Treasures from the Vault: David Pottinger’s Amish Quilts

Jenna Gilley, Curatorial Assistant

Those who frequent the Fort Wayne Museum of Art will no doubt be familiar with our impressive Indiana Amish Quilt Collection. In 1992, we purchased 55 Amish quilts from antique collector David Pottinger who fell in love with them amidst his travels around the Elkhart, Indiana area. In the past decade, we have put on numerous exhibitions celebrating their beauty, including American Quilts from the Collection in 2015 and 2018. But being mainly shown in large groups, individual quilts perhaps haven’t had the chance to shine; here, I’m spotlighting three of my favorite quilts by delving further into their individual histories, meanings, and creators.

An exhibition shot from "American Quilts of the Collection" at FWMoA in 2015.
Installation shot from the 2015 Exhibition of American Quilts of the Collection. Photo courtesy of the FWMoA.

Ever since I was little, I have been enraptured by fiber arts, particularly quilts. My grandma was an avid quilter. “Tiny stitches” was a prized skill amongst her quilting group (a skill which she tried to teach me, but at the time, I was more interested in eating her candy). I remember her always having a large project stretched out on her quilt frame. Each time she made it to the end of a section, I was always excited to watch her roll the next segment; it was like seeing a treasure unveiled bit by bit.

This attachment to female social life, tradition, and loved ones is what makes quilts such fascinating objects to study, and we can see this clearly in Amish quilts. The earliest Amish quilts found in Indiana date back to the 1840s, although the history of quilting stretches all the way back to prehistoric times. Quilts served as a practical way to utilize leftover fabric scraps, as well as an important social activity. Women in each community would use quilting time to share local news, gossip, and teach younger generations the essential skill of sewing. Elders would pass quilt patterns down to the younger generations, making some designs traceable to specific settlements. Quilts became such a symbol for female connection that they were often given as gifts to a bride or expecting mother to decorate her home. This follows the Amish belief in gemee, or fellowship amongst its members.

A black-and-white photo of an Amish woman and her two children work on a quilt by the light from a window.
Young Amish mother quilting with her her two children. Photo courtesy of Susan Einstein from the book Quilts from the Indiana Amish: A Regional Collection by David Pottinger, 1983, p. 10.

The first of my favorite quilts is one such example: Mrs. Amanda Yoder made this quilt, below, for her eldest daughter shortly before her marriage. This is the oldest quilt of my top three, made in 1913. Consequently, it features distinctive hallmarks of the older Amish style, including the more subdued, natural color palette and wool rather than manufactured cotton. Even though this example was produced in the 20th century, after synthetic dyes and commercially produced cottons were available, because quilts were often made of old fabrics, it is understandable that this example still displays remnants of older 19th century styles. It serves as a refashioned relic of the past.

The design is also fitting. A goose foot pattern set of four columns of five diamonds decorates the quilt, alongside subtle flower designs embossing the surrounding purple squares. The goose track is a pieced variation of the appliqued turkey tracks or “Wandering Foot” pattern, which was a 3 or 4 toed skinny foot that looked very much like a turkey track popular in the 1800’s. While Wandering Foot patterns were added as a hopeful symbol of adventure, it was very bad omen to make a Wandering Foot quilt for a boy because he would leave home and never come back. Thankfully, since this quilt was made for her young daughter, we can conclude she had a fun and exciting youth as a young bride but stayed close to her loving family.

The "Wandering Foot" pattern is a set of diamonds with a diamond center. The background is a deep purple with a black, inner border. The diamonds are multiple colors: pink, blue, red, and green which shows how leftover materials were repurposed for quilts.
Mrs. Jonas H. Yoder (Amanda Yoder), American. Goose Foot Quilt. Wool, ca. 1913. David Pottinger Collection of Indiana Amish Quilts, 1992.22.52. Photo courtesy of the FWMoA.

Next up is a much brighter example. Made in 1935 by Mrs. Susan Bontrager, this quilt features a surprisingly colorful “Broken Dish” design in various shades of blue and green with hints of pink. The pure aesthetic of its whimsical asymmetry originally drew me to this piece, but it’s also an interesting mix of Amish quilt culture. The blue color is a very typical choice for Indiana quilts, found little elsewhere outside the state. While born in Indiana, Bontrager probably made this quilt in Yoder, Kansas, where she moved after her marriage in 1904. The Broken Dish variation, on the other hand, was a very common use of pastel cottons out West during this period. The design originated back in the 1790s, perhaps as a humorous observance by female settlers of a common household accident. Bontrager may have made this quilt to remember her Indiana heritage while assimilating new Western traditions. Whether or not my hypothesis is true, out of my top three, this is definitely the quilt I would want on my bed.

An aquamarine quilt, the blues and purples and greens match well. Square windows create a snowflake-like pattern.
Mrs. Harry Bontrager (Susan Bontrager), American. Broken Dish Variation Quilt. Cotton, ca. 1935. David Pottinger Collection of Indiana Amish Quilts, 1992.22.35. Photo courtesy of the FWMoA.

My final selection is another pastel beauty made by Mrs. Anna Yoder in 1940. Unlike some other quilts in the collection, which were found secondhand or through relatives, this quilt was purchased directly from Yoder. It features a large “Ocean Wave” design trimmed in black and green. The Ocean Wave pattern was developed by early American New England coastal settlers, eventually gaining popularity in the Midwest. The little triangles create movement and currents in the lines which mimic the nature of water. I enjoy how my eyes continually loop around the design, trying to find its beginning and end, like a crossing stream. Fittingly, pieces like this are often referred to as “quilts of illusion”.

The "Ocean Wave" design, inside a black background and outlined by green lines, mesmerizes the viewer and creates a textile optical illusion.
Mrs. John J. Raber (Anna Yoder), American. Ocean Wave Quilt. Cotton, ca. 1940. David Pottinger Collection of Indiana Amish Quilts, 1992.22.17. Photo courtesy of the FWMoA.

In our short journey into Amish Quilt history, we have seen how American tradition has spread around the country from the New England coast to the Kansas plains, taking root in our Hoosier home. I find this intermingling of cultures fascinating, especially how it can be recorded in the physical form of a quilt. Literally by the organic particles accumulated in the fabric, and more symbolically through the design, textiles offer a window into the past and the people who made them like no other art form. Quilts will always be special in my heart as a memento of my grandmother, just as they have been tokens of female love for centuries. 

Want to see more works from the Fort Wayne Museum of Art’s collection? Check out A Century of Making Meaning, our year-long, rotating exhibition of works from our permanent collection celebrating our 100th Anniversary this year.

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