Bow Tie
(c. 1920)

Amish Bars


Unequal Nine Patch
(ca. 1870)

Double Wedding Ring
(c. 1955)

Kansas Star

Amish School Teacher's Quilt
(Oct. 1936)

Dresden Plate
(ca. 1940)

T Quilt variation

Cherry Basket


Framed scrap quilt
(ca. 1900)

Chained Nine Patch
(ca. 1890)

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Amish strip quilt

Dahlia Star

Pineapple Medallion


Hmong quilt

Hmong quilt


Floral Appliqué

Amish Center Diamond

Amish Kaleidoscope

Amish Farmyard

Beyond Diamonds and Bars: The Cultural Production of Amish Quilts: Introduction

Smucker, Janneken


During the last half of the 20th century, Amish quilts underwent a cultural transformation, starting as objects given as gifts within Amish families but unknown to the outside world, becoming valuable works of art, and eventually commodities sold by Amish entrepreneurs to consumers.  Although connoisseurs have been most interested in Amish-made quilts from the late-19th   and early-20th centuries, pieced from solid colored fabrics in simple geometric designs, quiltmaking in this community is far more than the now iconic graphic diamonds and bars.  This exhibition traces the cultural production of Amish quilts by demonstrating the diversity of Amish-made quilts, the influence of consumer culture on quilts made by Amish women for both their own use and for outsiders, the enduring outsider interest in Amish quilts as art objects, and some unexpected outcomes of the current quilt revival.
The Old Order Amish are an Anabaptist religious group with roots in the 16th-century reformation in Europe.  Amish began immigrating to Pennsylvania in the mid-18th century in search of religious tolerance and economic benefits. Since then, they have fanned out to establish settlements in 29 states and Ontario.  Amish doctrine varies from settlement to settlement, but in all communities religion is embodied in all aspects of life.  The Amish have strived to maintain a separation from the outside world by maintaining restrictions on automobile ownership, high-wire electricity, and worldly dress.

Amish quilts are products of Amish homes, and thus often reflect principles of this Anabaptist religious group.  Some of these ideals are those outsiders have long admired—simplicity, hard work, modesty, authenticity—but these quilts also reflect a de facto Amish practice that is in many ways responsible for the persistence of this group: an ability to adapt selectively and be in a constant state of negotiation with the dominant society.  Amish culture, and in tandem Amish quilts, have not existed in a fossilized state; they have been constantly under flux, changing at a pace distinct from the outside world.  Quilts are in fact a relatively recent addition to Amish cultural practices; the Amish only began making quilts in any significant number in the late 19th century, often using fabrics leftover from making their family’s clothing, usually solid-colored cottons and wools.  Initially many Amish quiltmakers chose fairly simple graphic patterns, often consisting of squares and triangles. By quilt authority Barbara Brackman’s count, there were only 380 different patterns in use in the United States in 1875, around the time Amish women began making quilts.  By the end of the century this number had greatly increased because commercial enterprises published dozens of patterns, which both Amish and non-Amish quiltmakers quickly adopted into their repertoires.

The Diversity of Amish Quilts

Since the late 19th century, members of the Old Order Amish church have made quilts.  The Amish did not have their own quiltmaking tradition when families emigrated from central Europe to North America in the mid-eighteenth century.  Like other American women, they picked up the craft once commercially produced fabrics were abundant and cheap.  Some quilts look distinctly Amish, with dark solid colors and simple geometric patterns. Today Amish individuals sometimes refer to these as “old dark quilts,” while collectors and connoisseurs often call them “classic Amish quilts.” Other quilts reflect the patterns and colors fashionable within the dominant society, demonstrating that despite the church’s intentional separation from the outside world, Amish women often accessed the same commercial sources for fabrics and designs.  

The Center Diamond pattern is one of the most recognizably Amish designs, made with frequency in the Lancaster County Amish settlement in the early 20th century.  The large pieces of fabric were a perfect canvas for intricate quilting designs.

Amish quiltmakers, like many other American quiltmakers, used the simple nine patch pattern to create striking designs often executed in the same colors from which they made their clothing.

Although many Amish women used darker colors, some Amish quiltmakers embraced lighter colors including white and pastels to make quilts. Bontrager used the Double Wedding Ring pattern, popular among both Amish and non-Amish quiltmakers, to make this small quilt.

Within the Amish culture, quilts often played a sentimental role as gifts given to mark milestones and solidify community and familial ties: when adult children moved away from home, when a neighboring family was in need, or in this case, as an appreciation gift for a schoolteacher.  Quilts such as this featuring embroidered initials or names linked the community members together, just as they did within non-Amish communities.

Some Amish quiltmakers used commercially published patterns popular among mainstream American quiltmakers, like Dresden Plate.  Amish women adapted patterns published in sources including the Ladies Art Company catalog, farming periodicals and newspapers that printed patterns, and Mountain Mist batting wrappers.

