Search for quilt gardens leads to cabin of quilts 2010.09.09

Written by David Green.

store_outside.jpgYou can’t have real joy if you don’t understand what real sorrow is.

– Heather Lende, “Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs”


It was going to be a short and sweet vacation. A Labor Day weekend wedding in Milwaukee preceded by a day in northern Indiana Amish country seeking out the 17 gardens of the Quilt Garden Tour.

But we left four hours later than my 10 a.m. goal; two hours later than David predicted. I scaled back our plans. Maybe we wouldn’t see all the gardens laid out in quilt patterns nor all the quilt murals also on display, but surely we’d have time for a few, plus a quick visit to Gohn Brothers (suppliers of Amish goods) for thin 100 percent cotton socks like we’d bought years ago, and a meal at a local restaurant endorsed by Michael Stern of as “Worth planning a day around.” Chicken and noodles and apple pie—I couldn’t wait.

The two businesses are right next to each other in Middlebury, Ind.; it looked like an auspicious beginning to our journey.

Real sorrow

But as much as the salesclerk searched, the socks of my dreams were not in stock. The smooth, soft socks make the best eye covers, blocking the morning light better than any socks either of us own. Even worse, the store no longer wraps purchases in brown paper tied with string—they use ordinary paper bags.

And Michael Stern’s recommendation? Chicken and noodles was not on the menu, and although he especially praised the pie, our choice of apple was...well, it wasn’t deserving of Michael’s praise.

By the time we left the restaurant, filled with disappointment, we both just wanted to get out of town. I quickly looked at the Quilt Garden map I’d printed from “Just go south,” I told David. “Let’s just get out of here.”

We set out for Goshen, home to two quilt gardens, two quilt murals, and the Old Bag Factory which I had wanted to visit for years.

Halfway to Goshen, further perusal of the map revealed the error of my hasty ways. Not only had we just missed four quilt gardens in Middlebury, there were three quilt murals, and if we had gone southwest, we would have encountered another quilt garden.

I sunk into a funk. My attitude went south as I got crabby and short with David, especially when he passed roads I thought he should turn on, sure they would lead us to the 4-H Fairgrounds quilt garden.

We finally found the fairgrounds and searched it thoroughly. We’d pretty much given up finding the garden and were heading for the next one, when David spotted the garden outside in front of the fairgrounds.

On first sight, it looked a scraggly mess with no immediately discernible pattern. It was depressing. I had to laugh to keep from crying.

“Maybe you could come back next year,” David said.

He was trying to cheer me up. It was the end of the season and the flowers were a tad past their prime, dusk was approaching. It was obvious we weren’t going to see many more quilt gardens—and if they all looked like this—was it going to be worth it?

We headed for the Old Bag Factory, site of the other quilt garden, and this one was rather splendid. Sited next to a quilt business in a log cabin, it was well-maintained and the light gray dusty miller set against a rusty orange flower was intriguing.

Real joy

ladyslipper.jpgThe business was closed, but I walked onto the elevated front porch to take a better photo of the quilt garden. And then a man walked out of the store, holding a quilt and asking if I’d like to see the design the garden had inspired.

It was Dave Shenk, co-owner of Quilt Designs, who happened to still be at the shop even though it was closed. He was happy to share the beauty of the quilt his wife, Shirley Shenk, had created based on the design of her quilt garden.

Shirley wasn’t there, but inside the showroom, Dave generously shared many other astonishing quilts his wife had designed. My mouth hung open in amazement as he unfurled each one. I am not a quilter and I am not an artist and I am not a religious person, but I swear the divine is in those quilts—in workmanship, in artistry and in holiness.

Photographs cannot capture the color, the craftsmanship, the genius, the joy bursting from mere fabric. The quilts shimmer with vibrancy. I felt I was in the presence of something holy, pure and good.

Dave was equally delighted as he showed each quilt. He’s proud of his wife’s abilities, no doubt, but his appreciation and admiration of her gifts was a wonder in itself. It’s not just of Shirley’s skill, but also those of the women who piece and quilt and actually put the fabric together.

Shirley doesn’t build a quilt, she designs it. She selects the juxtaposition of colors and establishes the stitching design and figures out how much material will be needed to complete the quilt.

But it’s the very best of the best Amish and Mennonite sewers and quilters who complete the work.

“We’re very fussy,” says Dave about the workmanship that goes into making the quilts. They choose only master quilters to do the work, and thus, the back sides where the stitching is easily seen are as beautiful as the colorful top sides.

The quilts are works of art and the art world is where they are displayed and judged, although Shirley, a former elementary school teacher, had no formal training in art.

“She did what she loved and didn’t care what was in vogue,” said Dave.

Her work was shown to one of the top fashion coordinators in the country, known to be highly critical. He asked if she had gone to art school and upon learning she hadn’t, told her not to.

“You’re putting colors together that should not work, but they do,” he said.

Shirley also bucks tradition with her use of asymmetry and extending elements of her designs out of the usual boundaries. The resulting works of art are pure joy.

Little wonder that she’s known as one of the leading fiber artists in the country. I wonder if she could design a soft, quilted eye cover....

• Quilt Designs is located adjacent to the Old Bag Factory in Goshen, Ind., at  1100 Chicago Ave., less than a two-hour drive from Morenci. The shop also sells a variety of works from other artists as well as quilt related items such as jewelry and stationery. The design studio is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

For more information about the Quilt Garden Tour, visit and click on “Quilt Gardens Along the Heritage Trail.” The tour continues until Oct. 1.

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