Origin Stories

At some point during the mid- to late- nineteenth century Amish began making quilts in significant numbers. By this time Amish had established settlements in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, and quiltmaking practices seemed to have developed independently in these areas. Unfortunately, many of the details of how Amish women learned to make quilts remain unknown. But by understanding the origins and practices of American quiltmaking at large during the nineteenth century and examining the processes of innovation and adaptation within Amish culture, scholars, curators, and quilt enthusiasts have been able to speculate about the origins of Amish quiltmaking. By the 1860s and 70s—the years in which we see the first Amish-made quilts with dates stitched into them—quiltmaking was popular across the United States. In the midst of rapid industrialization, many Americans regarded quilts as objects of a simpler era. As “old fashioned” objects imbued with nostalgia for a preindustrial world, quilts represented—somewhat falsely—an imagined past of self-sufficiency, fortitude, and thrift. It was within this larger cultural understanding that Amish women began making quilts, perhaps considering the craft a safe outlet far removed from the forces of rapid industrialization confronting all Americans. Change has always occurred within Amish society. It has, however, done so at a different pace from the rest of American culture. The introduction of quilts, as with other cultural changes, likely began slowly and spread slowly, as friends and relatives adopted the practice from one another.

When Amish women began making quilts in the nineteenth century, no one drove cars, used telephones, or had high wire electricity. The Amish likely seemed not so different from those outside the faith. The Amish intermingled with their German and non-German speaking neighbors at market, in schools, and as neighbors. The Amish population was also quite sparse at this time: there were only 4,800 Amish scattered among fewer than twenty settlements in 1900, the first year with reliable population estimates This suggests that there were only around 1,200 adult Amish women.