Pattern and Paradox: The Quilts of Amish Women

Quilt with a colorful, abstract pattern. At the center is a dark blue square with a black star as its border.

Unidentified Maker​​, Crazy Star; ca. 1920​​, Arthur, Illinois​​, cotton and wool; 74 x 63 ½ in. (detail), Collection of Faith and Stephen Brown, Promised gift to the Smithsonian American Art Museum 

Explore the creative practice of Amish quilters in the United States. Pattern and Paradox: The Quilts of Amish Women looks beyond quilting as a utilitarian practice. It reveals historical quilting among the Amish as an aesthetic endeavor that walked a line between cultural and individual expression. The quilts paradoxically twin the plain with the spectacular, tradition with innovation, and a dismissal of personal pride with objects often seen as extraordinary artworks.

Description

In the late nineteenth century, Amish women adopted an artform already established within the larger American culture and made it distinctly their own, developing community and familial preferences, with women sharing work, skills, and patterns. The quilts in Pattern and Paradox were all made between 1880 and 1950 in communities united by faith, values of conformity and humility, and a rejection of “worldly” society. No specific guidelines governed quilt patterns or colors, so Amish women explored an uncharted territory, pushing cultural limitations by innovating within a community that values adherence to rules. Styles, patterns, and color preferences eventually varied and distinguished the various settlements, but it was the local quilters who drove and set the standards. 

When Amish quilts traveled into the non-Amish world in the late twentieth century, they developed a dual identity: part icon of Amish culture, part abstract artwork, with art enthusiasts embracing them in part due to a perceived resemblance to modern paintings. By the mid twentieth century, Amish quilts were increasingly being shown in museums. As the art world embraced the striking color combinations and inventive patterning of Amish quilts, the Amish became uneasy for having made and possessing museum-worthy, valuable artworks. Consequently, Amish families began to divest themselves of the quilts that had captivated the art world and consumer culture alike. Some rejected the “old dark quilts” and shifted to lighter and brighter colors for their own quilts. Others continued the older ways, and many Amish women began making quilts as a source of income. 

Although vintage quilts remain among the most recognized manifestations of Amish culture, they represent the historical, localized trends of only a finite period from a living and changing culture. Pattern and Paradox celebrates the quilts, the women who made them, and considers their unique role in American art today, roughly a century after the quilts in this collection were made. 

The exhibition embodies the collecting journey of Faith and Stephen Brown and celebrates their major gift of Amish quilts to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The exhibition is organized by Leslie Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art and Virginia Mecklenburg, senior curator; with support from Anne Hyland, curatorial assistant. 

Visiting Information

March 28, 2024 — September 022024
Open Daily, 11:30 a.m.–7:00 p.m
Free Admission

Events

12
Friday
Apr
Free | Registration encouraged
Featured Event
23
Thursday
May
Free | Registration required
24
Friday
May
Free | Registration encouraged 

Credit

Pattern and Paradox: The Quilts of Amish Women is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Generous support has been provided by Faith and Stephen Brown, Billings and John Cay, Barbara Coffey Endowment, and the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. This exhibition received federal support from the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative Pool, administered by the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum, and from the Smithsonian Collections Care Initiative, administered by the National Collections Program.

