Amish Quilts: Crafting an American Icon (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013) explores the phenomenon of Amish quilts and the people who have loved them during the last half-century. Appealing to both scholarly and popular audiences, this book interprets its subject with a wide-angle lens, examining the viewpoints of Amish families, antiques dealers, art collectors, multinational corporations, fashion designers, tourists to Amish country, and Hmong needleworkers.
By exploring the relationship of Amish quilts to the individuals who made, bought, sold, exhibited, and preserved them during the last half of the twentieth century, this book investigates intersections of art, craft, fashion, globalization, religion, ethnicity, and consumer culture. I argue that both Amish and non-Amish individuals, influenced by understandings of theology, Modernism, connoisseurship, nostalgia, “Amishness,” consumerism, and authenticity, crafted the value of Amish quilts during this era. This value was of course monetary, but also aesthetic, emotional, and cultural.
Although aspects of this story are relatively recent history, I tell it with an historical approach following a loosely chronological narrative. I examine how these bedcovers—once solely objects made and used in Amish homes—emerged within 19th-century Amish homes in the midst of the industrial revolution and colonial revival, and then became first works of art worth a lot of money and second, commodities made in home-based Amish industries and sold to tourists. I use historical analysis of archival and published sources, examination of quilts, and oral history interviews to tell this story.
What others say
“This book is a landmark not only in the field of quilt history but also in American social history, The author traces the cultural biography of Amish quilts from the hands of their makers to the hands of their collectors, with many stops in between. The extraordinary color plates reveal the beauty of Amish quilts, while the impeccably researched text reveals the complexity of this craft tradition.” — Janet Berlo, University of Rochester, author of Quilting Lessons (2001) and co-editor of Wild by Design: Two Hundred Years of Innovation and Artistry in American Quilts (2003).
“Janneken Smucker offers a comprehensive study of Amish quilts in context, placing them beyond the Brethren communities into the wider world of commerce and culture. She insightfully explores the Amish quilt and its role among critics and galleries, dealers and pickers, hired seamstresses, folkart gurus, and American mythmakers.” — Barbara Brackman, quilt historian, author of Clues in the Calico: A Guide to Identifying and Dating Antique Quilts
“Janneken Smucker has woven together facts about a fascinating and complex people—their history and their quilts—and has completely pulled back the curtain (or should I say quilt?), like no one else before to reveal the inside history about collecting and commerce of these prized objects. This is a book many of us have been waiting for.”—Roderick Kiracofe, author of The American Quilt: A History of Cloth and Comfort, 1750–1950
“Smucker’s excellent book is beautifully written and will significantly advance the scholarship in quilt studies and, more broadly, material culture studies and art history. This is the book that will stand as the authoritative text on Amish quiltmaking.”—Marsha MacDowell, Michigan State University Museum
Publisher’s Weekly, November 4, 2013: “Just as people who buy the New Yorker for its cartoons feel they’ve gotten their money’s worth without reading beyond the punch lines, readers may take this up for the pictures alone: they are sumptuous…. Smucker … a fifth-generation Mennonite quilter, is also a bold and precise historian…. She writes appealingly and clearly, always defining quilt jargon and explaining cultural mores as she tells ‘of the seemingly humble Amish quilts and the people who have loved them.’”
New York Times, 2013 Holiday Gift Guide, November 28, 2013: “The gap between what artisans intend and what dealers and owners come to believe is entertainingly conveyed in this study…. Ms. Smucker researched how Amish women were startled to learn… that their checkerboard and striped heirloom textiles were marketable. Urban critics compared the designs to million-dollar abstract paintings, thieves targeted Amish farmhouses on Sundays, and quilt prices reached five figures even at country auctions…. The book is timely, since the history of folk art collecting is under scrutiny…” ~ Eve Kahn
FT Books, February 7, 2014: “A wonderful book, whether you get caught into the economic history or just stick to the pictures.”
Art Libraries Society of North America, Reviews, March 2014: ” Janneken Smucker deepens our understanding of these celebrated handicrafts and successfully demonstrates the far-reaching importance of their cultural impact…. While this volume is not meant to serve as a coffee-table picture book, its text is balanced with a generous and valuable amount of high-quality images that will surely grab the attention of academic and pleasure readers alike. Smucker’s engaging writing style and keen sense of American history and consumerism makes this book suitable for academic libraries that service art and fashion programs, textile collections and museums, and public repositories in communities where craft is integral to daily life.” ~ Joe Festa, Manuscript Reference Librarian, Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, New-York Historical Society.
Mennonite World Review, March 31, 2014: “Meticulously-researched…. Smucker’s findings help to erode stereotypes about the Amish. She argues that while well-known emphases such as community-mindedness, humility and thriftiness are central to the story of Amish quiltmaking culture, so too are individual initiative, negotiation and business savvy.” ~ Rachel Waltner Goossen, Washburn University.
First Things, May 2014: “The story of the rise of Amish quilts tells us more about the values of the art world than it does about the Amish. Yet it is a story that reminds us that constraint fosters creativity, and scarcity creates desire.” ~ Betsy Childs, Beeson Divinity School.
Choice, June 2014: “Smucker (West Chester Univ.), textile historian, quilter, and Mennonite (with Amish forebears), asks the question ‘What makes an Amish quilt Amish?’ at the beginning and end of this fascinating, well-researched book. One realizes that the answer is ambiguous and depends on the perspective of the persons asking it, be they quilt makers, retailers, dealers, collectors, or curators…. It is handsomely and colorfully designed, playing on the theme of Amish quilts. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above; general readers.” ~N. J. Quinlan, Nova Southeastern University.
Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage, April 2014: “Janneken Smucker knows quilts…. she nimbly showcases that knowledge while working to dispel the generalization and stereotypes that have come to shroud Amish quilts. With clearly written and accessible prose, Smucker deftly explores the meanings quilts hold and how those meanings have been imbued in them…. The central question Smucker asks is how Amish quilts ‘made in a fairly closed, conservative religious culture, in which the idea of modernity and fashion are anathema, become a ubiquitous part of late twentieth-century and twenty-first-century visual culture.’ (p xii) As the answer, she has clear laid out a well-documented chain reaction where quilts move from sentimental and utilitarian crafts to high art and finally transition into commodities. This chain of events is clear organized and well documented by story, evidence, and artifact. This text certainly deserves a central position in the study of Amish textile history. Amish Quilts is an intellectual crafting not to be missed.” ~ Joel H. Nofziger
Journal of Mennonite Studies, 2014, vol. 32, “As a history of the Amish quilt as an art object and a study of the commercialism of products imbued with Amishness, this work is invaluable. Smucker’s exploration of how non-Amish collectors have been able to define and impose value on Amish products and how dealers, Amish and non-Amish, have appropriated the appeal of ‘Amishness’ while trading on stereotypes sheds much light on how mainstream society constructs the identity of minority ethnic groups.” ~ Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, SUNY Potsdam
Journal of American History, March 2014, vol. 101, n. 4, “This compelling book looks closely at one form of material culture—Amish quilts— illuminating both their particular role in American history and the holistic methods by which to examine material culture…. The book is well written and organized, thoroughly researched, and beautifully illustrated…. Her book shows us the cultural importance of quilts, and it provides an important material culture case study, reminding us to look carefully at multiple cultural contexts as we build historical narratives.” ~ Beverly Gordon, University of Wisconsin, Madison