Quilting the Mennonite Way

During a weekend drive through Yates County, you’ll doubtless pass scores of black and yellow road signs depicting a horse and buggy. You’ll probably encounter the real thing as dozens of Mennonite families ferry themselves to church in the one-horse buggies so often associated with the Amish.

Located between Seneca and Keuka Lakes, a community of 300 Mennonite families – religious cousins to the Amish – is growing and thriving. As with many small farms, the Men­nonites struggle to make ends meet. Thus have Mennonite women stepped in to supplement family incomes with the product of their nimble, thimbled fingers.

Weaver-View Farms
Driving uphill to Weaver-View Farms, you’ll be tempted to crane your neck back for a glorious view of Seneca Lake. But don’t look too long, or you might miss an unexpected pleasure: Pauline’s clothesline filled with Mennonite quilts, blowing in the breeze.

Pauline Weaver is a Mennonite quilter who runs a store from her house. She has been quilting since she was a child, as is common in Mennonite and Amish communities.

Pauline’s shop occupies part of her large farmhouse. As you wind your way through a maze of doorways and closet-sized rooms packed with quilted and hand-stitched items, you can only marvel at the hours it took to create such beauty.

Creating a Quilt: A Labor of Love
One of the most important steps is right at the start – choosing the pattern and colors to be used. Traditional quilts often marry light and dark colors, but this is where experience comes in. Through the years, Mennonites have learned how to match colors so that the end result won’t be a disappointment. Simplicity is usually the best approach.

“We hand down patterns from mother to child. A girl learns to quilt from her mother, aunts, and sisters, and patterns are passed down informally.” Pauline’s family has been using a few such patterns for more than 100 years.

Once a pattern and colors are selected, the cutting begins. A king-size quilt can have as many as a thousand pieces. Then the quilt top is assembled. Appliquéd and pieced quilts are assembled differently (see insert).

Next, the layers are added. A layer of batting and a bottom piece, usually a single piece of plain or printed pattern fabric, are placed under the quilt top and pinned together. The entire quilt is stretched to fit a frame and the quilter begins to stitch through all three layers, giving the quilt its three-dimensional beauty.

“For a large quilt, the quilt frame will take up most of a room,” explains Pauline. As the quilters complete a section of about a foot in length, they roll it, like a scroll, and continue stitching.

“The hard part about quilting is making sure you stitch through all three layers using straight, even stitches. Quilters will often remove sections where the stitches are too large or the lines don’t run straight. But we all walk a fine line between being too picky and deciding what is good enough,” adds Pauline. As a quilter works, she “feels” for the needle on the underside of the quilt to make sure she’s catching all three layers.

The edge of the quilt is finished by hand. “When a quilt is complete, you cannot see a single place where the machine was used. The only machine work is in the seams,” says Pauline.

Some women are better with a machine, others with their fingers. “Sometimes young mothers who are busy raising families do the machine work and hand over the quilting work to older women who have more time and patience. This is what I do with many of my quilts.”

Although to most eyes a quilt is a piece of art, Mennonite women see quilting as no more important than homemaking, mothering, and helping out on the farm. In keeping with Mennonite beliefs that beauty is a part of function, Pauline insists that no woman would view herself as an artist.

From Mother to Daughter
Pauline has been quilting since she was a girl and enjoys sewing together pieced quilts rather than doing appliqué. Quilting is most often done in the winter months and in the evenings when the demands of the farm and garden are less.

Mothers teach daughters to quilt, and then female members of the family continue to quilt – and teach – throughout their lives. “We practice a very old tradition that when a woman marries, she will take seven quilts with her. In the old days, this was to ensure survival – a family needed at least that many quilts to keep from freezing to death. We also needed the quilts for the children yet to be born.”

A girl works on her own quilts with help from her mother, sisters, and aunts. “A girl may begin her first quilt at around age 10,” says Pauline. “They practice first on small pieces and most often sit by the quilting frame to learn.” Pauline felt, as many girls do, that although it was a valuable skill to learn, it could be tedious to sit for a long time as a child.

“Quilting is a very social activity. I have many fond memories of my relatives, sitting at a quilting bee or in small groups, socializing, talking on the phone, and doing about five other things at once. It’s easy to do when raising a family because you can tend to the needs of others as you work. Plus when you put it down, it’s easy to pick up again.

“Designing a quilt gives me a great deal of personal satisfaction,” she says. “Plus I get to stay home with my family and provide for them. Since I’m at home doing routine chores all day, it gives me a creative outlet that I really enjoy – plus I’m being productive.”

The Quality of Quilts
“Most people don’t know how to judge the quality of a quilt unless they quilt themselves,” adds Pauline. “Some people ask how I can sell these so cheaply when it takes hours, sometimes up to a year, to put together a quilt. Other people wonder why anyone would pay so much for a blanket. But we prefer to look at the income we can gain from quilting rather than an hourly rate.”

