Crowdsourcing Anabaptist history?

I’m teaching two digitally focused courses this semester at West Chester University, Introduction to Digital Humanities and the upper level history election, Digital History. In both courses, my students spend a lot of time looking at existing digital projects and learning how to analyze and evaluate them, not unlike a book review. This is a great opportunity not just for my students—but for me—because I get to learn about cool digital projects and be inspired by them.

One of my favorite genres of digital projects is crowdsourced public history, in which public users—the people out there on the internet—contribute their knowledge, skills, and labor to a greater understanding of history.

The Mennonite Church Archive already participates in a crowdsourced project by sharing some of its photographs on Flickr Commons, the wing of the Yahoo-owned photo sharing service through which cultural heritage institutions share copyright-free images, allowing users to add tags to photographs or identify individuals pictured. Wouldn’t all these great photographs of 1960s VSers and “Bean Blossom Wayfarers” be even better if we knew who was in them? As a frequent student of the material culture of the Anabaptist traditions, these photographs are an amazing resource for tracking changes of fashion among church members (note when the head coverings come off), analyze the introduction of cultural objects like musical instruments, and study other visual elements of the cultural tradition.

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Figure 1. First group of Mennonite Volunteers (VSers) to serve in Rocky Ford, Colo. at the Pioneers Memorial Hospital. They gather informally for a period of relaxation and sharing after a hard day at the Hospital. 1965. Mennonite Board of Missions Photograph Collection from Rocky Ford and Colorado from 1961-65. IV-10-7.2 Box 3 Folder 18, Photo #8. Mennonite Church USA Archives -Elkhart. Elkhart, Indiana.

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Figure 2. Bean Blossom Wayfarers. Mennonite Board of Missions Photographs. IV-10-7.2. Box 7, Folder 3, Photo 9. Mennonite Church USA Archives – Elkhart. Elkhart, Indiana.

Other successful crowdsourced humanities projects include those that let volunteers transcribe primary sources, such as handwritten nineteenth-century diaries and letters, menus, and all sorts of government documents. These work in a twofold way: first, volunteers interested in these historical materials provide labor to assist cultural heritage organizations in the essential process of making their documents machine-readable, and thus searchable through databases and search engines. Second, the institutions gain engaged community members who are using and thinking about their archival materials.

Another type of crowdsourced project asks contributors to share their knowledge and stories in order to add to a body of knowledge and cultural heritage. Wikipedia may be the best-known example, with its volunteer force of editors who continually work to create and improve encyclopedia entries. Public history projects have also captured the stories of those affected by Hurricane Katrina, crowdsourced location-based media by pinning it to a world map, or harvested stories of quilts (a personal favorite of Anabaptist Historian’s resident quilt expert).

So, what does this mean for Anabaptist historians? How can the traditional venues of both religious and cultural history harness the power of the crowd? In some ways, Anabaptist genealogists have long been engaged in crowdsourcing, contributing their knowledge of extensive family trees and long-lost details harvested from cemetery headstones or European church record books. The Swiss Anabaptist Genealogy Association’s extensive databases attest to this. It also demonstrates the enthusiasm of the community interested in Anabaptist history. Those same community experts could lend a hand by identifying and tagging photographs on Flickr, transcribing handwritten documents hidden in archives, and recording stories about their quilts. The Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO)’s community portal could become a real community portal where participants could suggest new articles and additions to existing ones, rather than a blank page. What about a digital project that allows Pax Program participants to upload their stories of doing voluntary service during the Vietnam War or Mennonite Central Committee volunteers to share accounts of their service?

These ideas all have a low barrier to entry in terms of the technology and cost required for digital history projects. But all of them require cultivating an enthusiastic community of participants. No digital humanities project can survive on the motto of “if you build it they will come.” But the enormous benefit of an engaged community ensures not just the longevity of a digital project, but a sustained commitment from an active public who wants to interact with an institution’s collections.

