AUTHOR OF THE LOVES OF SNYDER COUNTY
Quilting Circles: An Amish/Mennonite Tradition
Would you pay $1500 for a quilt? How about just $800? What is it about quilts that make them so expensive?
In LOVE SONG FOR LOUELLEN, the third book in my LOVES OF SNYDER COUNTY SERIES, the main character, Louellen Friesen, a married Amish woman, attends a regularly scheduled quilting circle with family and friends in her Amish community. Let’s do a little eavesdropping and see what takes place:
“You must needs go to Old Frau Gutenberg,” Mamm Bee said to Louellen as they sat with a group of ten ladies at a quilting circle in the living room of the Bidleman home on Tuesday evening. Louellen’s sister Esther, showing her fourth pregnancy more every day, sat to Louellen’s right and Mamm Bee on her other side. “Old Frau’s got powers,” Mamm said again to Louellen, “and she’ll drive the evil spirit away so you can conceive.”
“But I am not certain that an evil spirit is the cause of all this trouble,” Louellen said. “It might not be God’s time for a child. It could be as simple and plain as that.”
“But I believe Old Frau Gutenberg could get to the bottom of it all,” Mamm Bee said. “She just knows about these things.”
The other women, all intense in their stitching of the quilt that had been stretched on the huge square wooden rack, joined in.
Jacob Knapp’s wife, Emma, sitting across from Louellen gave her opinion as she stared at Mamm Bidleman. “Now, Rachel, the Good Book says nothing about anyone having special powers like Old Frau Gutenberg. So, if those ‘powers’ do not come from God, where do they come from? Think on that.
“What Louellen and Eli need to do is just keep praying. I have had five healthy children, and, mind you, none of them got here by that old woman’s powers. I tell you to pray. Just pray, and the good Lord will answer in his time.”
Martha Romig, Ezekiel’s wife added her thoughts. “I must agree with Emma. The good Lord has blessed us with six, and no powwow doctor had any part of it.”
Esther, noticeably irritated by the last two comments, began stitching her quilt section in record pace. “I must needs disagree with you because I have seen Old Frau Gutenberg myself. When Zeb and I were first wed, I could not conceive for several months. All I can tell you is that after our one visit to the old woman, I conceived and have never had any concern since. I believe God has endowed her with special powers.”
Sadie Miller, Jake’s wife from the next farm over, put in her two cents worth. “All I know is powwowing works. Jake had the old woman come and pray over our lame plow horse, and the day next, that horse was back in the fields.”
“Ach, go on with ya,” Marie Bidleman, Louellen’s sister-in-law said. “There ain’t no such thing as healing powers aside of the Good Book and Bishop Mueller’s laying on of hands. The horse would have been better in a day without the old woman. A good dose of rubbing liniment probably did the job, if we knew all the ins and outs of the situation.”
With that said, the sides were drawn, and for the next hour, a hot debate raged. When the afternoon drew to a close, Louellen was more ferhoodled than she had ever been before. But confused or not, she was absolutely certain of one thing in her heart; she had to do everything and anything it would take to have a child. Her marriage and her own happiness depended on it.
You just visited a tradition that we “English” have long forsaken, that of making beautiful quilts by hand. But in the Amish/Mennonite communities today, quilting circles are still an important part of everyday life for the women as they were back in the late 19th C.
Amish and Mennonite ladies gather regularly to make quilts, usually for gifts for young married couples, for visiting missionaries, or just as special gifts to be treasured by a certain family in need. If you talk to anyone from those communities about the importance of quilting circles, the foremost answer you will receive is that it’s the primary source of socialization (“gossip”) for the ladies other than attending church functions.
So how is a quilt made by hand? After the quilt patches have been sewn together to form the “blanket,” the real work of quilting begins. An adjustable stretch rack that supports the quilt base (single or double bed size) is assembled either in someone’s front room or in a church social room where the fledging quilt is securely fastened. With needles, shears, thread of all colors, ruler, and thimble in hand, the quilters sit around the rack and begin their tedious work of stitching every flower, star, grape cluster, or other colorful patterns that have already been determined. The quilting bees can be an all-day event or just for several hours on a weekly basis until the project is complete. Quilts can take dozens of hours to complete, even with six to ten ladies. If you calculate the number of hours times the work force required, $1200 is a bargain!
As a child I remember going with my mother to her weekly quilting circle in our church basement. I was not Amish or Mennonite; yet, over 50 years ago quilting was still quite popular with us English folks. I’ve never been a seamstress of any kind, but I fondly remember attending those quilting circles and watching the ladies do their refined and gorgeous work.
My mother passed away in August of 2010 at the age of 94, but she left with me several quilts she had made. One is a beautiful grape cluster-and-vine quilt that is stunning. Whenever I pull that quilt from the cedar chest, fond memories of Mom and her quilting circle transport me back to a time that I’d love to visit again.
Sometimes change in our modern day is not so good. The Amish and Mennonites have held onto a tradition that only serves to bring their communities closer together. But our TVs, computers, and Wii’s somehow just don’t fit the bill quite the same way.
For more information on quilting circles, visit: