Lancaster County is known by many as the quilt capital of America, and little wonder. In Pennsylvania Dutch country, the Plain community has been creating beautiful, elaborate handmade quilts for generations, but the history behind the art form is as interesting as the quilts are striking.
Quilts have been made in the Pennsylvania area since the 1700s, when people had to be frugal about everything they owned. Since nothing could be thrown away carelessly, scraps from clothing and other fabrics were pieced together into beautiful arrangements that were often turned into hand-stitched quilts.
The most common types of quilts are applique, embroidery and patchwork, of which patchwork might be the most recognizable. One variety of patchwork, the feed sack quilt, was popularized in America in the 1930s and 1940s. During the first half of the 20th century, feed sacks were usually made out of cotton rather than burlap. Animal feed, flour and other staples were packaged in these cotton bags, and thrifty women reused the fabric to make clothing for their families. Early sacks were plain, but in the 1920s they began to come in ginghams and simple stripes, and in the mid-1930s companies began using colorful, attractive prints. These printed sacks were a vital resource for consumers during the era of the Great Depression and World War II, when money was tight and fabric was scarce, and the sacks were used for many household items, such as dresses, curtains, and patchwork or crazy quilts.
But the utility of quilts might go much further than reusing odd bits of fabric. Although there is debate among historians over whether it is history or myth, a popular legend says that different quilt patterns were used by slaves to map out the routes that would take them to freedom, and homes along the Underground Railroad also sent messages by displaying quilts. The Lancaster Patriot spoke with one Amish quilter who explained that quilts with a log cabin pattern on them could be set out to signal that the home was a safe place to stay, while a quilt with a flying geese pattern meant that people had to keep moving.
Although for many years quilting has been a dying art, there seems to be a revival happening among the younger generation. Quilting bees, part of the rich heritage of quilts in Lancaster, are still being held today. At quilting bees, groups of ladies gather together to make their quilts and to socialize. At times they sit eight to 10 around a table to work on a quilt. Quilting bees are often held to make gifts for women before they marry or for when girls come of age. The quilts made for these occasions — sometimes as many as four for a single person — are put into hope chests to be used throughout each woman’s life. Other quilts are made for teachers, usually when a teacher is retiring after a lifetime of work or when she is leaving to get married after a few years of teaching. The names of the children the teacher taught would be stitched into the quilt, which would be given to the teacher by the community and the students.
Handmade quilts can take anywhere from 200 to 500 hours to complete, and the fabric alone can cost well over $100. Because patchwork quilts require so many pieces to be arranged and sewn together, some quilters outsource the piecing to other Amish women. With the immense time and effort that goes into each Amish quilt, it is no surprise that they can range from $500 to $2,000.
Quilts have proven to be a reliable business for some in the Amish community, not merely a means to earn a little additional household income. For one Amish man, quilting became a way to provide for his family when times grew tough on his dairy farm. He started quilting in 1989, learning from his mother how to cut the fabric and piece the squares together, and now 30 years later he and his wife run a wholesale quilting business.
One Lancaster shop filled with homemade Amish goods is Smucker’s Quilts in New Holland. Smucker’s Quilts started three decades ago in a little red barn, selling quilts, clothes and potholders. Once the tour buses began to come, Smucker’s built a new building and began to sell even more elaborate quilts as well as more sizes, offering quilts for king, queen and even twin size beds. Some of the most popular quilts at Smucker’s are the mariner’s star patterns. Smucker’s also offers quilting demonstrations, which show just how much effort goes into every quilt. Customers come there to shop from all across the country and from abroad, including places as far as Australia and Switzerland.
The Lancaster Patriot spoke with shoppers from North Carolina who had arrived on a tour bus, and the visitors stated that they love the variety of the quilts and patterns and how Smucker’s is open year-round.
A lot of customers also say that the shop is peaceful — which is true of other shops as well, like Riehl’s Quilts and Crafts in Leola. That business, which was started in 1994 by Sam and Susie Riehl, began by selling handmade items at the roadside and grew through commerce with tour buses, and now the shop sees even more customers from car traffic.
The Weaver family from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has been visiting Riehl’s Quilts and Crafts several times a year for almost 15 years. “We initially came on a tour bus, and now we come back and we love it,” Larry Weaver told The Lancaster Patriot. “We love the quilts and all the other fine things that they have.” In addition to liking the homemade products that are available at the shop, they love the friendly and relaxed atmosphere, how calm the area is, and how friendly the people are, he said.
The Lancaster Patriot also talked to Donna Gingrich from Long Island, New York. She has been coming to visit since her first family vacation to the area in 2006. Gingrich said, “It’s great downtime. I enjoy the simplicity, the slow pace of life.” Gingrich called it her happy place and said she visits six times a year. She loves the quilts and the quillows and the food, and she is impressed by how everything is homemade. “Someone takes the time to make it. The hard work put into it makes it something special,” she said. “I’d rather support local businesses than a chain.”
The most popular quilt patterns at Riehl’s Quilts and Crafts are the ocean wave and the mariner’s compass, but the highest quality quilts are the heirloom quilts — all-white or cream spreads quilted with stars or pineapples.
The customers at Riehl’s say that it feels like they are taking home a piece of history. Some had grandparents who used to quilt, so it feels like a nostalgic trip back in time. The shop is also a wholesome place for families to visit: there are snacks and treats for visitors, like homemade root beer and lemonade, and there are animals for kids to feed.
Although currently customers are fewer in number thanks to gas prices and other issues limiting travel and shopping, with summer coming up and tour buses passing through, Riehl’s and other local businesses are bound to see an uptick in purchases.
Lancaster County is full of rich history, and even though the area might seem slow-paced to some, that makes it a wonderful place to visit for plenty of others. The homemade quilts are a highlight for many people who travel from out of town, and the quilts are always popular during mud sales, where they are auctioned off to fundraise for volunteer firehouses in the area. The quilters who create and sell these pieces of functional art are always pleased to talk about their craft and the history behind it, so even the people who live in Lancaster can enjoy a walk back in time and find even more reason to be proud of the place where they live.
The Lancaster Patriot is a print newspaper, delivered to your door once a week. Only select stories are published online. To get our print newspaper, sign-up online or call us at 717-370-7508.