Mind: Blown. Amish Quilts by Janneken Smucker
Just got this beautiful book out of the library, thinking I would enjoy it for general textile knowledge, and color and pattern inspiration.
Then the author just drops a big ole daisycutter bomb in the first chapter, obliterating the myth of American quilting, and Amish quilting in particular.
I’m literally going to just copy out some passages here because it is so fascinating.
Ask an Amish quiltmaker when Amish women started making quilts, and she’ll likely answer that Amish women have ‘always made quilts.’ In the twenty-first century, even as fewer and fewer Amish women create quilted bedcovers for home use, the craft is ingrained in Amish understandings of their own tradition and conceptions of their own history. In their understanding of quilt history, the long-standing practice of making useful bedcovers fits with other principles that have guided the practice of their faith and culture— self-sufficiency, women as resourceful and hardworking contributors to their families, and the elevation of utility over ornament.
Yet in reality, when Amish families began emigrating from Europe to North America in the mid-eighteenth century, they brought neither quilts nor quilting know-how with them. Like most women in this era, Amish women did possess sewing skills, since they were responsible for stitching their family members’ garments and other household textiles. However, quilts were not traditional bedcoverings in the German-speaking areas of Europe from which the Amish came. Amish families relied on the same bedding kit as did most German and Swiss transplants to the new world: a chaff bag (a homespun linen bag gilled with straw chaff or cornhusks) that served as the mattress, a featherbed (a fustian— typically a cloth woven from linen and cotton— bag filled with feathers) as the top cover providing warmth, and perhaps a woven coverlet as the decorative top layer.
Already in the late nineteenth century, Americans understood quilts as old-fashioned, as products of a preindustrial work in which making one’s own household goods was the norm and creative reuse was a sign of women’s ingenuity. Americans living in an age of rapid industrialization, urbanization, and modernization saw quilts through a lens of nostalgia for an imagined past in which self-sufficiency, fortitude, and thrift were commonplace. Surely quilts were part of colonial women’s repertoire of domestic skills that contributed to the success and well-being of colonial households, many Americans assumed. Despite the popular belief ingrained in the American imagination that their colonial foremothers made quilts to keep their families warm, very few women living in British North American in fact mad quilts in the eighteenth century.
Often accompanying the myth of colonial quiltmaking is its partner in fantasy, the scrap-bag quilt, supposedly made up of bits and pieces of recycled clothing. While twentieth-century quiltmakers with limited economic means have indeed recycled all sorts of used materials into their patchwork quilts, this was not a common practice among earlier American quiltmakers throughout the nineteenth century. The material evidence in the form of extant quilts suggests that American quiltmakers largely used new rather than used fabric to make quilts. For quilts created before the innovations of the industrial revolution, the format itself— typically a whole cloth quilt— indicates the absence of what has been referred to as a ‘scrap-bag mentality’ or reuse of fabrics, although bed hangings and quilted petticoats were sometimes reused in whole cloth quilts.
Starring: The Industrial Revolution, nostalgia, mythmaking, Colonial Revivalism, the Victorians, mail order, commercial patterns, sewing machines, social inclusion/exclusion, consumer culture, and more of your favorite stars!
The anthropologist in me is breathing heavily.
Buy it here, if your library doesn’t have it.