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Amish Quiltmaking

Kate Miller

The Amish quilts of Lancaster County inaugurated the USPS’ postage stamp series “American Treasures” in 2001, commemorating the “fine works by skilled hands” of nineteenth-century American art. Even in miniature, the quilts are exceptional. They are iconic, both improbably forecasting a Modern Art aesthetic, and capturing the idyllic America that the USPS series aimed to celebrate. This paradox persistently captivates collectors, curators, and critics of Amish quiltmaking, as both “one of the most expressive traditions in American design” and yet evocative of “the values of Amish daily life: humility, simplicity, modesty, and serviceability.” The connoisseurship of these objects, the way they are recognized, acquired, and displayed, reinforce their exceptionality; by removing the quilts from beds and hanging them on gallery walls, the quilts no longer suit their original function. Becoming useless in the framework of the institution, these particular quilts of a specific people group, place, and time transformed from folk Craft to high Art.

The recognition of these artifacts as art, while deserved, did not reconcile the divorce between Art and Craft once and for all. Displaying and memorializing the Amish quilts as Art and not Craft ascribes values which displace and efface the merits of the craft objects and the women who made, and continue to make, them. Given common portrayals of the Amish and their way of life as a romantic alternative to a high-paced, urbanized society, it is surprising to learn that these quilts are not artifacts of pre-industrial frugality and austerity, but rather they are products of the larger culture. As an acceptable past-time among the community, the Amish women who made these quilts were participating in mass-consumer culture, utilizing industrially-made materials and commercially-produced patterns, alongside their worldly, American sisters. Late to the party, these women were both looking backwards with nostalgia for simplicity with other North Americans who were wary of increasing modernization, and forwards for progress by selectively adopting innovative technology to use recreationally. The story of Amish quiltmaking as functionally utilitarian, parsimoniously scrappy, and painstakingly laborious is a myth.

As artists, making objects which go beyond duty and utility, symbolically reinforcing tradition, and promoting wisdom through material culture, Amish quiltmaking brings together the aesthetics and ethics of art and craft.

Not mere craft, nor high art, regarding Amish quiltmaking as a source for creative inspiration must acknowledge the ways in which their community values are fostered and continued. As artists, making objects which go beyond duty and utility, symbolically reinforcing tradition, and promoting wisdom through material culture, Amish quiltmaking brings together the aesthetics and ethics of art and craft, allowing for a full appreciation of this creative expression. To discount neither the mastery of design, nor the skill of fine needlework, it is the way that the Amish quiltmakers’ intentions and actions unite in their play with common cloth which energizes my own craft. I draw upon a fluency of handicraft passed on by relatives and teachers, a knowledge of practiced skill, and an economy of stewarding materials, in order for the quilts I make to be wise responses of what has been given to me. Whether presented on gallery walls, or on the beds in my home, I aim to hold together spontaneity and skill, ideas and sentiments, aesthetics and ethics in my quiltmaking.

I am indebted to and recommend the work of Janneken Smucker, Amish Quilts: Crafting an American Icon, 2013 for a thorough look at Amish quiltmaking, past and present. The USPS commemorative stamp series may be viewed at usstampgallery.com

Kate Miller is a homemaker who reimagines the home as a place which cultivates human flourishing for the sake of the world, rejecting the idea of home as a separate sphere. Through slow textile and fibre handiwork, she practices and teaches making and mending as a way to love and to serve others from this place. She Makes Bedcoverings is four large-scale quilts made from her family’s discarded clothing, entirely by hand. From using mass-produced children’s clothing to her own wedding dress, and employing different hand-quilting techniques, the quilts challenge the way that material resources, industrialized fashion, and craft knowledge are valued. Her study of Amish quiltmaking and connoisseurship aims to reconcile the false dichotomy of art and craft, recovering a theological vision of the arts rooted in gratuity, vocation, and wisdom.
Amish Quiltmaking: Kate Miller
She Makes Bedcoverings
Kate Miller

She Makes Bedcoverings is four large-scale quilts made from her family’s discarded clothing, entirely by hand.  From using mass-produced children’s clothing to her own wedding dress, and employing different hand-quilting techniques, the quilts challenge the way that material resources, industrialized fashion, and craft knowledge are valued.  Her study of Amish quiltmaking and connoisseurship aims to reconcile the false dichotomy of art and craft, recovering a theological vision of the arts rooted in gratuity, vocation, and wisdom.

Follow her work on Instagram @kviiimiller

Photographed by Samuel Supimpa

Amish Quiltmaking: Kate Miller
She Makes Bedcoverings
Kate Miller

She Makes Bedcoverings is four large-scale quilts made from her family’s discarded clothing, entirely by hand.  From using mass-produced children’s clothing to her own wedding dress, and employing different hand-quilting techniques, the quilts challenge the way that material resources, industrialized fashion, and craft knowledge are valued.  Her study of Amish quiltmaking and connoisseurship aims to reconcile the false dichotomy of art and craft, recovering a theological vision of the arts rooted in gratuity, vocation, and wisdom.

Follow her work on Instagram @kviiimiller

Photographed by Samuel Supimpa

Amish Quiltmaking: Kate Miller
She Makes Bedcoverings
Kate Miller

She Makes Bedcoverings is four large-scale quilts made from her family’s discarded clothing, entirely by hand.  From using mass-produced children’s clothing to her own wedding dress, and employing different hand-quilting techniques, the quilts challenge the way that material resources, industrialized fashion, and craft knowledge are valued.  Her study of Amish quiltmaking and connoisseurship aims to reconcile the false dichotomy of art and craft, recovering a theological vision of the arts rooted in gratuity, vocation, and wisdom.

Follow her work on Instagram @kviiimiller

Photographed by Samuel Supimpa

Amish Quiltmaking: Kate Miller
She Makes Bedcoverings
Kate Miller

She Makes Bedcoverings is four large-scale quilts made from her family’s discarded clothing, entirely by hand.  From using mass-produced children’s clothing to her own wedding dress, and employing different hand-quilting techniques, the quilts challenge the way that material resources, industrialized fashion, and craft knowledge are valued.  Her study of Amish quiltmaking and connoisseurship aims to reconcile the false dichotomy of art and craft, recovering a theological vision of the arts rooted in gratuity, vocation, and wisdom.

Follow her work on Instagram @kviiimiller

Photographed by Samuel Supimpa