In the old days, quilters used to try for 14 stitches per inch. “Nowadays, a good quilt has seven or eight stitches to the inch,” says Pauline. “And these quilts are durable. I have been using one on my bed for ten years and I wash that quilt nearly every week.”

Pauline pointed out that large chain stores now offer hand-quilted bedspreads for a fraction of the price of a Mennonite quilt. “But they begin to bunch up after only a few washings. They use poor quality materials and it shows.”

In most non-Mennonite homes, a handmade quilt would be hung as a wall decoration or used only on special occasions. “But we use them every day,” explains Pauline. “Sometimes we’ll use them decoratively in a guest room or in a baby’s crib that’s not being used. But most often, we use them as blankets. After all, that’s how they were intended to be used.”

Quilting Bees
“Quilting bees really aren’t all that common,” says Pauline. “Sometimes a family will suffer a catastrophe – a serious illness, or a fire – and we’ll do a quilting bee to raise money.” Occasionally, Mennonite relief organizations arrange a bee to help out with a national or international tragedy, such as a flood or hurricane.

“A quilting bee is a little like a barn raising,” explains Pauline. “A quilt is completed in a single day. It’s not so hard to do with a large group of women working at once. But the quilters do end up working very quickly.”

Pauline’s Store
Pauline’s Amish Country Store features quilts and handmade items, many made by Pauline and dozens of her female relatives and friends. The store also stocks unique country gifts, jams and jellies, cheeses, pottery, and children’s clothing.

“We also take on custom work,” Pauline adds. “As long as you give us enough time to do it. Large quilts can take a year to finish.” A surprising number of people also come in with partially completed quilts, looking for someone to finish them. “We do that too,” says Pauline.

Pauline claims that it’s an old wives tale that a mistake is made intentionally in a quilt to show humility before God. “I don’t know how that one got started,” says Pauline. “As for me, I make enough mistakes as it is.”

A Little History
Although many people think that the Mennonites split off from the Amish, just the opposite is true.

The Amish, Mennonites, and Hutterites all trace their roots to the Anabaptist movement in the early 1500s. “Anabaptist” is a nickname that means “rebaptizer,” a tradition in which baptisms are performed during adulthood. The Anabaptists began in Switzerland and later spread to Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands.

The Anabaptists were tortured and persecuted for their belief in adult baptism as a confession of faith. As thousands of Anabaptist were put to death, believers fled to caves and mountains and adopted a rural lifestyle.

Menno Simon, a former Catholic priest, held the original group together and earned its nickname “Mennonites.” In 1533, Jacob Hutter became leader of the Hutterites, a community that placed all their worldly goods together and led a communal way of life. In the late 1600s, Jacob Amman broke away to form the Amish church after the Mennonites chose to abandon the practice of “shunning,” a tradition in which excommunicated members are avoided in all social contexts.

The Anabaptists migrated from Switzerland to what would become Pennsylvania in the early 1700s, fleeing religious persecution. A second migration occurred in the mid-1800s from Alsace to the Midwest.

The Mennonites began moving to the Finger Lakes in the early 1970s from Pennsylvania. They found that farmland was getting so expensive in the Lancaster area that it was hard to make a living solely by farming. In recent years, a small Amish community has also popped up between Seneca and Cayuga Lakes.

Amish and Mennonite: What’s the Difference?
Most Amish and Mennonites will agree that they differ not in their beliefs, but in the way they practice those beliefs.

The two groups are much more similar than different. Both groups believe in strong families and communities, the value of hard work, and devoting life to a Christian God. Both carefully examine – and often reject – modern advances unless they can support a simple and humble life. To maintain separateness – and as a symbol of their early persecution in Europe – both groups choose a distinct style of dress.

The difference between Amish and Mennonite quilts? “Not much,” says Pauline. “Maybe ‘Amish’ just rolls off the tongue easier than ‘Mennonite.’”

Types of Quilts
Quilts are made in two styles: pieced and appliquéd.

To create a pieced quilt, hundreds of fabric pieces are first cut and then sewn together by machine. From then on, everything is done by hand. Common patterns for pieced quilts are the Nine Patch (often a beginner pattern for children), Log Cabin, and Lone Star.

Appliquéd quilts are more labor-intensive than pieced quilts. The reason is that each appliqué is cut and sewn by hand onto a white or off-white background. With appliquéd quilts, a machine is not used at all. Consequently, appliquéd quilts are more expensive. Typical appliqué patterns include Country Love and Country Grape.

The Amish Country Store is located at Weaver-View Farms, one-half mile west on Earls Hill Road off Route 14S (seven miles south of Geneva). Year-round store hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, closed on Sunday. Call (315) 781-2571, or visit www.weaverviewfarms.com.
For more information about the “Plain People,” check out the following websites: www.800padutch.com/amish.shtml, www.hutterianbrethren.com.

by Joy Underhill
Joy Underhill is a freelance magazine and business writer who lives in Farmigton. You can reach her at (585) 742-1388 or joyhill@rochester.rr.com.

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