Published: July 5, 2000
LANCASTER, PA. – The exhibit, which extends through December 30, features 50 quilts – shown in two cycles – and many other related textiles, tools, and period photographs of makers.
These objects tell the story of quilting in this area of southeastern Pennsylvania, which is well known for its colorful, well-made, and innovative bed coverings. The quilts on view reflect the diversity of cultures and comfortable lifestyles of early settlers in the region. Distinctive styles in Lancaster County have resulted in a body of bed coverings recognized and prized throughout the world by museums, collectors, and art historians.
Diversity of Culture
To aid the viewer in recognizing these distinctive styles, quilts representing the diversity of culture within the county hang in the first gallery. Examples created by Amish and Mennonite makers reflecting the Germanic background of the majority of the settlers hang side by side with Quaker quilts that represent one of the English immigrant groups that made Lancaster County their home.
The English settlers in Lancaster County appear to have first introduced quilting upon their arrival in the Eighteenth Century. Their German neighbors favored professionally woven coverlets as bed coverings. It was only later in the Nineteenth Century that women of Germanic origin enthusiastically adopted the art and craft of quilting to cover their beds and embellish their homes. The resulting combination of cultures is eye-catching and a delight to see and study.
Also on view is an example of a Crazy quilt, a pattern that became popular throughout the United States in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. The common use of this pattern by Lancaster County quiltmakers shows that local quilters were subject to current fads and influences. Period photographs, diaries, and family histories add to the appeal and interest of the quilts. Contrasts in design, color, and use of techniques and materials among the various regional and ethnic groups and time periods are noted throughout the exhibit.
The exhibition’s introductory wall uses modern fabrics and tools to explain the steps used in designing and creating a quilt. The materials essential for a typical quilt include: the top layer of pieced or appliqued fabric, an inner layer – usually unwoven fibers made into a thin layer called batting, and the backing made up of lengths of fabric joined together.
The Quilt Harvest
Much of the information for “” was gathered during a documentation project of Lancaster County quilts known as the Quilt Harvest, which was undertaken by the Heritage Center Museum in 1988-89. This project, coupled with further research in intervening years, made it possible to select quilts that are the finest examples of the art of quilting in Lancaster County from the early 1800s through 1945. The majority of the bed coverings, photographs, quilting tools, and materials shown are still owned by the descendants of the quiltmakers.
Another gallery displays the earliest dated quilt documented during the Quilt Harvest. Made by a Moravian girl, (Ann) Margaret Gundacker, at the age of 16, the bedcover is signed in stuffed-work quilting, “MG/1810.” It is the largest quilt in the exhibit, measuring 122 inches square, and is an artful combination of fine applique, pieced work, and exuberant three-dimensional stuffed-work quilting.
Also on display are materials illustrating the process of quiltmaking. Piecing done by the English template method is explained with the use of partially completed patches from the early 1800s. Framed as a family keepsake is the starter patch made by Naomi Susan Ressler in 1870. Her picture and other family sewing articles accompany her patch. A pieced and appliqued block with needle still in place illustrates the steps taken by an unidentified quiltmaker in the mid-1800s.
Even a partially completed Bucilla kit quilt, a sort of pre-fabricated kit containing patterns, marked fabric ready to cut, edging material, and thread for embroidery, is included in the exhibit. It was purchased at a local department store in 1942 and is shown with its original receipt and owner’s photograph. A variety of patterns and templates for quilting and applique work made from tin, cardboard, paper, and leather are on exhibit, one with the resulting quilt and maker’s photograph. Commercial patterns produced by the Stearns and Foster Company, along with their Mountain Mist cotton quilt batting are also displayed.
‘Not Quite’ Quilts
The exhibit also explores a variety of pieced, quilted, and appliqued objects that are not quilts. Articles such as hanging fabric bags were decorated with pieced and appliqued work and sometimes signed and dated by the maker. Pillowcases decorated in similar ways are also on exhibit. A rare applique-decorated hand towel from the mid-1800s is included, as well as several three-dimensional stuffed animals made in the 1940s as tokens of friendship by Reba Groff, a Pennsylvania German woman living and working near New Holland.
Fundraiser quilts are featured within the exhibit. Churches and organizations such as the Red Cross raised money by having people pay to have their names appear on a quilt. Often the quilt was raffled off to raise further funds. Sometimes the completed quilt was given to a missionary or departing minister and family.
Another category of bed coverings on display is “not quite quilts.” These are creations that do not have a middle layer and consist of a decorative top that is anchored to the backing by knotting or tying. Examples featured were made by Elizabeth Clinton Newswanger, who started her craft at the age of 82 and continued to be active until age 101. A photograph taken when she was 100 accompanies her work.
Another aspect of the exhibit shows objects made to commemorate rites of passage. An early Twentieth Century quilting frame containing a modern bedcover illustrates how the actual quilting was executed. One of the quilts made by the original owner of the frame for her granddaughter is on exhibit.
Crib quilts made for the births of children, and doll quilts made for their childhood years, are also on view. Quilts made for marriage, the most common reason for quiltmaking, are also represented. A small doll quilt made by Ann Elisabeth Witmer, a thirteen year-old Mennonite girl, in memory of her four year-old namesake, Ann Elisabeth Brubaker, in 1843, is also featured.
Pieces from the Past
The most breathtaking part of the exhibit is within the gallery devoted to the work of two Mennonite grandmothers – Susanna Sensenig Gehman and Harriet Miller Carpenter. Both women’s work spanned the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries and they both died in 1915. Susanna lived in the village of Spring Grove in the eastern part of the county while Harriet lived just north of Lititz in the northwestern part of Lancaster County.
Grandma Susanna Sensening (Mrs Moses) Gehman (1834-1915) spent her later widowed years living with her son’s family, Samuel and Lydia Horst Gehman and her 12 surviving grandchildren. Here she had the opportunity to observe daily activities at the family farm and mill, located along the Conestoga Creek, and paint scenes from the upstairs porch of the family home. She transferred these scenes to appliqued fabric blocks, and eventually made a large quilt top for each of her granddaughters, Susie and Katie Gehman. Grandma Gehman also gave similar scenic blocks to many of her grandsons and possibly other family members.
Like the graphic work of Susanna Gehman, many of Harriet’s quilts are unlike quilts made by most other Pennsylvania German women. Three are map quilts, two depicting Pennsylvania and one representing the United States. These were said to have been designed by Uriah to aide his grandsons with their study of geography. More unusual are the two quilts on which all the planets, moon, and a comet are represented on a dark sky. The family calls this pattern the Heavens and believes that Uriah had the idea for these unusual bed coverings from looking out at the evening sky.
Two other bed coverings of a related pattern, showing the sun, blue sky, a rainbow, and dark sky with rain and thunder clouds, are called Rainbow quilts by the family. At least three other Lancaster quiltmakers were known to have used this Rainbow pattern. One Rainbow quilt by another maker is also on exhibit. Like most of Harriet’s quilts there is a prominent presentation statement embroidered in gold thread on each of the pieces mentioned. Most say “Made and presented to [initials of the child] by Grandma Carpenter,” followed by a date.
Other examples of Harriet’s work include crib and full-sized quilts of more common pieced patterns with presentation statements and sometimes the pattern name. Furniture used by the Carpenters and a map of Pennsylvania, owned by Uriah, help the viewer put these unusual quilts in context.
Publication and Museum Information
The quilts, photographs, tools, other fabric objects, and hands-on materials on view represent only a small portion of the information gathered by the Heritage Center Museum over the last 12 years. Much of this information appears in Quilting Traditions: Pieces from the Past, by Patricia T. Herr, published by Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2000.
The Heritage Center Museum, 12 West King Street, telephone, 717/299-6440, is open 10 am to 5 pm, Tuesday through Saturday.
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