Interview with Janneken Smucker - author of Amish Quilts

For Christmas I received a definitive book on Amish Quilts by Janneken Smucker. I knew about this book because a former student of mine had posted a blurb about her friend's forthcoming book on my Facebook wall because she knew I was a quilt nut! Not only am I a quilt and book nut, I am now an official fan of Janneken Smucker. Through our mutual friend, I was able to interview Janneken via email.

SmuckerI was enthralled with the book, it was a completely new way of looking at Amish Quilts. The books relates how before 1971 no one even used the term Amish Quilts. I was alive then but I didn't realize this phrase was not in use before. Fascinating tidbits like that made me greedily devour this book.

Also I loved that her book was about the relationship between people and quilts. Plus there are scrumptious quilt pictures.

I am very grateful that I was able to have a back and forth conversation with Janneken to gain more insight into her publication. My questions are in bold and Janneken's far superior answers are not.

Enjoy this glimpse into a wonderful book and author.

1. Who is your target audience? With your academic background the information is dense and fascinating but at a different level than a normal quilting publication. Are you aiming this at researchers and academics or quilters?

Individuals like quilts for many different reasons—their visual appeal, their connection to family, the way the remind us of simpler times, and even as a means of making money. As such, I have multiple audiences in mind for this book.

My research is from my doctoral dissertation, so it is, admittedly, academic, yet I’ve tried to write for a general audience, knowing there are many enthusiasts of both quilts and of the Amish who will be interested in the subject. As someone who has studied quilts within academia for well over a decade, solidly researched, well-written books that examine quilts within larger contexts such as consumer culture, industrialization, and religion, are few and far between.

I aim to fill that gap for historians, anthropologists, art historians, and folklorists, while also providing an accessible, engaging wide-angle look at quilts for anyone interested in the topic.small_cover

2. You addressed the quilt myth of the colonial quilter using her family's worn out clothing as well as that the Amish have always been quilting this way. I may have missed it but did you address the ubiquitous quilt myth of the Amish making a deliberate mistake in their quilts?

The myth you mention is an explanation offered to explain errors not only in Amish quilts but also in Persian rugs and Navajo blankets, and probably for other crafts with a pool of collectors invested in the “authenticity” of objects. In all cases, this explanation--that the maker deliberately made a mistake, because only God is perfect (or some similar reason)--does not seem to hold true when speaking with actual quilters and other artisans. Many quiltmakers are embarrassed or surprised when they notice a mistake and would not choose to deliberately do so.

3. Have you had any push back from other devotés of Amish quilts? From the Mennonite or Amish community?

Thankfully, my research has been embraced within the Mennonite communities in which I’ve shared it. Those Amish individuals with whom I’ve shared my book have also appreciated it. As communities that attract so much attention from outsiders and too often are characterized with stereotypes and other inaccurate depictions, many Mennonites and Amish are happy to have a thoughtful examination of quilts and quiltmaking within these communities.

If I’ve received any push back, it’s from non-Amish quilt dealers and collectors who are not always pleased with how I present their role in this phenomenon. But in general, most devotés, including dealers and collectors, have been pleased with this in-depth study.

4. When you teach do you integrate quilts into your lectures or discussions?

sweet-claraI teach History and American Studies at the college level and I love finding ways to integrate quilts into discussions. For example, in my introductory level American Studies course, I teach a unit on folklore and storytelling. I read them Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, a children’s story about the use of quilts to guide slaves north toward freedom. Then my students read multiple perspectives on quilts and the Underground Railroad, including those of scholars who believe stories purporting this use of quilts is unsubstantiated, and should be treated merely as family folklore, rather than “fact.”

Students contemplate what the role of stories should be in American culture and history, and whether such myths have a role in education. Quilts are a great tool for thinking about not only this subject, but also ideas of authenticity and value. In my American Material Culture course last spring, we had a great discussion over whether seemingly traditional quilt patterns could or should be copyrighted and whether copyright owners should take legal action against those selling quilts in copyrighted patterns. (for reference see

5. Do you quilt in the style that your Grandmother taught you?

I learned to piece and quilt in a fairly traditional way, which I continue to do today. I piece with my sewing machine and hand quilt, still drawing on inspiration from traditional repeat block and medallion style quilts. I definitely integrate my own style, but the techniques I use are very similar to those of my grandmother.

6. What is your take on the "Modern Quilting Movement" and its crush on solids?

I really admire the Modern Quilting Movement not only for its aesthetics but also for its love of improvisation, experimentation, and creativity. The quilts emerging from this movement demonstrate that one doesn’t have to play by all the so-called quiltmaking rules.

I am intrigued by the use of solids, which of course reminds me of the Amish use of solids in many of their “old dark quilts.” Enthusiasts have long made comparisons between Amish quilts and modernist paintings by artists drawn to color and abstract geometrics. Now this wave of quilters are drawing on modernist color studies in their work, as well as finding inspiration in Amish quilts, resulting in some very striking quilts.

I’d love for modern quilters to learn more about the longstanding connections between quilting and modernism that even pre-date the Amish craze of the 1970s!

Again, I want to extend my heartfelt thanks to Janneken Smucker for her beautiful words, here and in her breathtaking book.

I am a fan but did not receive anything in exchange for this glowing review. I can't help it, I just really liked it. If you would like to buy a copy yourself you can find it on Amazon or here.

If you would like to learn more about this distinguished author then click here to go to her website.

Finding a new author I love? That makes me sew happy!

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I write fairly regularly about books. Check out the whole category here.

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    Kathy Mathews

    My passions are quilting and sewing. Add to that French, Spanish, books, swimming, travels, new restaurants, yoga and chocolate and you have me. All of these are best shared with family and friends. Except for chocolate, don't touch my chocolate. You can email me at

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