“Hey Smucker”: Protest, Neutrality, and My Cousin Lloyd

Janneken Smucker

A sign at a recent rally against the Trump administration’s proposed immigration policies— including the revised Executive Order known as the “Muslim Ban”—read “Hey Smucker, 200 years ago our Mennonite family took sanctuary in PA, just like yours did.” While I’m all in favor of protest signs calling me out personally, this message was targeted at Lancaster County, Pennsylvania’s newly elected Republican congressman, Lloyd Smucker. I heard about these protesting Mennonites first in a Tweet sharing a post on Esquire magazine’s website, titled “It Takes Something Seismic to Get this Group Protesting: The Mennonites are out in the Street” and in a McClatchy article covering Mennonite responses to current politics, titled “Trump turns apolitical Mennonites into protestors.”

Representative Smucker has publicly stated his support of the administration’s ban on refugees and on immigrants from 6 predominantly Muslim countries, earning the ire of many Mennonites in Lancaster County, who have long welcomed immigrants and refugees into their communities and churches, often sponsoring these newcomers through the Mennonite Central Committee and Church World Service. These protesters knew their local history, and identified that Smucker’s ancestors were indeed part of the wave of German-speaking Anabaptists who flocked to colonial Pennsylvania in the face of religious persecution in Europe.

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The chains where prisoners at Schloss Trachselwald were locked up. Photo by George Smucker, Smucker Heritage Tour, 1988.

A few clicks on the Swiss Anabaptist Genealogical Association’s online database confirmed that Lloyd Smucker and I share an immigration story. We are fifth cousins once removed, each descendants of Christian Schmucker—“The Immigrant,” as the Amish man is known by the Schmucker, Smucker, Smoker Family Association. Schmucker arrived in Philadelphia in 1752 on the St. Andrew, which departed from Rotterdam. My family’s account holds that Christian was deported from Switzerland circa 1745 after serving jail time at Schloss Trachselwald because he was a “Pietist teacher.” Like many Amish emigrating in the mid-eighteenth century, he and his wife Catherine Hesster and their four children arrived in Pennsylvania as religious refugees. In the new world, living in Berks County, Christian and his adult male sons repeatedly were fined for not reporting to militias to fight in the American Revolution or hire mercenaries in their stead.1 This form of resistance (or is it nonresistance?) was common among Mennonites and Amish during the Revolutionary era.2

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Silas J. Smucker, my grandfather and amateur historian, at Schloss Trachselwald where “The Immigrant” Christian Schmucker was jailed in the 1740s. Yes, that’s a Smucker’s Jam hat. Photo by George Smucker, Smucker Heritage Tour, 1988.

I read about the contemporary protesting Mennonites a day after I (and fellow Anabaptist Historian blogger Ted Maust – catch his recap here) attended Pub Comm, the Philadelphia area’s annual Public History Community Forum. The theme of this year’s one day event was “‘This is Why We Fight’: Public History for the Public Good,” and featured panels, workshops, and discussions focused on how public historians can harness “public history principles and programming to address issues of social justice and advocacy within their community and beyond.” A presentation from Eastern State Penitentiary’s Sean Kelley focused on how this Philadelphia institution—notorious for imprisoning Al Capone and for its creepy Halloween tour—has rewritten its mission statement in order to examine contemporary mass incarceration, as well as the prison’s historical context. Margery Sly, an archivist from Temple University Library’s Special Collections Research Center, talked about the need to archive contemporary protest movements as they are happening. Annie Polland from the Tenement Museum shared how its public programming makes space to address issues of contemporary immigration experiences, just as it interprets the lives of early twentieth-century immigrant families who lived at 97 Orchard Street in New York’s Lower East Side. I came away from the day feeling more empowered as a historian, reevaluating my own personal mission as I interact with students and pursue my scholarly agenda.

Some historians, like Mennonites, have often tended toward a neutral outside observer status, often preferring to appear apolitical rather than confrontational. These historians have strived for objectivity, despite the subjective perspectives historians bring to our interpretation of the past. Howard Zinn famously observed, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train,” calling on historians to wear their subjectivities on their sleeves while identifying neutrality as collaboration with the status quo and existing power structures.3 Public historians have a particular utility—and by extension, power—in exerting non-neutrality since our audiences are not fellow historians in the academy, but members of the public.

