Originally created 04/02/04

Quilt museum celebrates fabric of Amish history



LANCASTER, Pa. -- A million-dollar collection of antique quilts that once graced the walls of a clothing company's corporate offices has returned to its native Lancaster County as the centerpiece of a new museum that showcases the fabric of Amish history.

The Lancaster Quilt & Textile Museum opened to the public Wednesday. It features a colorful selection of Amish quilts - some more than 100 years old - collected over the past 30 years by Doug Tompkins, who founded the Esprit casual clothing company in San Francisco in the 1970s.

"We're talking about a time period from the 1880s to the 1940s, sort of the golden period," said Peter S. Seibert, president of the Heritage Center of Lancaster County, a nonprofit group that oversees the museum. "Now (the Amish) make quilts to this day, but they're much more interested in how they get sold to us."

Less than half of the 82-quilt collection is currently on display in a 1912 Beaux Arts-style building downtown, which originally housed a community bank that closed in 1933. Other pieces will be shown on a rotating basis.

Amish quilts from Lancaster County are generally distinguished by their use of a limited range of solid, bright colors and a geometric design that dominates the center of the quilt, such as a diamond or a square, Seibert said.

But some quilts in the so-called "Esprit Collection" borrow from other styles, such as one piece in which rows of solid-color squares alternate with "crazy quilt" squares pieced together from torn scraps of patterned fabric, which is not typically used in Lancaster County quilts.

"It's not a total set of walls," between the Amish and the modern world, Seibert said. "Things pass through, but there's picking and choosing as things pass through."

The Heritage Center acquired the collection in 2002 for $1 million, taking out a loan and then raising money from private donations to repay it.

Tompkins acquired many of the quilts with the help of Julie Silber, a San Francisco quilt dealer who became curator of his collection in 1982. Silber said they were usually purchased from "pickers," trusted neighbors of the Amish who bought and sold their quilts to retail customers, or from high-end quilt shops around the country.

Tompkins left the company in 1990, moved to Chile to pursue his interest in land preservation and later directed Silber to find a buyer for the quilt collection.

"We were hoping that after 25 or 30 years of collecting, it wouldn't just be scattered," Silber said in a telephone interview.

Patricia Herr, a longtime friend and a member of the Heritage Center's board, was among the people she contacted, but Herr initially declined.

"We said, 'Gee, we don't have the money, we can't do this,' and the discussion sort of foundered there," Herr said.

But Silber redoubled her efforts after Tompkins' office called to inform her that Sotheby's auction house in New York was interested in acquiring the quilts and auctioning them off.

"When I heard that Sotheby's was interested, that just pushed me into a kind of a panic," she said.

On the Net:

Lancaster Quilt & Textile Museum: http://www.quiltandtextilemuseum.com/