Janneken Smucker, author of the newly-released Amish Quilts: Crafting an American Icon, answers your quilt questions today.

Janneken Smucker AuthorJanneken is Assistant Professor of History at West Chester University, consulting curator for the International Quilt Study Center & Museum at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and author of a number of publications on quilts and quilting.

Johns Hopkins University Press is giving away a copy of Amish Quilts.  If you submitted a question for Janneken, you are already entered to win.

You can also get another entry to the contest by leaving a comment on this post. We’ll announce the winner on Monday.

You asked some good questions of Janneken.  I think you’ll find her answers interesting, and some of them unexpected.  If you enjoy what you read here, I think you’ll enjoy her book.

Thank you Janneken, for helping us learn more about Amish quilts.


Janneken Smucker on Amish Quilts

Pat, Alice Mary, and Karen Pollard: Is it true that the Amish purposely put a mistake in each quilt? I have heard they do this because only God is perfect and so they make sure they never make a perfect quilt.

This is a great example of the folklore carried with quilts. I heard someone recount asking an Amish quiltmaker herself this very question, and she replied, “I do not need to remind God how imperfect I am.”

Interestingly, dealers in Oriental carpets and Navajo blankets use this same “justification” for errors and inconsistencies in the works they sell, suggesting that it may be the business of selling objects that has perpetuated ideas such as this. As a quiltmaker, I can say that I do not intend for the quilts I make to have mistakes, but they always do.

Quilts for home vs. quilts for sale.

Several of you asked about various aspects of the differences between quilts made to sell and quilts made for home use. This is a hard question to answer because there is a) great diversity among quilts made for sale, and b) great diversity among Amish preferences, both at the individual and community level.

Amish Quilts Janneken SmuckerWalk into an Amish quilt shop in Lancaster County today and you will likely see a great array of patterns, colors, styles, and tastes. As one Amish woman said, “We try to do all kinds of quilts.” Similarly, Amish taste varies widely. As Barb notes, some families have long preferred store bought comforters or chenille bedspreads instead of quilts. Some Amish who do use quilts on their own beds might choose solid colors in simple geometric pieced patterns (that’s definitely true among more conservative groups like the Nebraska or Swartzendruber groups) while others have adopted styles like those sold in Amish quilt shops, featuring cheery applique, printed fabrics, and a wide variety of colors.

Terry Berger: Are more Amish men involved in quilting than before?

Since quiltmaking has become a common business within many Amish settlements, men have indeed become more involved. Sometimes men—particularly those who have retired from farming or other occupations—help with the production process by cutting fabric or marking quilting designs. But more common from my observations are men who help run the businesses, sometimes handling the retail side of things while their wives coordinate the design and production of quilts.

Amy Hering and MaryAnn Pepe: I am also wondering if most Amish sew by hand, on a treadle machine, or one with improvised power. Do the Amish ever use any machinery (without electricity, of course) while making quilts?

Many of the earliest identified Amish quilts, made in the 1870s and 1880s, feature machine stitching. To farmwives such as Amish women, the sewing machine was a great timesaving device for sewing clothing and quilts. Once sewing machines were electrified, Amish women continued to use treadle versions. Today, Amish women working in the quiltmaking industry or sewing at home use contemporary sewing machines retrofitted to run on alternative energy sources, like hydraulic pumps or compressed air, or the old-fashioned treadle. While they use machines to piece quilts, Amish women continue to quilt by hand.

Slightly-Handled-Order-Man: Will a quilt stay within a family and be passed down from generation to generation?

Many of us associate quilts with warmth, comfort, and home. Quilts are frequent gifts, passed down from one generation to another. This has been common within many Amish communities as well. Many mothers made, or hired someone else to make, a quilt to send with their offspring when they left home, and these quilts were often reserved for guest beds or for display on beds when hosting church. Families did treat these quilts as treasured heirlooms, passing them on from generation to generation or selling them at private “family sales.”

But that changed when outsiders became interested in old Amish quilts in the early 1970s. As prices began to rise for “old dark quilts” families were quicker to sell. Part of this was because quilts had become a liability; rather than risk a break-in or lose a highly valued quilt in a house fire, families sold. And further, once the outside world valued quilts as status symbols, many Amish families perceived that they no longer seemed appropriate objects to keep within their homes.

Center Diamond Amish Quilt

Center Diamond, unknown Amish maker, c. 1930, Lancaster County, PA. Courtesy of Faith and Stephen Brown

Mary Yoder: Do the Amish still make Friendship Quilts and what are they?

Mary, I’d love if you could answer the question regarding whether Amish still make friendship quilts. As a historian, I’ll comment on the past practice. American quiltmakers have made friendship quilts since at least the 1840s, when it became a fad among elite social networks in mid-Atlantic cities. The first Amish-made friendship quilt I have identified is dated 1899 and attributed to a group of Topeka, Indiana, Amish quiltmakers.  Along with names, it features messages including “Remember Me,” and “Forget Me Not,” sentiments also common on non-Amish friendship quilts of the 19th century.

