Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Amish Quilts: How 'Ugly' Quilts Became High Art and Changed Quilting

Amish Quilts: Crafting and American Icon by Janneken Smucker was a revelation.

My quilt life began in 1991. My mother-in-law quilted in the 1980s. I saw quilts being sold at Philadelphia's Head House Square in the 1970s. I taught myself to sew, and dabbled in macramé and needlepoint. But it was that first quilt that changed my life. I quickly became interested in quilt history and antique quilts, which meant reading books because I was too poor to collect, and making quilts inspired by antique quilts.

Over the years I learned about the quilt revival, how quilts became 'art' and not just 'craft'. I saw the names of people whose books I have read (Roderick Kiracofe, Julie Silber), and who now I follow on Facebook. I thought I was pretty savvy about the history of quilting in the 20th c. But Smucker's book on Amish Quilts took all I knew and put it in a narrative that enlightened me and broadened my knowledge.

The book begins with an introduction to the Amish and their life and values. She tells how antique Amish quilts, relegated to closets as old fashioned and ugly, suddenly were valued for their simple 'modern' minimalist design and deemed worthy for walls and art galleries. Pickers and dealers went door to door buying the quilts, which they resold for increasingly higher prices.

The demand for affordable quilts for home decorating brought in cottage industries, and the cottage industries hired out to non-Amish, including the Hmong people who settled in the Lancaster, PA area. (Read about the Hmong here.)
1990s cheater cloth quilts which I hand quilted
Oddly, while the black and solid color minimalist quilts were becoming identified with the Amish, contemporary Amish quilters were using new easy-care fabrics and designs for their homes.

Quilts were created to meet the demand for affordable quilts for home decorators. The Country Bride Quilt, developed by Rachel Pellman of Lancaster's The Old Country Store, was in the popular country rose and blue colors and had an appliqué design of hearts and birds.
'Amish' made 1990s quilt owned by Diane Little
My Disselfink, a pattern from a 1990s Old Country Store publication
With 100 color photographs of Amish quilts, this book on quilts, art, and economics is a must-have for anyone interested in the history of quilting in the 20th c.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through Edelweiss in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Amish Quilts
Janneken Smucker
John Hopkins University Press
Hard cover $36,95
ISBN: 9781142141053

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