowing petunia baskets hang from every lamppost. Most importantly, there is a fabulous Amish and English quilt museum! Marilyn Woodin, the museum curator and avid quilt collector since 1964, started the museum in 2000 from her collection of Amish and English quilts. Three years later, she started the IIQSG for those interested in quilt history. Her motivation behind this generous endeavor is to preserve women’s history.
The Kalona Quilt and Textile Museum boasts two exhibit rooms, a display of antique spool cabinets, historic local memorabilia, and a well stocked gift shop with many beautiful handmade Amish baskets of ALL sizes and a nice meeting space. The building is dedicated to Marilyn’s husband, a local pastor who for many years supported Marilyn in her endeavors to preserve Kalona’s heritage. Marilyn is a community activist and engages support for many civic projects. In addition to the Quilt and Textile Museum, Marilyn gathered support to relocate the railroad depot and create the Kalona Historic Village. The Viilage has historic Amish farm buildings, the Iowa Mennonite archives and a historic church. And Marilyn remembers with a fond smile, “Pastor supported my quilt collecting, too!”
When I arrived for the meeting, the place was packed with quilt study group members. The typical hubbub before a big event kicks off with busy registration tables and people asking questions over one another but as soon as I walked in–they looked up and called me by name. Now that doesn’t happen often so when it does, I feel like a million bucks; good guess on their part or not!
Julie Silber’s presentation was well researched and informative. The Classic Period of Amish Quilts dates from around 1880 to 1950. It’s not really known how or why Amish women started making quilts because quilting did not come with them from Europe although research has turned up a possible connection with Welsh miners in the Lancaster county area. It is a textile tradition that began in their communities in Pennsylvania. The Amish quilts in Lancaster County are most famous for their large color block design that many have compared to modern art. Each county, by which Amish communities are referred, has their own style that was largely determined by their level of prosperity. In Lancaster County, the large quilts use yards of dressmaker weight wool. In neighboring Mifflin county, where the community was not as prosperous, the quilts use smaller pieces of wool fabric, possibly leftover from dress and clothing making. As the Amish population moved westward into the Midwest, the quilts are made from less expensive cotton and have smaller piecing in the quilt block. Of course many variables go into this equation; no ready access to wool, peddlers peddling cotton, beginning a new tradition and so on.
Julie made an interesting contrast between Amish and English (everyone who is not Amish) quilters. English quilters look for meaning and analyze the why behind their work; seeking out the story. On the other hand, Amish view their quilts from a practical perspective and as one of the tenets of the Amish belief system is humility, they don’t talk about their work or themselves from the point of view of ‘discovery.’ Does the beauty of the quilts go against Amish belief in simplicity? I don’t have an answer to that question, nor am I qualified to offer an opinion. When examining the images in this story note the use of black, lack of white fabric and the highly elaborate hand quilting that uses color on color thread.
The Kalona museum changes the quilt exhibits every three months so there is always something new to see. When I was there, the Amish exhibit contained 30 some quilts with large color blocked pieces hanging from the walls and others folded over quilt racks. The English exhibit features early 19th century dresses and quilts in a wide variety of styles. The above log cabin quilt was made by a non-Amish woman in the 1870’s. It’s log cabin construction is considered unique because it’s not the typical ‘barn raising log cabin’ piecework. The quilt is made from cotton and wool.
Barn quilt tour
The next leg of this road trip takes you further into lovely Washington County to the proclaimed Barn Quilt Capital of Iowa. The Governor of Iowa issued a Certificate of Recognition to the Washington County Barn Quilters for their efforts to “Preserve our Heritage in a Modern World.” (Lots of captial letters in THAT sentence!) Their committee members, of whom many are listed as avid quilters, are named on their website. I would also like to mention the outreach and services provided by Iowa State University’s Extension Service and local 4-H clubs in this community-wide endeavor. To date there are 115 barns within the county that feature unique quilt blocks. Note to travelers: this particular Barn Quilt website is under construction and parts of it are kind of wonky at this moment. The map is mostly up to date. There are three quilt blocks on Amish farms whose barns have fallen in. And there are a couple of new barns that haven’t made the updated list. The new site should be up and running by Fall, 2014.
Just thought I would mention the 25th Annual Craft Fair that’s set up around the town square in Washington, Iowa on September 6th, 2014. Although it’s not a fiber or textile related event, the Old Thresher’s Reunion is a big draw a little farther down the road in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. It takes place every Labor Day weekend. And as they say in Washington, Iowa, “175 years of living the dream!”
I would like to thank Marilyn Woodin for her time last August, graciously showing me around Kalona, driving me out to an Amish farm where I purchased an amazing blueberry pie!! Marilyn also let me run wild through the exhibits and take whatever pictures I wanted to take. I did not use a flash. I really thought I would write this story much earlier, but some things have their own time. –Jenny