No strict rules governed Amish quiltmaking; as within other communities, personal preferences and community fashions dictated how quilts looked.  In some midwestern Amish settlements, including the one near Kalona, Iowa, blue and white quilts were popular during the first half of the 20th century.  Resourceful Amish quiltmaker Anna Gingerich made this quilt using feedsacks marked with the name of a local company.

Quilts Become Art

Prior to the early 1970s, the pairing of the adjective Amish and the noun quilt was unknown.  Around this time—as quilts were capturing the attention of art enthusiasts, home crafters, feminists, and back-to-the-landers—burgeoning collectors including New Yorkers Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof began to notice distinctive quilts pieced from solid colored fabrics with intricate quilting designs. To their modern eyes, these quilts looked like abstract paintings by artists such as Josef Albers and Barnett Newman. Early collectors began to buy these objects to hang on their walls.  By the mid-1970s, Amish quilts were status symbols within the art world and their prices had begun to rise.
In 1968, during a trip through Lancaster County, Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof spotted this quilt covering the springs of a brass bed in a small antiques shop. After haggling over the price, they paid $5.75 for the quilt, which Holstein initially thought was “some extraordinary work of genius.” They soon realized it was too precise and too consistent to be, in Holstein’s words, “a singular example from any culture we knew anything about.” After showing their find to anyone who would look at it, they eventually learned that it was an Amish quilt. Then they asked, “how are we going to get more of these?” They began looking for more examples in the Lancaster County countryside. And soon they began to find them, eventually assembling one of the foremost collections of these objects.

Although Lancaster County quilts were initially the most recognizable forms—with the now iconic Diamonds and Bars—by the early-1980s quilts made in other communities were also sought after for their graphic qualities, such as this example by Elizabeth Hershberger from Arthur, Illinois.

Following the display of select Amish quilts in early exhibitions including the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 1971 “Abstract Design in American Quilts,” institutions and private collectors began acquiring these objects, elevating their prices and bestowing them with status as art objects.  The Esprit clothing company, with its headquarters based in an old winery in San Francisco, began displaying quilts including this one on the walls of its offices and design studios. 

Both private quilt collectors and museums added Amish examples to their collections. Collector Gail Binney owned this striking Indiana example before donating it the New England Quilt Museum
The Commercial Market

By the early 1980s, the Amish “brand” of quilts was well established in many Amish settlements. During the second half of the 20th century, farming remained the ideal Amish vocation, but rising prices for agricultural land coupled with increasing Amish population challenged farming as a way of life in many settlements.  Amish in some communities increasingly turned to small businesses as a primary means of earning a living. The 1970s and 1980s growth of small businesses among Old Order Amish coincided with intense outsider interest in the religious group’s “old dark quilts.” Obsession with the old quilts helped establish “Amish” as a reliable brand name for new quilts.

Some quilt entrepreneurs, like Katie Yoder, who made this quilt, crafted quilts for the retail market using solid colors and pieced designs.  Many Amish quiltmakers liked using cotton/polyester blend fabrics and polyester batting because they found these materials easier to work with than natural fibers. They had also adopted synthetic blends for making their own clothes because these materials were much easier to care for. 

Many quilts that Amish businesses sold looked nothing like the “old dark quilts,” such as the Dahlia Star pattern, popular among consumers looking for quilts in Amish country. In many communities Amish taste had changed by the late 20th century; moreover, Amish businesswomen learned to make quilts that would appeal to outsiders.  Customers often brought with them swatches of curtains or carpets so they could order custom made quilts to match. 

White whole cloth quilts were a style popular among Amish quiltmakers and their consumers during the late 20th century.  Many Amish families considered such bedcovers as their “best quilts.” This example, intricately quilted with a ring of pineapples at its center, is signed Emma Witmer, an Old Order Mennonite quilt shop owner from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  According to the quilt’s owner, a disabled Amish woman quilted it.  Upon request from her customers, Witmer signs most of the quilts she sells from her rural shop.  

Once Amish-made quilts had become commodities outsiders to the community were interested in buying and selling, these objects took on a life far beyond Amish settlements.  But elements of the traditional culture in which these objects originated persisted. As discovered as part of the Michigan Quilt Project, in the 1990s an obstetrician in Michigan received payment for delivering Amish babies in quilts.  He then sold the quilts to interested consumers. This quilt is typical of the pieced quilts made by Amish businesses for the consumer market.

