Janneken Smucker on Color in Amish Quilts

What colors will you find in a “true” Amish quilt?

When I attended Amish quilt expert Janneken Smucker’s presentation on the topic, I was surprised to learn that the use of color by Amish quilters was much more flexible than I’d assumed. These weren’t just the bold reds, blues and dark tones we often associate with Amish handiwork.

Today Janneken explains how Amish quilters of another era incorporated popular colors that most people wouldn’t think of as “Amish”.


Back in July, I had a conversation with two bloggers from [site no long online], who are traveling across the country exploring regional color. While they were in southeastern Pennsylvania, they visited Amish country in Lancaster County, and also came to interview me in Philadelphia. I don’t want to give away all of our conversation, but we focused on the use of color in Amish quilts.

It might be easy to assume that Amish quilters from the early twentieth century were far removed from the color trends and fashions of the dominant culture. But I think we can’t simply state that they were completely unaware. Many were actually connoisseurs of popular colors, including, for example, the common Easter egg pastels of the 1930s, like bubblegum pink or Nile green.

The fabrics in colors popular with mainstream quilters were also sold to Amish quilters, sometimes by the traveling merchants who had loyal Amish customers. What Amish quilters did differently was pair these colors in ways unpredictable in the world of mainstream quilts.

For example, this appliqued floral quilt shares a lot in common with other quilts from this era – cheerful pink flowers in a basket. But most non-Amish quiltmakers would have set these baskets on a white background fabric, instead of black. The dark ground and wide royal blue border give this quilt a certain Amish spin.

basket-of-flowers-quilt
Basket of flowers, unknown Amish maker, c. 1935. Possibly made in Ohio. .

Another quilt of the same era uses the ubiquitous Double Wedding Ring pattern, popular among Amish and “English” quiltmakers alike. This crib quilt almost reads as a typical pastel version of this popular pattern, but what sets it apart is the splashes of atypical colors, like black, brown, deep red, and navy blue—colors that make frequent appearances on Midwestern Amish quilts.

double-wedding-ring-crib-quilt
Double Wedding Ring Crib Quilt, unknown Amish maker, c. 1935, LaGrange, Indiana, Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites

If you are lucky enough to live near an Amish settlement, or have enjoyed wandering the back roads while visiting, you have surely noticed the array of colors blowing in the wind on the clotheslines of Amish homes. Here too, you see the variety, and the unexpected pairings, that have long characterized Amish color choices.

dresses-on-line
Bethany King, Amish Clothesline, Creative Commons license via Flickr.

Read more from Janneken:

“Church Amish” quilting in the 1940s
PA German Fraktur Art
Quilt Innovators Mary Lapp & Hannah Stoltzfoos
All About Quilt Stitching
What are Haps?


Janneken Smucker 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 multiple publications on quilts and quilting including Amish Quilts: Crafting an American Icon.

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    9 Comments

    1. ralph becker

      judging, read what the bible says

      1 Corinthians 5:3
      For my part, even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. As one who is present with you in this way, I have already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus on the one who has been doing this.

      1 Corinthians 6:1
      If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people?
      Treasury of Scripture
      For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not you judge them that are within?

      what.

      Luke 12:14 And he said to him, Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you?
      John 18:36 Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were …
      them.

      Mark 4:11 And he said to them, To you it is given to know the mystery of the …
      Colossians 4:5 Walk in wisdom toward them that are without, redeeming the time.
      1 Thessalonians 4:12 That you may walk honestly toward them that are without, and that …
      1 Timothy 3:7 Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest …
      do not.

      1 Corinthians 6:1-5 Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before …
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      1. Ralph, it’s great that you are sharing good content from Scripture, but was wondering if you could add a little context as to how this relates to Janneken’s post? Thanks.

        1. Robin Miller

          Wondering the same thing Erik

          I was wondering about this too Erik and would be interested to know. However, loved this article re: Amish quilts. My husband and I purchased our first quilt for our bed for our 37th wedding anniversary last year when we were in Lancaster County. Since then we have returned several times and I’ve treated myself to two more smaller “lap size” though I’m sure they would fit twin beds used with a dust ruffle. I’ve also purchased a beautiful quilt rack that’s at the foot of our bed to display these beautiful works of art. Two of these quilts are “Ocean Wave” pattern and the third is a pattern that was unnamed but oh so beautiful. It’s a “play” on the wedding ring pattern but uses squares and stars instead. I have a favorite shop where I’ve also purchased pillows, a “quillow”, quilted table toppers and other items for both gifts and myself. Plan on branching out a bit and investigating many more of these “treasure troves” on the backroads of Lancaster County. I also discovered one driving through the St. Mary’s County, MD Amish settlement and need to stop in on my next trip through.

    2. Anita

      My Amish Quilt

      I am having a custom made queen size quilt made by Old Order, very conservative Amish friends. The top maker and I went to the Amish fabric store to select the fabric for my Blazing Star quilt. They use only black, teal, green, blue for color but wanted to add color that PA Amish use so we included some purple and mauve (the store has this available for English and Mennonite) as I lived in an Amish community in Gordenville 40 years ago for 1 year. The younger girls are now doing the quilting by hand. I selected one of their stencil designs. Maybe I can post a photo of it when completed which should be soon, altho they are very busy with canning, etc.

    3. Debbie H

      I am a quilter myself and envy the work of the Amish. As I understand from my research the Amish make quilts of all colors and patterns for the English but most Ordnunds (spelling?) have restriction on color and patterns used in clothing and personal use quilts. For instance the wedding ring pattern. Amish do not wear wedding rings. The dresses in the clothesline picture are probably Mennonite or Amish Mennonite as they are a little to bright for Amish. I am by no means an expert but only sharing what I have found in reading and studying about Amish dress and quilt making.

      A Caution: Just because a quilt, or anything, is sold by Amish doesn’t mean it is made by Amish. Be specific and ask if it was made by Amish. Especially in tourist areas. I believe this was a subject on this site a year ago.

      1. Mary

        amish dresses

        Amish do indeed wear these bright colors, and even brighter! It will depend on where, and what “type” of Old Order Amish they are. I’m sure the Swartzentruber Amish would not wear those colors, but most other Amish would. Times have changed, even for the Amish.

        1. Robin Miller

          Yes indeed that is true! Especially the younger girls that I’ve seen in Lancaster County, PA and St. Mary’s County, MD. Bright limes, lavenders, pinks. Some even include some “fancy” trims on the edges of their sleeves. Probably allowed if they are in rumspringa?

        2. Anita

          When I met my friends a couple of yrs ago, I asked if they were Schwarz because they are so plain. They wear brown, grey, green and blue ankle length dresses and the kids don’t ride bikes or use rollerblades. They do not allow any bright colors. Even the shoes have to be exactly the same with no molding. I buy them blankets, ect. But everything is covered with a homemade fabric made to fit. They like to use swivel office chairs alot at the table and will make covers for the seats. Usually brown.

    4. M. H. G.

      Amish Quilts

      Great Quilts! The colors ARE beautiful too..
      These quilts bring back great memories to me.

      My grandmother created lovely quilts too & each one had
      a story behind it. She also, sold quite a few.
      My grandmother Flossie also, lived in the foothills of the Smoky
      Mountains and received her inspirations from them.