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Janneken Smucker, age 12, at the crossroads near Schmocken, the town that perhaps the Schmuckers originally came from. Photo by George Smucker, Smucker Heritage Tour, 1988.

In some ways, historians’ traditionally preferred neutral stance is similar to the Old Mennonite (MC) doctrine of “nonresistance,” a form of pacifism espoused by mid-twentieth century Old Mennonite leaders. Nonresistance emphasized non-political disengagement with the “world” rather than an orientation toward pursuit of social justice.4  Mid-century MCs were not in fact neutral, just as historians cannot be. But both historians and Mennonites tried to be passive “witnesses” rather than active participants. The Mennonites rallying outside my cousin Lloyd Smucker’s office and the public historians gathered at Pub Comm demonstrate that neither group is willing to be neutral any longer. Too much is at stake.


  1. Silas Smucker, Christian Schmucker: Stalwart Pioneer (Goshen, Ind.: Silas J. Smucker, 1986). 
  2. Richard K MacMaster, Land, Piety, Peoplehood: The Establishment of Mennonite Communities in America, 1683-1790, vol. 1, Mennonite Experience in America (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1985), 249-260. 
  3. Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, First Printing edition (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002). 
  4. Paul Toews, Mennonites in American Society, 1930-1970: Modernity and the Persistence of Religious Community (Scottdale, Pa: Herald Press, 1996), 124-27, 262-66. 

Oral History for the “Quiet in the Land”

Janneken Smucker

I’ve read with interest the posts here from my colleagues  Ben Goossen on Digital History and Ted Maust on Public History, topics very near and dear to me in both my scholarship and teaching. Ben outlines some of the facets of digital history, particularly how digital technologies can provide increased access to historical sources. Ted considers what public history—historical interpretation that in some way engages with the general public rather than to fellow academic historians—can do and has done for Anabaptists. I’d like to draw on these threads by exploring the role of oral history, and how oral history poses particular opportunities and challenges for those of us conducting history among Anabaptist groups.

Much of my scholarly energy in recent years has involved oral history in one capacity or another. As a young historian working on contemporary history topics from the 1970s and ‘80s, it was a natural fit. Interviews with living subjects served as excellent primary sources for my senior seminar paper at Goshen College, about the origins of the Women’s Studies program at GC. When I began studying quilts from an academic perspective, my first paper was based on an oral history interview I conducted with my elderly grandmother about the quilts she and her Amish-Mennonite peers made as young women in the 1920s in eastern Ohio. I now regularly teach with oral history, working with my students to create digital public history projects, interpreting and providing access to archival oral history interviews, by building classroom/archive partnerships that take advantage of open source technologies.

Members of the Anabaptist faith have long valued oral tradition, as the stories from our ancestors have been a source of faith. So-called ethnic Mennonites remember the challenges of our forebearers as stories and folklore are passed down from one generation to the next. Perhaps Martyrs’ Mirror, with its tales of courage and conviction, is the ultimate collection of Anabaptist oral tradition. Books like Martyrs Mirror, Amish Roots, and MennoFolk: Mennonite and Amish Folk Traditions collect and interpret some oral accounts that have resonance to many members of the Anabaptist tradition.1

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Sons of Maeyken Wens search for the tongue screw used to silence her among her ashes, Antwerp, 1573. Engraving by Jan Luiken in Martyrs Mirror, v. 2, p. 661 of Dutch edition. Source: Rijksmuseum via GAMEO

But oral history itself is a historical method distinct from oral tradition. Oral history really only became possible in our current understanding of the term with the availability of audio recording technologies, which enabled the interview—the dialogue between the interviewer and narrator—to become permanently fixed as a primary source. One of the most straightforward definitions of oral history comes from Donald Ritchie: “An oral history interview generally consists of a well-prepared interviewer questioning an interviewee and recording their exchange in audio or video format.  Recordings of the interview are transcribed, summarized, or indexed and then placed in a library or archives.”2

