Janneken Smucker knows quilts. A 1998 graduate of Goshen College, Smucker recently released the book “Amish Quilts: Crafting an American Icon,” which explores the colorful history of Amish quilts, quilters, and those who love them. The book has been quite successful and was even featured in the New York Times 2013 Holiday Gift Guide.In Monday’s convocation, Smucker gave a presentation entitled “Amish Quilts: America’s First Abstract Art.” During her presentation she discussed the rich history of quilts and showed a number of slides.
Until Smucker’s presentation, many students may have thought of quilts as simply something to put on a bed and keep warm under on a cold winter’s night. Smucker quickly dispelled this idea by discussing how truly fascinating is the history of Amish quilts. Smucker pointed out that not only is quilt making practical, but it is a true art form; many art collectors mount quilts on their walls alongside paintings and photographs.
How did quilts become so much more than simply a practical home item? “I argue that both Amish and non-Amish individuals, influenced by understandings of theology, Modernism, connoisseurship, nostalgia, ‘Amishness,’ consumerism, and authenticity, crafted the value of Amish quilts during [the second half of the 20th century],” wrote Smucker in a recent blog post on her website. “The value [of quilts] was of course monetary, but also aesthetic, emotional, and cultural.”
On Tuesday evening, Smucker gave another presentation, this one titled “A Good Amish Quilt: Folded Like Money.” This presentation expanded on what she discussed in convocation. In addition to discussing the community-building craftsmanship and teamwork that sometimes is a part of quilt making culture, Smucker also expanded on her idea of how quilts can be used to trace transformations in American consumerism. She also discussed how much of traditional folk art, which includes quilts, is being commoditized by the dominant social groups in society.
Smucker is currently an assistant professor of history at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. She is also a consulting curator for the International Quilt Study Center and Museum at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.