Urgent Museum Notice

Image for Demystifying Amish Quilts

Demystifying Amish Quilts

Blog Category:  NMWA Exhibitions

Although their roots have been attributed to different cultures, Amish quilts are regarded by many as “quintessentially American.” In Amish Quilts: Crafting an American Icon, Janneken Smucker investigates this claim and talks specifically about the Hmong, many of whom immigrated to Pennsylvania and changed the Amish quilt trade some thirty years ago.
In the 1970s many Hmong fled to the United States after the Southeast Asian War. They left their refugee camps in Thailand and resettled into their new homes with the help of the Mennonite Church. Hmong communities began to grow in California, Minnesota, Washington, Rhode Island, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
As a source of income, many Hmong women decided to sew and sell their native textiles. Paj ntaub—translated as “Flower Cloth”—is a popular Hmong textile that requires expert skill for its intricate designs, which are symbolic in the Hmong culture and resemble natural forms. The creation of these textiles uses many similar techniques to quilt-making. For example, three textile practices used in the making of paj ntaub are embroidery, batik, and appliqué, which is the practice of applying smaller pieces of fabric to a larger piece to create patterns.

Bars Quilt, ca. 1890, Pennsylvania; Cotton and wool, 83 x 82 in.; Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. H. Peter Findlay, 77.122.3; Photography by Gavin Ashworth, 2012, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum
Bars Quilt, ca. 1890, Pennsylvania; Cotton and wool, 83 x 82 in.; Brooklyn Museum,
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. H. Peter Findlay, 77.122.3; Photography by Gavin Ashworth,
2012, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

While Hmong immigrants all over the country earned income from producing paj ntaub, those in Southeastern Pennsylvania soon realized that there was a more sizeable market for Amish quilts, especially prevalent in Lancaster County. In the nineteenth century, many Amish quilts—including some currently on view at NMWA in “Workt by Hand”, such as Bars Quilt, 1890—remained monochromatic geometric forms pieced together in creative ways. By the twentieth century, Smucker mentions that Amish women expanded their quilt pattern repertoire to cater to their market. In the 1980s, “The Country Bride”—a relatively difficult appliqué pattern—began growing in popularity, and the Amish found great skill in Hmong women due to their expertise in appliqué. Similarly, Smucker states that Hmong quilt seamstresses could create ten quilts in one day that could be sold for $25 each, while a paj ntaub for the same price could take up to a week to create. For these reasons, many Hmong women in Pennsylvania ceased making paj ntaub and instead adapted their skills to work as seamstresses of Amish quilts.
From there, Smucker illustrates that a great deal of outsourcing began to occur. Amish women would outsource the work to Hmong seamstresses in the United States, and these Hmong seamstresses would then outsource the work to impoverished families in Thai refugee camps who were not aware of where the quilts were from or where they will ultimately end up.
Like “Workt by Hand”, which aims to debunk quilting myths, Janneken Smucker’s book demystifies the “quintessentially American” nature of Amish quilts.
Also, click here for information about NMWA’s April 24 talk and book signing by author and quilt historian Janneken Smucker.

Related Posts

  • Now Open: Return to Nature

    Posted: Aug 05, 2020 in Exhibitions
    Today, grappling with a period of global quarantine, many people are experiencing an urge to return to the outdoors, seeking comfort and revitalization in nature. Return to Nature, a pop-up installation showcasing a selection of historical and contemporary photographs from NMWA’s collection, illustrates artists’ longstanding fascination with the natural world.
    Blog Category:  Exhibitions
  • Art Fix Friday: July 31, 2020

    Posted: Jul 31, 2020 in Art Fix Friday
    Grace Lynne Hayes debuts a new portrait of Sojourner Truth for this week’s cover of the New Yorker; A profile on Thandi Sibisi, South Africa's first Black woman gallerist; A new show on ecofeminism at Thomas Erben Gallery; and more.
    A black-and-white photograph of a light-skinned adult woman holding a newspaper with news about World War II. She wears a coat and her short, curly hair is caught in the wind.
    Blog Category:  Art Fix Friday
  • Mask Up! Five Questions with Scarlett Baily

    Posted: Jul 30, 2020 in Museum Shop
    Scarlett Baily is a Chicana visual artist, based in Mexico City, who specializes in murals, paintings, and illustration. Her designs celebrating women artists and civil rights adorn new face masks from NMWA's Museum Shop, now available for purchase.
    Blog Category:  Museum Shop