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In front of a seated and standing crowd, two men on ladders show off a large hanging quilt with black and white geometric design.

Quilts can range in size from an infant blanket to a king-sized bedspread.

Photo courtesy of the Kutztown Folk Festival

  • Heirloom Fabrics: The Quilt Auction at the Kutztown Folk Festival

    “You don’t know how old I am, do you?”

    His voice rang through the speaker of the phone, vibrant and enthusiastic. I paused, not knowing how to answer. No, I hadn’t known how old Craig Koller was when I asked him how long he had emceed the Kutztown Folk Festival’s quilt auction. I did know he understood Pennsylvania Dutch culture and, as a constant figure in the Quilt Barn for at least twenty years, not only helpssell thousands of quilt at the festival but also collects the stories of their makers.

    Within the anthology of Koller’s memories reside pages of quilt-barn tales. Many of the quilters are of the Anabaptist faith, and they maintain their values and faith by largely rejecting modernized society. They also tend to dominate the competition at the quilt auction. Through the decades, Koller, a lifelong Kutztown local and beloved community figure, has earned the trust of the Amish and Mennonite quilters. Behind the curtain of horses and buggies, bonnets, and plain cloth dresses, he collects the essential human narratives that come along with each quilt.

    He told the story of two unmarried Amish sisters who relied on the Kutztown quilt sale for their yearly income. Just before the festival, their horse died—a harsh blow, as the animal served as their only means of transportation. In the glow of oil lamps, the sisters produced a quilt on their pedal sewing machine that sold for $5,600quite enough to replace their transportation.

    A smile crossed Koller’s face as he told the story of a husband bargaining with his wife for her time. Gender roles are clearly defined within the denominations of the Anabaptist faith. Women are responsible for the housework and raising children, while men oversee the farming and provide for the family as head of household. It is not often that the roles are rebalanced. While she sewed a quilt for the Kutztown quilt auction, the husband took up some of the housework. Their sacrifice produced a prize-winning entry that made a financial difference to the family.

    “There was one woman, she brought a quilt each year, and it was always something special,” Koller says. “One year, she didn’t come, and we worried about her. The next year she showed up with a beautiful quilt. It took two years. $11,000—I can’t believe someone would pay that much for a quilt!”

    Illustrated flyer with text: 9th annual Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Festival, July 2-6, 1958, Kutztown, Pa. Illustration of a bird in a sailor uniform.
    What we know now to be the Kutztown Folk Festival was formerly known as the Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Festival.
    Photo courtesy of the Kutztown Folk Festival
    Illustrated flyer with text: 13th annual Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Festival, Kutztown, Penna.
    Photo courtesy of the Kutztown Folk Festival

    Founded in 1950, the Kutztown Folk Festival claims to be the oldest continuously operating folklife festival in the country—yes, even older than the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The culmination of the festival each summer is the quilt auction, held on the last Saturday of the event in respect for Amish participants, who request that organizers not sell their work on Sunday, the Lord’s Day.

    But the Kutztown Quilt Sale is not just a sale—it’s a competition. Every year, thousands of participants send in quilts for display, but a scant twenty-four pieces move onto a pre-sale assessment by a panel of judges.

    “We look for something really special,” Koller says. “For the people who have the top twenty-four quilts, I try to interact and get their stories—the how, why, when of the piece.”

    Judges determine a third-place, second-place, and grand prize-winning quilt. The entries are then auctioned off to go home with an ecstatic quilt enthusiast or collector. Among many guidelines for 2023, participants must claim sole or majority craftmanship , and the quilts must be made of one-hundred percent cotton fabrics (not poly-cotton or flannel) with appropriate labeling that includes the quilt’s dimensions, title, and price. The quilts assessed as finalists are displayed at the front of the barn where they receive admiration from the thousands who visit the festival each year.

    The nine-day celebration in the small town of Kutztown, fifty miles northwest of Philadelphia, focuses on the Pennsylvania Dutch, the amalgamation of German, Swiss, and Alsatian cultures brought to North America by early immigrants. Found mostly in the northeast, the cultural traditions of the Pennsylvania Dutch remain vigorous in Kutztown, despite a swirling modern world where many easily slough off material culture that is neither quick nor easy.

    A woman throws a quilt off a rack. Other are neatly lined up in three rows.
    Volunteers are crucial to the Kutztown Folk Festival, especially in the quilt barn.
    Photo courtesy of the Kutztown Folk Festival

    Traditional quilts (from the Latin culcita, meaning a cushion, mattress, or pillow) consist of three layers: the decorated or geometric top, batting or padding, and a back. Quilted fabrics date as far back as the medieval times, padding the armor of knights and decorating bedspreads or walls with dramatic scenes from classical stories. Early colonists brought quilts to North America to cover beds, windows, and doors. In the timeline of quilting history, the modern association of the Amish and Mennonite with quilt making takes place in the 1800s.

    Quilting was—and still is—a reason to gather socially and a creative means to make money. Women would gather at a single home and form a “quilting circle” or “quilting bee.” There, they found time to discuss the community and taught their ways to the younger generation, all while their masculine counterparts might gather to raise barns. Both led to a warmer winter in the unforgiving climate of Pennsylvania. From medieval times to modern days, quilting has become more detailed, with bright colors and intricate designs, satisfying the human need for a creative outlet and community.

    “Quilting offers such an opportunity for personal expression,” says Cyndi Hershey, the festival’s quilt education and development director and a prominent figure in the world of fabrics and textiles. “The broad range of quilt styles that we see today reinforces that idea.”

