Seeking Color In The US

Janneken Smucker

Maggie OwensComment

anneken Smucker is 5th generation Mennonite quilt maker that we met in Philadelphia.  She recently wrote a book called Amish Quilts: Crafting an American Icon.  So basically she’s an expert on Amish Quilts and for some reason she decided it was worth her time to spend an hour in a park with us explaining the entire history of her people.    


What role does color play in the development of amish quilting techniques?

    Its actually a really interesting history.  In the early days of the tradition women used the same fabrics they were making clothes out of.  They were buying fabric in bulk and what was left after they had made their clothes is what they would use to make quilts.  So the colors that were used for quilts were based on acceptable colors of dress.  It wasn’t this super formal crafting style that people might see it as today.  They were literally just using leftover fabrics.  

    And different Amish communities had different rules about what colors were acceptable for clothing, so different communities began to have different styles of quilts.  For example some communities had stricter rules about adults being able to wear bright colors.  Bright jewel toned dresses and shirts were seen as acceptable for children, but not adults.  Generally speaking they didn’t use fabrics with patterns, which seems to be something that held true for all communities.  

    But even within Amish communities fashion goes through changes.  From an outside perspective these details may be hard to notice.  A small cuff detail could be a major fashion trend in a small town.  There is such an emphasis on community in these towns that colors tend to reveal community preferences and trends rather than any harsh rules that people associate with Amish and Mennonite dress.  People see their style of dress as so one dimensional because they don’t pick up on unique details that show how Amish women express themselves through their clothes.  Sometimes sisters will like to dress in the same colors, which is something you might not realize if you think Amish women all wear a kind of uniform.  


How did the unique amish style of quilting come about?

    The fact that quilters were so separate from the mainstream fashion world played a big role in quilts patterns and styles.  They were buying fabrics in bulk from stores so they were sharing fabrics with the dominant culture, but then they would use colors in completely crazy combinations, with really eccentric patterns.  You can always tell if an Amish style quilt was made by a lay woman because it will have really mainstream color combinations.  


At what point did Amish quilts begin to have a presence in mainstream culture?

    The commodification of Amish quilts really began in the 70’s and 80’s.  Collecting quilts started to become popular, and collectors started to establish what colors and patterns were more desirable.  People outside the Amish community began to decide what particular details made a quilt more or less valuable.  For example, a pattern with a red diamond in the center became the penultimate in quilt value.  They wanted exclusively a quilt to hang on a wall.  In the marketplace bold and graphic- like the red diamond pattern, was key.  Blue on black was a popular color scheme, as well as a rainbow spectrum- color combinations that fit in with mainstream culture.  

    Once the marketplace created a demand for Amish quilts we really started to see a change in style.  Women began getting commissions which motivated them to start following trends.  Its funny because Amish women had created this generations old quilting tradition and people had create how-to books trying to mock that style.  And then to meet the needs of mainstream trends, Amish women began using the patterns out of these how-to books written by lay women.  In the 80’s the rose and light blue color combination epitomized “country” aesthetic, so this is what became popular in quilts.  So you have these Amish country women following quilt patterns created by mainstream society in some attempt to appear more “country”.  


Did this create a rigid quilting aesthetic?

    It just really set up this sense of “this is what an Amish quilt looks like.”  But when you get back to the heart of authentic amish quilting styles, its not about rules at all.  The style of a quilt will always be about familial preferences or church preferences.  You never hear an amish woman talking about quilting rules.  You wouldn’t typically see patterned cloth used in a traditional quilts, but thats because amish women never buy patterned cloth to use for clothing.  But there are even exceptions to this.  If a woman with a non-Amish friend gave her print fabrics, she wouldn’t throw it away- she would still us it in the quilt.  (She still wouldn’t make clothes out of it though).  


You literally wrote the book on amish quilts.  Did you have a unique advantage in your research because of your family history? 

    Generally speaking research into Amish communities from an academic stand point can be difficult.  They tend to reject outsiders so it can be difficult to get interviews and first person perspectives.  It definitely helped that I have a traditionally Amish last name.  I think a lot of people granted me interviews based on my family history and the feeling that I am somewhat of an insider.


Why are the Amish hesitant to open up to outsiders?

    I think they are really aware of being outsiders themselves, and sort of don’t want to be seen as a novelty.  Basically, they don’t want people coming to their town to stare.  Around the time that I was researching my book in Lancaster I heard about a Japanese exchange student that was living with an Amish family.  I thought that was so strange at first, given the Amish tendency towards privacy around outsiders.  I went to go meet them and I realized they sort of had this incredibly symbiotic relationship as equal outsiders within the greater American culture.  The were both willing to open up and share parts of their culture because they both had so much to learn from each other.  I could tell that the Amish family were sort of fascinated with the Japanese student and willing to open up themselves in order to learn more about her and her culture.  They displayed an interest in her that they never would towards a member of mainstream American society.  


Ok so most importantly now, what’s your favorite color?

Orange.  It’s just the best color.  There’s a cheerfulness to it that I love.  Since I was a kind I have always kind of felt bad for other colors fro not being orange.  My wedding dress was bright carrot orange.  (not a joke).