The Hmong Connection

Amish quilt businesses expanded their design repertoire to include new appliqué patterns that began attracting a different sort of consumer in the mid-1980s: those interested in a country aesthetic, rather than the stark modernist appeal associated with the “old dark quilts.” But not enough Amish seamstresses were skilled at the hand stitching required for intricate appliqué quilts; they usually pieced quilts with sewing machine (powered by treadle, air compressor, or generator) and hand quilted them, distinctly different skills from that of appliqué.  Luckily for Amish quilt businesses, Hmong refugees living near Amish settlements in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and elsewhere had the necessary sewing skills, experience selling their own textile arts, and a knack for learning and adapting others’ cultural practices.
The Hmong are a minority ethnic group historically based in the areas of present-day China, Vietnam, and Laos. At the end of the Vietnam War, many Hmong attempted to escape Laos by crossing the Mekong River into refugee camps in Thailand. From these camps, Hmong refugees awaited asylum, with tens of thousands resettling in the United States during the late 1970s and 1980s. Hmong women of different clans living in the camps learned from one another and integrated new techniques and designs, priding themselves on being able to quickly adopt new styles. 
Church organizations such as the Mennonite Central Committee sponsored many of the first Hmong refugees to the United States beginning in the late 1970s. Hmong refugees faced a difficult adjustment with poor English skills and little transferable work experience or education.  Making their traditional textiles, called paj ntaub (pronounced “pa ndau” and translated as “flower cloth”) to sell was a viable means for Hmong women to contribute to their families’ meager incomes, and a practice they could fit in around other domestic responsibilities within their patriarchal society. Hmong immigrant communities in some geographic areas quickly organized craft cooperatives, often with the guidance of volunteers from sponsoring church or aid agencies, that helped build consumer markets for paj ntaub. In communities near Amish settlements, some seamstresses decided to adapt their skills to fit the booming market for appliqué quilts in Amish settlements during the 1980s and 1990s.

Hmong women had long decorated ceremonial textiles and clothing with embroidery, appliqué, and batik, three textile practices collectively known among Hmong clans as paj ntaub. This is an example of paj ntaub made by a Hmong immigrant to the United States.

In the Thai refugee camps, Hmong came to rely on their traditional textile art as a primary source of income. Aid agencies and missionary groups cultivated craft production among Hmong refugees, in hopes that outsider interest in paj ntaub might provide families with a modest supplemental income.  Aid groups then brought paj ntaub to urban markets in Thailand and exported pieces across the globe.  Some Hmong women adapted paj ntaub into a bed quilt format by repeating blocks and adding sashing, just as one finds on many pieced American-style quilts.   The maker of this quilt lived in a refugee camp in Thailand.  She made the quilt to sell in order to raise funds to bring her family to the United States.

The reverse appliqué technique Hmong women used to make paj ntaub was easily adaptable to the appliqué quilts sold in quilt shops in various Amish settlements.  Hmong women in fact found making quilts easier than paj ntaub, as the technique was less intricate. And making quilts was far more lucrative than making paj ntaub to sell. This example was made by a Hmong seamstress in Ohio.
Just as many Amish women adapted the craft of quiltmaking in the 19th century—a tradition unknown to them in Europe—many Hmong women have embraced quiltmaking as their own artistic expression and means of earning a living. Many Hmong-made quilts showcase the makers’ strong needlework skills derived from making paj ntaub.  Some Hmong women now make quilts to give to their own children, just as many Amish women have done during the last 100 years. 
Amish Inspiration

Since learning about Amish quilts from museum exhibitions, beautifully illustrated books, visits to Amish country, and the consumer market, many non-Amish quiltmakers have drawn inspiration from the Amish and their quilts to create their own bedcovers and wallhangings. Many quiltmakers loved the aesthetics of Amish quilts pieced in simple geometric designs and solid fabrics. The colors and graphics were strikingly modern; for quiltmakers with a background in color theory from formal art study, approaching quiltmaking as a study in color made perfect sense. For some non-Amish individuals undertaking the paradoxical task of making an Amish quilt, the process of emulating the Amish through quiltmaking—even if only emulating one’s perceptions of the Amish, such as simplicity and hard work—may have connected them to an imagined authenticity they were seeking.

Jane Braun, a non-Amish quiltmaker, used the popular Center Diamond pattern, colors common on Lancaster County Amish quilts from the early 20th century, and quilting motifs including a feathered wreath, tulips, and a cable border to create this wallhanging.  In the early 1980s, when Braun made this quilt, Braun would have had access to recently published books featuring color illustrations of Amish quilts, which she may have used as inspiration for this piece.

Non-Amish quiltmakers could turn to hundreds of commercially published patterns and kits with instructions for making “Amish” quilts.  In this sense, “Amish” had become a style, rather than an attribution.  These patterns usually reflected the aesthetics of the quilts connoisseurs call “classic Amish quilts,” with their simple geometric patterns and dark, solid colors.  Nadine Keech used a pattern called “Amish Kaleidoscope,” published in Quilter’s Newsletter Magazine to make this quilt.  

Professional quiltmaker and quilt teacher Ami Simms first learned to quilt as a college student while conducting research among the Old Order Amish in the mid-1970s.  Since then she has made hundreds of quilts in many styles.  She clearly drew inspiration from the time she spent living with an Amish family to make this small quilt depicting an Amish farm complete with horse and buggy. 

Date: 2011