This week I received in the mail a notice about Emma Witmer’s upcoming eightieth birthday. With this good news, also came the announcement of the forthcoming closing of Witmer Quilt Shop, the oldest quilt business in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. From the vantage point of 2018, it is easy to assume that the quilt industry has always thrived in this region. Since the mid-1980s, Lancaster County indeed has long been known as “Quilt Capital, U.S.A.” Although an informal trade in quiltmaking services—piecing, quilting, binding—had existed among the County’s quilters early in the twentieth century, Witmer’s mother, Emma Good, began the first documented quilt business in 1959.
Amish and Mennonites women in Lancaster county had longstanding relationships with Philadelphia fabric salesmen who came to sell out of fashion fabric by the bolt to rural households. Bill Greenberg, one such merchant, liked the quilts the Amish made, and hired several Amish women to make quilts, which he bought aiming to sell them in New York City and Philadelphia. But by the late 1950s, his potential buyers were evidently not interested in quilts. Mrs. Good, an Old Order Mennonite from New Holland, had helped in the production of some of these quilts, and when Greenberg returned to Lancaster County with unsold quilts, she bought them from him. And perhaps she was the first local entrepreneur to hang a “Quilts for Sale” sign at the end of her lane, launching the County’s quilt industry by selling bed covers in shades of tan, brown, and avocado. Good hired Amish and Mennonite neighbors to continue making quilts, running the business until the mid-1980s, when her daughter Emma Witmer took over.
By that time, there were dozens of quilt business in Lancaster County producing thousands of quilts annually for an eager consumer market, comprised of tourists, interior designers, art enthusiasts, and others desiring a handmade quilt by the Amish. Quilt businesses sought out the most expert hand quilters, who charged by yard of thread used. Another group of skilled needle workers had settled in the area, and they too found work in the industry making quilts for the consumer market.
Mennonite Central Committee had begun to sponsor Hmong refugees from southeast Asia following the end of the Vietnam War. A number lived in and near Lancaster County, and possessed their own extraordinary appliqué and embroidery skills. While some Amish and Mennonite proprietors failed to acknowledge Hmong women’s contributions to the quilts they sold from their shops, Emma Witmer created a hybrid quilt style she calls “Harmony A-Hmong the Cultures.” She purchased traditional Hmong needlework from local Hmong immigrants, who had in turn acquired it from relatives living in Thai refugee camps. Helping women on the other side of the globe appealed to her, as did the design challenge of integrating Hmong “flower cloth” into quilt designs that referenced traditional Amish and Mennonite quilt styles.
The closing of Witmer’s Quilts is far from the only change to Lancaster’s quilt industry, which in recent years has become over-saturated with quilts despite fewer consumers. The dark, graphic quilts of the so-called classic era of Amish quiltmaking no longer have the cachet among art collectors that they once did. The American country interior design scheme that reigned in the 1980s and 90s, ushering in the popularity of romantic, appliqué quilts no longer has as many adherents. And there have long been many more affordable options for bed covers that do not require the same level of care as hand-stitched quilts. As many as 10 million Americans make quilts today; the quilt industry is certainly thriving. But those individuals seem to prefer to make their own quilts as an act of creative expression, rather than buy quilts from Amish and Mennonites.
It’s too simple to say that the closing of Witmer’s Quilts signals the end of an era. Since quiltmaking exploded among American women in the nineteenth century on the heels of the industrialization of the textile industry, quiltmaking has ebbed and flowed in popularity, dependent on how the larger culture viewed handmade objects, women’s work, and the symbolic function of a quilt’s warmth and comfort. This is why Bill Greenberg found few quilt consumers in the cities in 1959, and yet a mere fifteen years later, quilts had become sought after art objects.
Witmer’s Quilt Shop will continue taking special orders through May and will close its doors at the end of September. It may be a good time to buy a quilt from the oldest shop in Lancaster County, as Witmer’s is offering ten percent off its stock from now until closing, before a liquidation auction in November.
Herr, Patricia T. “Quilts within the Amish Culture.” In A Quiet Spirit: Amish Quilts from the Collection of Cindy Tietze & Stuart Hodosh, 45–67. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1996.
Klimuska, Ed. Lancaster County: Quilt Capital U.S.A. Lancaster, PA: Lancaster New Era, 1987.
Smucker, Janneken. Amish Quilts: Crafting an American Icon. Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.