    Judges and makers can categorize quilts in a few ways. “Some of the quilters create ‘single-needle’ quilts, meaning that the quilt is designed and totally accomplished by one person,” Hershey explains, while other quilts have a “lead quilter” who designs the piece and others who execute the design, sewing the fabric together.

    Makers may sew a quilt in popular styles like “whole” cloth, patchwork, or applique. Whole-cloth quilts consist of a single piece of fabric, with the stitching acting as ornamentation. The patchwork style consists of smaller pieces that vary in color and size, sewn together into patterns and shapes. Applique involves the addition of smaller pieces of fabric for purposes of adornment or embellishment.

    Three women stand, working over a table on a quilt. Many quilts hang in the background.
    The quilting bee was an important part of everyday life for women in the past. Many quilters still take part in bee groups for the social and creative benefits.
    Photo courtesy of the Kutztown Folk Festival
    A man unfurls a large quilt with multicolored geometric design.
    This large quilt has geometric patterns using hundreds of different colors.
    Photo courtesy of the Kutztown Folk Festival

    Historically, quilters worked in these styles for reasons of style, comfort, and fabric availability, producing quilts that mark important events in a person’s life. They might be given as gifts of congratulation, celebration, or sympathy, marking friendships and farewells. According to Quilting in America,society expected a young woman to produce many quilts before her marriage, at which time she would design and execute her “masterpiece” quilt for her bridal bed. Quilts sometimes survive within a family for generations, reminding us of both an event and the loved ones who made it special.

    Heather Zimmerman, the Kutztown Folklife Festival’s first female director, has been with the festival since June 2021. Though the pandemic halted many celebrations worldwide (and many local quilting bees), the Kutztown organization found traction in 2022 after mandates were cautiously lifted.

    “We hadn’t had a festival event in two years and didn’t want to go one more year without doing something,” Zimmerman says. “And we didn’t want people to forget about us.  We had an online quilt sale during the pandemic, but it’s just not the same as seeing it in person, their beauty and craftsmanship.”

    Zimmerman cut her non-virtual directorial teeth on a pop-up quilt shop, and quilt enthusiasts were delighted. The Kutztown Folk Festival planned a full return in 2022, much to the delight of the dedicated volunteers, organizers, and townspeople for whom the event creates community.

    Each year, Zimmerman says they anticipate receiving more than 2,500 submissions—but she wasn’t worried about lack of quilts so much as lack of seasoned quilters after such a break. After the two-year COVID absence, Koller noted that though the quilts were plentiful, he could feel the slow march of time threatening the art forms of the Pennsylvania Dutch.

    Two people, from behind, in dresses and cloth caps look at rows of hanging quilts.
    Photo courtesy of the Kutztown Folk Festival

    “We haven’t had the festival since 2019, so we weren’t quite sure—we lost a couple quilters,” Koller said. “When you go year to year, you don’t notice the difference. In those three years, we noticed our crafts and quilters getting older. The crafts themselves are not being done.”

    Koller recalls with reverence the story of a final work by a quilter, beloved in the community. “One local Mennonite, her last quilt, her family brought it in. That was the story. Cathy Price’s final quilt.”

    Because of talented artisans like the late Price and the meaningful stories their lives tell, Koller will continue to support quilting, but not in its machine-made form.

    “Hand quilting is what people come to the festival to buy. I worry that while freehand machine quilting is beautiful, hand quilting is something that is tradition, I worry that we are going to lose it. Automatic quilting is like a factory blanket to me.”

     Despite the fear that the practice might age with its creators, the internet offers younger and older artists a foothold. According to the American Professional Quilting System, the average age of quilters in the United States has hovered between sixty-three and sixty-five over the past ten years, but the average quilter is now online every day, accessing quilting products and techniques. Additionally, the average quilter spends the same or more time quilting per week than the previous year.

    Moving forward, Zimmerman, Hershey, and Koller express hope not only for the younger folks, but for all guests who decide to spend a day or two with their organization. Their hopes are not unfounded. According to an annual craft survey presented by Premier Needle Arts, interest in quilting has grown. Ironically, even as Kutztown faced setbacks due to the pandemic, the country’s quilters found time to quilt.

    Blue-Eyed Susan was named the grand prize winner at the 2022 Kutztown Folk Festival quilt auction. It is a pieced and appliqued quilt, handsewn, and completed by a single needle. The judges never disclose the winner’s name to the public as they often come from one of the religious communities. Blue-Eyed Susan, among many beautiful quilts, sold for $3,900.

    So, among the shoo-fly pies, canning, woodworking, weaving, sarsaparilla, and demonstration of Pennsylvania Dutch living culture, the quilt barn continues to draw new visitors and participants. The continued sharing of these past practices supports the longevity of the culture– whether the practice is for recreation, a warmer winter, or a new horse.

    The Kutztown Folk Festival returned for its second post-pandemic festival on July 1, 2023, with the quilt sale following on Saturday, July 8.

    Frmo the back of an open-air barn, a seated crowd faces a quilt hanging above the stage in front, suspended between two men on ladders.
    Even those who don’t plan on buying a quilt gather to watch the auction at the pavilion in the Kutztown campgrounds.
    Photo courtesy of the Kutztown Folk Festival

     Gwen Branner is a former intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She wishes to thank Heather Zimmerman, Cyndi Hershey, and Craig Koller for their help and time on this article.

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