Historical Comment

One Family's Quilts


Contact Information

                                              MENNONITE QUILTS OF WATERLOO COUNTY --
                                                    DESCRIPTION OF THE COLLECTION

Physical description:

  • A collection of ninety five Mennonite quilts from Waterloo County Ontario, Canada (please click here for a map of the region).
  • Dates: c1880 to c1970 (almost all are from between 1910 and the 1950).
  • Sizes: vary, but a typical quilt would be ~85" by ~70".
  • Patterns: Many patterns are represented. Some, apparently, are particular to this community
  • Condition: mostly very good to mint -- many were kept away in closets and never used; many others are in good or very good used condition; a few are in fair or poor condition
  • Quality: as seen in photos, in the thumbnails, and in the catalogue. It is possible for the quilts to be viewed in person, as it is impossible for photos to give an accurate portrayal of a quilt.
  • Origin: All are from Waterloo County, Ontario. For most of the quilts the township of origin is known. For a fair number, the name of the maker is known. In one case (for eight quilts), we have an interview from family members regarding quilts of three generations. This includes a description of their mother’s personality, her attitude towards her quilting, the family's history, its relation with Mennonite relatives who remained in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (U.S.), the relation between the Amish and Mennonites, and the like. (See One Family's Quilts)
  • Source and Status of Collection: The quilts were made by farmers for practical use but also “just for pretty”. Special quilts might be made by a mother for a son who was leaving home with a new wife. When the old generation of quilters died and their children moved to the cities, the quilts were sold at family auctions. Most of the quilts in this collection were purchased directly from the families at these auctions. Most of the families have moved to the cities, and these auctions are now rare. We are told that this collection is the largest in the world and that it would be impossible to recreate.
  • Style: "Many of the quilts show their Lancaster [Lancaster, Pennsylvania from where this community originated] roots clearly. Others demonstrate greater experimentation, or influence from the neighbors, two results of living on the ‘frontier’," Phyllis Pellman Good.

General Description of the Collection:

We have been buying Mennonite quilts from Waterloo County, Ontario, Canada since about 1987. We bought them, a few at a time, through a contact in Waterloo County who got them from estate sales of Mennonite families. Our contact had impeccable taste for beauty and condition. Each quilt he identified by town, rough date, sometimes by the name of the maker, and, in a few cases, for what occasion they were made.

Beginning in about 1999, there were almost no more quilts to be bought in this manner. Most of the quilting families had moved from their farms to the towns and had sold their quilts. Since then we have added to the collection in various ways. For some of quilts we have no information beyond the town and age. But for others we were able to acquire a bit of personal history.

A few years ago our contact commented that our collection was the largest in the world, unique, and could never be reproduced. We began to realize that, besides the artistic value, the collection is a religious, cultural, stylistic, and historical document.

Quilts from this area and their story remain largely unknown. (There is only one book on Mennonite quilts from Waterloo County, whereas there are perhaps twenty on Amish quilts from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Though the older quilts from the area are harder to find, quilting is still alive in Waterloo County, Every year there is a well-known Relief Sale auction to benefit the church.

In the last few years, we have focused somewhat more on style, material, variations in townships, and the like and not only on artistic merit and condition. (Examples, a few of the quilts are from Waterloo County but are Amish and one is German. A few are made from material from the local clothing factory. Etc.).

Brief Comments on the Waterloo County Mennonite Community:

The Waterloo County Mennonite community traces its origin to Switzerland (probably Zurich or near Zurich). In the 18th Century two brothers, David and Peter Martin, migrated to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Apparently, during the War of 1812, the Mennonites and Amish were persecuted by American patriots for their pacifist ideas, and a group of Mennonites decided to move to Canada. The move began in 1819. Many of their relatives still live in Lancaster County. For a more detailed description of the history see Historical Comment and One Family's Quilts.

The Amish and Mennonite religions are close. Both are branches of the Anabaptist movement. Both are severe and conservative and traditional, the Amish remaining more so over the years (they still will not drive cars).

The religious views came out in the quilts, both in the colors and fabrics and philosophy. For example, one Mennonite lady discussed how women were not allowed to express their religious feelings except through their quilting. The quilts also seemed to have some “magic” properties involved with giving comfort to the sick children, luck to the newly married, and the like. Old clothes were used in the quilts so there was no waste. Pieces of clothes of a great grandfather, grandfather, and father could be found in one quilt (though we can not document this in our particular quilts) thus making it a family history uniting generations. And the like.

Two showings:

We have shown the quilts twice. Once to benefit our local library. And once at the People’s Place Museum in Lancaster County. (This latter is perhaps the finest quilt museum in our country, known for its shows of Amish quilts.)

When we spoke with the curator, Phyllis Pellman Good, and she saw the quilts on our web site, she asked if she could use six or seven for her then current exhibit of Amish doll quilts celebrating the 15th "birthday" of the museum. The doll quilt collection was an important collection recently acquired by the International Quilt Study Center at the University of Nebraska, one of the largest publically owned quilt collections in the United States. Ms. Good has written many books on the Amish and on Amish quilts. We agreed for our quilts to be shown with the Amish doll quilts, and this was the first showing, as far as we know, of Mennonite quilts from Waterloo County. (Please see below for some comments by Phyllis Good and some pictures of the exhibit.

After the People’s Place exhibit, we showed the quilts three times more for the support of our local library (please see below for a few images from one of those exhibits). And we have decided not to show them again except to benefit local organizations.

So our collection and Waterloo County Mennonite quilts, in general, remain largely unknown.

First Showing:
The exhibit at the People's Place Quilt Museum in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania from March 21 to November 1, 2003.

"Our quilt show opened--and it is beautiful! We decided against mounting a major event and put our energy into preparing for the many quilters (about 20,000 expected beginning early next week for the annual Quilters Heritage Celebration, of which the People's Place Quilt Museum is one of the original sponsors) who will shortly descend on us!
"I'm putting a handful of brochures in the mail to you, as well as a story which the local paper did about the exhibit. The paper has a large and loyal readership in Lancaster and York counties. Yesterday the reporter called to apologize for the photo (we've never experienced that before!); she was appalled that the gorgeous quilts were not pictured in their full glory!
"Thank you again for allowing us to exhibit your stunning quilts in this year's show.
Phyllis Pellman Good
The People's Place Quilt Museum”
(Phyllis Pellman Good is the author of many books on Amish and Mennonite quilts and the author of a New York Times best selling book on Lancaster, Pennsylvania Amish cooking.)
                In various press releases Ms. Good referred to the quilts as "majestic," "masterpieces," and of historical importance.

(please click on image to right to see larger copy)

“... our staff says that people consistently express how much they enjoy what they've seen. I have heard persons remark about the use of yellow in so many of the Mennonite quilts, about the oblong pieces with pointy ends that appear in both quilts with stars (a shape that's unique among the quilts that we've seen and known), and about the unusual assembly of the log cabin quilt patches in the quilt made by Mrs. Martin. And of course the postage stamp quilt just amazes everyone. ..."

"Thank you again--very much--for allowing us to exhibit them. They are true beauties, and they and their remarkable histories added significantly to our 2003 show.”

Second showing:
An exhibit at the Robert L. Crowell Art Gallery, Newfane, Vermont to benefit the Moore Free Library.

"According to Phyllis Pellman Good, curator of The People’s Place Quilt Museum (in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania), 'These are the works of descendants of Mennonites who migrated from northern Lancaster County to southern Ontario during the early 19th century. Many of the quilts show their Lancaster roots clearly. Others demonstrate greater experimentation, or influence from the neighbors, two results of living on the ‘frontier!’” (from the press release)