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Online Gallery

Media - 2022.4.1 - SAAM-2022.4.1_1 - 147464
Center Diamond
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1930
cotton and wool
Not on view
Media - 2022.4.2 - SAAM-2022.4.2_1 - 147469
Diamond Variation
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1930
cotton and wool
Not on view
Media - 2022.4.3 - SAAM-2022.4.3_1 - 147473
Diamond Variation
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1930
wool and silk crepe
Not on view
Media - 2022.4.7 - SAAM-2022.4.7_1 - 147507
Sawtooth Diamond
Artist
Unidentified
Date1915
cotton and wool
Not on view
Media - 2022.4.4 - SAAM-2022.4.4_1 - 147478
Sunshine and Shadow
Artist
Unidentified
Daten.d.
cotton, wool, and synthetic fabrics
Not on view
Media - 2021.67.4 - SAAM-2021.67.4_1 - 147454
Sunshine and Shadow
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1930
cotton, wool, and synthetic fabrics
Not on view
Media - 2022.4.5 - SAAM-2022.4.5_1 - 147481
Sunshine and Shadow
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1920
cotton
Not on view
Media - 2021.67.3 - SAAM-2021.67.3_1 - 147451
Center Square
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1930
cotton and cotton sateen
Not on view
Media - 2022.4.8 - SAAM-2022.4.8_1 - 147512
Bars
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1930
cotton and wool
Not on view
Media - 2022.4.9 - SAAM-2022.4.9_1 - 147519
Nine Patch in Bars
Artist
Unidentified
Date1915
wool
Not on view
Media - 2022.4.6 - SAAM-2022.4.6_1 - 147501
Tumbling Blocks
Artist
Unidentified
Date1930
cotton
Not on view
Media - 2021.67.1 - SAAM-2021.67.1_1 - 147442
Tumbling Blocks
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1930
cotton and wool
Not on view
Media - 2022.4.10 - SAAM-2022.4.10_1 - 147483
Lone Star
Dateca. 1930
cotton, wool, and synthetic fabrics
Not on view
Media - 2022.4.13 - SAAM-2022.4.13_1 - 147564
Crazy
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1930
cotton and wool
Not on view
Media - 2022.4.14 - SAAM-2022.4.14_1 - 147568
Crosses and Losses
Artist
Unidentified
Date1898
cotton
Not on view
Media - 2022.4.15 - SAAM-2022.4.15_1 - 147573
Railroad Crossing
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1930
cotton
Not on view
Media - 2022.4.11 - SAAM-2022.4.11_1 - 147490
Log Cabin
Artist
Unidentified
Date1925
cotton and wool
Not on view
Media - 2022.4.12 - SAAM-2022.4.12_1 - 147494
Fans
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1915
cotton, cotton sateen, and wool
Not on view
Media - 2022.4.16 - SAAM-2022.4.16_1 - 147599
Bow Tie
Artist
Unidentified
Daten.d.
cotton and wool
Not on view
Media - 2022.4.19 - SAAM-2022.4.19_1 - 147535
One Patch
Artist
Unidentified
Daten.d.
cotton and wool
Not on view
Media - 2022.4.20 - SAAM-2022.4.20_1 - 147537
Variable Stars
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1930
cotton
Not on view
Media - 2022.4.21 - SAAM-2022.4.21_1 - 147541
Broken Dishes
Artist
Unidentified
Daten.d.
cotton
Not on view
Media - 2022.4.17 - SAAM-2022.4.17_1 - 147576
Tartan
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1930
cotton and wool
Not on view
Media - 2022.4.18 - SAAM-2022.4.18_1 - 147528
Original Pattern
Artist
Unidentified
Daten.d.
cotton and silk
Not on view
Media - 2022.4.22 - SAAM-2022.4.22_1 - 147546
Nine Patch
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1920
cotton
Not on view
Media - 2022.4.25 - SAAM-2022.4.25_1 - 147557
Nine Patch
Artist
Unidentified
Date1940
cotton
Not on view
Media - 2022.4.26 - SAAM-2022.4.26_1 - 147561
Nine Patch
Artist
Unidentified
Daten.d.
cotton
Not on view
Media - 2022.4.27 - SAAM-2022.4.27_1 - 147602
Double Nine Patch
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1930
cotton and wool
Not on view
Media - 2021.67.2 - SAAM-2021.67.2_1 - 147445
Ocean Waves
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1920
cotton and cotton sateen
Not on view
Media - 2022.4.23 - SAAM-2022.4.23_1 - 147551
Ocean Wave
Artist
Unidentified
Date1926
cotton
Not on view
Media - 2022.4.24 - SAAM-2022.4.24_1 - 147555
Ocean Waves Variation
Dateca. 1910
cotton
Not on view
Media - 2022.4.31 - SAAM-2022.4.31_1 - 147606
Roman Stripes
Artist
Unidentified
Date1912
cotton and wool
Not on view
Media - 2021.67.5 - SAAM-2021.67.5_1 - 147459
Roman Stripe
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1940
cotton, cotton muslin, and wool
Not on view
Media - 2022.4.32 - SAAM-2022.4.32_1 - 147611
Roman Stripes
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1930
cotton and wool
Not on view
Media - 2022.4.28 - SAAM-2022.4.28_1 - 147579
Double Wedding Ring
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1920
cotton and cotton flannel
Not on view
Media - 2022.4.29 - SAAM-2022.4.29_1 - 147582
Log Cabin
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1920
cotton and wool
Not on view
Media - 2022.4.30 - SAAM-2022.4.30_1 - 147603
Broken Dishes/​One Patch
Artist
Unidentified
Date1930
cotton
Not on view
Media - 2022.4.33 - SAAM-2022.4.33_1 - 147584
Nine Patch Variation/​Puss in the Corner
Artist
Unidentified
Date1930
cotton, wool, and synthetic fabrics
Not on view
Media - 2022.4.34 - SAAM-2022.4.34_1 - 147588
Railroad Crossing
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1930
cotton
Not on view