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 celebrates a major gift of Amish quilts to the museum by Faith and Stephen Brown. They began collecting quilts in 1977, four years after encountering Amish quilts for the first time at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery. The 50 quilts featured in Pattern and Paradox include 39 from the museum’s collection and 11 promised gifts. Around 100 additional quilts from the Browns’ exemplary collection are promised to the museum as a bequest.

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. Janneken Smucker, who is a fifth generation Mennonite quiltmaker of Amish Mennonite heritage, a cultural historian, and a professor of history at West Chester University, is primary author of the exhibition catalogue and contributed to the exhibition.

Visiting Information

March 28, 2024 August 26, 2024
Open Daily, 11:30 a.m.–7:00 p.m
Free Admission

Events

Featured Event
10
Saturday
Aug
$30 | Registration required 

Tickets include the cost of materials provided during the workshop. Tickets are available beginning July 15

Publications

Pattern and Paradox publication cover
Pattern and Paradox: The Quilts of Amish Women
Explore the design innovation and quiltmaking skills of Amish women from communities across the United States. The catalogue celebrates the Faith and Stephen Brown collection of Amish quilts at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

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.

SAAM Stories

Close up of Old Maid's Puzzle quilt
Celebrating National Quilting Day with a gift of Amish quilts
Laura Baptiste
Head of Communications and Public Affairs

Online Gallery

Unidentified, Center Diamond, ca. 1930, cotton and wool, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.1
Center Diamond
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1930
cotton and wool
On view
Unidentified, Diamond Variation, ca. 1930, cotton and wool, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.2
Diamond Variation
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1930
cotton and wool
On view
Unidentified, Diamond Variation, ca. 1930, wool and silk crepe, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.3
Diamond Variation
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1930
wool and silk crepe
On view
Unidentified, Sawtooth Diamond, 1915, cotton and wool, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.7
Sawtooth Diamond
Artist
Unidentified
Date1915
cotton and wool
On view
Unidentified, Sunshine and Shadow, n.d., cotton, wool, and synthetic fabrics, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.4
Sunshine and Shadow
Artist
Unidentified
Daten.d.
cotton, wool, and synthetic fabrics
On view
Unidentified, Sunshine and Shadow, ca. 1930, cotton, wool, and synthetic fabrics, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2021.67.4
Sunshine and Shadow
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1930
cotton, wool, and synthetic fabrics
On view
Unidentified, Sunshine and Shadow, ca. 1920, cotton, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.5
Sunshine and Shadow
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1920
cotton
On view
Unidentified, Center Square, ca. 1930, cotton and cotton sateen, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2021.67.3
Center Square
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1930
cotton and cotton sateen
On view
Unidentified, Bars, ca. 1930, cotton and wool, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.8
Bars
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1930
cotton and wool
On view
Unidentified, Nine Patch in Bars, 1915, wool, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.9
Nine Patch in Bars
Artist
Unidentified
Date1915
wool
On view
Unidentified, Tumbling Blocks, 1930, cotton, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.6
Tumbling Blocks
Artist
Unidentified
Date1930
cotton
On view
Unidentified, Tumbling Blocks, ca. 1930, cotton and wool, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2021.67.1
Tumbling Blocks
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1930
cotton and wool
On view
Lapp Family, Lone Star, ca. 1930, cotton, wool, and synthetic fabrics, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.10
Lone Star
Dateca. 1930
cotton, wool, and synthetic fabrics
On view
Unidentified, Crazy, ca. 1930, cotton and wool, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.13
Crazy
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1930
cotton and wool
On view
Unidentified, Crosses and Losses, 1898, cotton, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.14
Crosses and Losses
Artist
Unidentified
Date1898
cotton
On view
Unidentified, Railroad Crossing, ca. 1930, cotton, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.15
Railroad Crossing
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1930
cotton
On view
Unidentified, Log Cabin, 1925, cotton and wool, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.11
Log Cabin
Artist
Unidentified
Date1925
cotton and wool
On view
Unidentified, Fans, ca. 1915, cotton, cotton sateen, and wool, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.12
Fans
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1915
cotton, cotton sateen, and wool
On view
Unidentified, Bow Tie, n.d., cotton and wool, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.16
Bow Tie
Artist
Unidentified
Daten.d.
cotton and wool
On view
Unidentified, One Patch, n.d., cotton and wool, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.19
One Patch
Artist
Unidentified
Daten.d.
cotton and wool
On view
Unidentified, Variable Stars, ca. 1930, cotton, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.20
Variable Stars
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1930
cotton
On view
Unidentified, Broken Dishes, n.d., cotton, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.21
Broken Dishes
Artist
Unidentified
Daten.d.
cotton
On view
Unidentified, Tartan, ca. 1930, cotton and wool, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.17
Tartan
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1930
cotton and wool
On view
Unidentified, Original Pattern, n.d., cotton and silk, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.18
Original Pattern
Artist
Unidentified
Daten.d.
cotton and silk
On view
Unidentified, Nine Patch, ca. 1920, cotton, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.22
Nine Patch
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1920
cotton
On view
Unidentified, Nine Patch, 1940, cotton, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.25
Nine Patch
Artist
Unidentified
Date1940
cotton
On view
Unidentified, Nine Patch, n.d., cotton, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.26
Nine Patch
Artist
Unidentified
Daten.d.
cotton
On view
Unidentified, Double Nine Patch, ca. 1930, cotton and wool, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.27
Double Nine Patch
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1930
cotton and wool
On view
Unidentified, Ocean Waves, ca. 1920, cotton and cotton sateen, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2021.67.2
Ocean Waves
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1920
cotton and cotton sateen
On view
Unidentified, Ocean Wave, 1926, cotton, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.23
Ocean Wave
Artist
Unidentified
Date1926
cotton
On view
Clara Beachy, Ocean Waves Variation, ca. 1910, cotton, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.24
Ocean Waves Variation
Dateca. 1910
cotton
On view
Unidentified, Roman Stripes, 1912, cotton and wool, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.31
Roman Stripes
Artist
Unidentified
Date1912
cotton and wool
On view
Unidentified, Roman Stripe, ca. 1940, cotton, cotton muslin, and wool, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2021.67.5
Roman Stripe
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1940
cotton, cotton muslin, and wool
On view
Unidentified, Roman Stripes, ca. 1930, cotton and wool, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.32
Roman Stripes
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1930
cotton and wool
On view
Unidentified, Double Wedding Ring, ca. 1920, cotton and cotton flannel, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.28
Double Wedding Ring
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1920
cotton and cotton flannel
On view
Unidentified, Log Cabin, ca. 1920, cotton and wool, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.29
Log Cabin
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1920
cotton and wool
On view
Unidentified, Broken Dishes/One Patch, 1930, cotton, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.30
Broken Dishes/​One Patch
Artist
Unidentified
Date1930
cotton
On view
Unidentified, Nine Patch Variation/Puss in the Corner, 1930, cotton, wool, and synthetic fabrics, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.33
Nine Patch Variation/​Puss in the Corner
Artist
Unidentified
Date1930
cotton, wool, and synthetic fabrics
On view
Unidentified, Railroad Crossing, ca. 1930, cotton, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Faith and Stephen Brown, 2022.4.34
Railroad Crossing
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1930
cotton
On view