Lessons From the Past

I’ve been taking Weeks Ringle’s Craftsy class on designing modern quilts that talks a lot about color in both solid and print fabrics.  Weeks had us make fabric palettes (25 3 inch squares) of our favorite and least favorite colors.  Then we put no more than 25% of our favorite colors (about 5 squares) into our least favorite palette.  I found this created some intriguing juxtapositions I never would have tried on my own.

Serendipitously, I’ve been reading an old (1989) book called “Quilts from two Valleys” by Phyllis Pellman Good.  It features quilts made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Amish in Mifflin County, Pennsylvania’s Big Valley; and  Mennonites in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.  The color juxtapositions are startlingly modern; the designs are mostly combinations of 4 patch and 9 patch.

One Patch Cross Grid, circa 1925-30.  Made in Big Valley, PA by "White Toppers" group

One Patch Cross Grid, circa 1925-30. Made in Big Valley, PA by “White Toppers” group.

This quilt wows me with its diagonal white crosses and brown inner border. Brown would never have occurred to me for these blue and red purple colors.  And the anonymous maker snuck in four spice colored patches that link beautifully to that brown border.  When I found this picture of a Purple Grenadier finch on Pinterest I thought it was more serendipity or a color scheme that’s really trying to get my attention.

Purple grenadier finch

Four-patch Variation made in Big Valley< PA, circa 1935-40.Four-patch Variation made in Big Valley, PA, circa 1935-40.

This quilt is essentially nine large blocks joined with red sashing and four yellow cornerstones.  And those cornerstones absolutely make the design, giving your eye a nudge along those strong yellow diagonals.  Then, while the reds seem quite similar in intensity, the blues used in the background rectangles vary considerably from muted blue-grays to the much more vivid blues used in the middle top and bottom block corners.  The joined four patch blocks within the larger blocks seem to float above all that red and blue.

Nine-patch in Blockwork, circa 1925-30, made by "Yellow Topper" in Big Valley, PA

Nine-patch in Blockwork, circa 1925-30, made by “Yellow Toppers” in Big Valley, PA

Unlike the other quilts this one uses color asymmetrically.  The on point blocks are united by those little pink corner squares that form chains across the quilt.  And check out the pinks, turquoises and purples.  You can see that setting blocks on navy is at least as effective as using black.

Detail of Ocean Waves, circa 1885, Shenandoah Valley, VA

Detail of Ocean Waves, circa 1885, Shenandoah Valley, VA

Ocean Waves, an earlier quilt made in a Mennonite community, uses many, many different printed fabrics. Yet the overall effect is almost neutral. The pinwheels formed where the blocks meet help focus your eye.  The whites add sparkle and the reds are evenly distributed. It’s a great study of period prints, stripes and checks.

I photographed the quilts from the book, so the colors don’t come across as vivid as they are in the book. I haven’t found any website that features this group of quilts, though exhibitions have featured other quilts from Mifflin County, Pennsylvania. Most were in private collections when the book was written, some still owned by descendents of their makers.

There’s no way to know what was in the minds of the quilt makers, though since the colors seem at odds with the Amish way of life perhaps the quilts were a respite from drabness.  I was tickled with the two sided quilts shown in the book that could be reversed to the somber side if company might be censorious of too much color.

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2 Comments

Filed under Commentary, Inspiration

2 responses to “Lessons From the Past

  1. It’s interesting to me that the women of that time also knitted their stockings in the typical dark drab blacks and greys and browns–but the cuffs at the very top, usually mid-calf or higher, would be a riot of vivid color and exuberant pattern. In their quilts and in their secret hidden places, the women could indulge a love of pretty things that were otherwise forbidden to them.

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