Particularly among Midwestern Amish settlements, friendship quilts were a popular way to tie friends and relatives together, often scattered across states. Prior to Lewis Harshberger’s 21st birthday, his mother, Cora Etta, sent templates to his friends, collecting enough spool-shaped fabric pieces signed in embroidery stitches to fill not one, but two quilts. By the 1950s, some Amish individuals stitched not only their names, but even their mailing addresses into friendship quilts, creating a fabric address book.

Mary, how does the tradition continue today?

Amish Friendship Quilt

Detail, Fans Friendship Quilt, unknown Amish makers, May 10, 1899, Topeka, IN. Courtesy of International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Marilyn: Do the Amish put some kind of markings or date to identify the one who made the quilt?

In terms of historical Amish quilts, we’re lucky to discover quilts with dates or attribution. In my research, I’ve identified around 300 quilts that are in museums or private collections with dates stitched into them, ranging from 1864 to 1963. Amish makers did not tend to sign their names like an artist signs a painting. But in some settlements—particularly in Indiana and Ohio—makers commonly embroidered or quilted the recipient’s name on a gifted quilt and sometimes the date of creation.

Among quilts Amish have made for the commercial market in recent years, the practice of signing quilts varies from shop to shop. Many consumers like to own a signed quilt, as it serves as a seal of authenticity, even thought typically a number of Amish women—rather than just one—contributes to a quilt. Some Amish quilt entrepreneurs are happy to oblige and sign quilts with the proprietor’s name.

Amish Quilt Initials

Detail, Bars, unknown Amish maker, c. 1890-1910, Lancaster County, PA. Courtesy of International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Sharon C: What makes an Amish quilter better than an English quilter?

Some Amish women are fantastic quilters. Some hate to quilt and are not good at it. The same can be said for the non-Amish. Yet why have consumers and collectors perceived Amish quilts as better? To answer this question, we must examine first, the time period in which outsiders “discovered” Amish quilts and second, the contemporary consumer market for quilts.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, New York art enthusiasts in close proximity to Lancaster’s Amish settlement thought that old Amish quilts from this community looked like abstract paintings and began buying them to hang on the wall. Certain Amish quilts, like Center Diamond and Bars, looked distinctly different than ones that non-Amish made. These art enthusiasts liked the graphic simplicity of these patterns, typically pieced in solid-colored fabrics. To collectors familiar with modern art, Amish quilts were better aesthetically than non-Amish ones. They looked good in modern settings, like loft apartments and stark white galleries.

These old quilts helped establish a reputation for new-made quilts Amish entrepreneurs began making to sell to tourists. Due to the high price collectors paid for quilts as art objects, Americans began to associate Amish-made quilts with high quality workmanship. Yet, some of these consumers instead wanted a quilt that would match the “country” style décor favored by many in the 1980s.  Consumers brought in curtain and rug swatches to commission quilts to match their bedrooms. And the resulting quilts typically were of high quality with fine hand quilting.

“Amish,” in turn, became a sort of brand consumers could trust, and were willing to pay a premium for. One consumer in Lancaster County begged the shop owner in the mid-1980s, saying, “Please tell me an Amish woman made this quilt.”

In short, consumers liked the idea of “Amish-made,” assuming it must be better, because of mainstream culture’s association of the Amish with hard work, simplicity, and fine craftsmanship.

Amish Tumbling Blocks Quilt

Tumbling Blocks, unknown Amish maker, c. 1935, Holmes County, OH. Courtesy of Faith and Stephen Brown

Lanore Lewis: Why are Amish quilts so expensive?

Again, I can address this question in terms of antique Amish quilts and ones made more recently for the consumer market.

Old Amish quilts of a certain style—the ones pieced from solid-colored fabrics in simple geometric designs—became expensive when outsiders began to perceive them as art objects, status symbols worth displaying in one’s home or collecting to hang in galleries. There were only a finite number of these old quilts, and when demand was high in the 1970s and 80s, prices skyrocketed. I’ve tracked the price of old Amish quilts sold at public auction. These prices topped out around $17,000, although quilts have sold privately for no doubt more than this.

New Amish quilts are actually relatively inexpensive if you consider the amount of labor and materials involved in their creation. As Karen Pollard noted in the comments earlier this week, the fabric, batting, and thread make up a significant (and rising) expense. And then there’s the labor.

Usually Amish women charge for quilting (the hand stitches that holds the three layers of a quilt together) by the yard of thread. In the early 1980s, the going rate was around 25 or 30 cents a yard, which based on the amount of stitches I estimate in a queen-size quilt, resulted in $75 to $135, or $.63 to $1.13 an hour.

By the mid-2000s, this rate had increased to around $2.00 an hour, still far from the minimum wage. If quilters earned a living wage, the price businesses charge for Amish quilts would be much higher.