My brief search for Mennonite (the wing of Anabaptism I most closely identify with) oral histories turned up archived collections of interviews (among others) with Russian Mennonite immigrants, World War I conscientious objectors (with digitized audio!), Mennonite women from Manitoba discussing their childbirth experiences, and video interviews collected by the Brethren Mennonite Council for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Interests. Perhaps not surprisingly, the majority of the oral history collections I discovered are from Canadian organizations or are interviews conducted with individuals from Russian-Mennonite backgrounds. At the risk of overgeneralizing, I surmise that Amish and “Old Mennonites”—the really quiet of the land—have been less keen on recording oral histories. Maybe individual life stories have seemed not to reflect the humility for which these groups have historically striven, or members of these less worldly affiliations have been reluctant to record their stories using modern technologies for the permanent record. In my own research, I’ve encountered this. What if the narrator is from a plain community and does not feel comfortable with the research, the technology, the release forms, or the archive? Can we still do oral history?

Two current tenets of oral history which squarely place this methodology in relationship with public history are “informed consent” and “shared authority.” By informed consent, oral historians mean that the interviewee/narrator has a full understanding of the purpose and potential uses of the interview. They should understand that they are “on the record” while being able to restrict aspects of their interview for future use if necessary. Typically, this is handled through a release form granting the interviewer permission to record, use, and/or archive the interview. Historian Michael Frisch popularized the term “shared authority” in relationship to oral and public history, suggesting that historians are not the sole arbiters of historical interpretation, but instead share that authority with those from the public with whom we dialogue and engage—especially those sharing their testimony through oral history interviews.3

Amish Country Quilts

Carol Highsmith, Amish Country Quilts, c. 1990. Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

When I was conducting fieldwork among Amish quilt entrepreneurs, I was hesitant to pull out legal forms for these women to sign, let along my fancy little digital audio recorder. Although I strived to make these informants feel comfortable speaking with me, I don’t think I did particularly well with “informed consent” guideline. I typically told the proprietor of a shop I was a student studying quilts (true, even though I was a PhD student, who hoped to eventually translate my research into a book) and asked if I could ask her a few questions. These women (and the occasional man) were usually quite willing to talk. They were accustomed to tourists asking lots of questions about quilts, and they typically had an almost scripted answer to my questions about how the design, production, and sale of quilts functioned. I did not quote these informants directly in my text, since I did not record the conversations, although their responses certainly served as evidence that informed my interpretation of the subject. In the endnotes to my book, I refer to these non-interviews as “conversations” rather than as “interviews.”4

In 2003, when Emma Witmer, the Old Order Mennonite proprietor of the longest operating quilt shop in Lancaster County, agreed to give an interview for Q.S.O.S. – Quilters Save Our Stories, an oral history project of the non-profit Quilt Alliance, she declined to be recorded or have her photograph taken. But she agreed to tell her story, presumably feeling informed and giving consent, as she signed a release form. Interviewer Heather Gibson took notes rather than record the audio, and the online “transcript” begins with the disclaimer: “notes from the interviewer—Emma Witmer is an Old Order Mennonite. The interview was recorded on pencil and paper at Emma Witmer’s request. Portions of the interview that were not recorded verbatim are noted in brackets. There are no photographs.” With this note, can we even consider this interview as “oral history,” at least based on Ritchie’s definition that an oral history must be recorded in audio or video? I drew on this interview extensively in my research on the origins of the quilt industry in Lancaster County, but is this as reliable of a source as I think it is since it is based on notes, which ultimately are an interpretation of the interview rather than the verbatim interview itself? Is it more or less reliable than the “conversations” I had with other shop owners?5

In contrast, one particular Amish informant was quite willing to go on the record, signing the forms and having his voice recorded. He knew I was writing about his father, an Amish businessman who bought quilts from his co-religionists and sold them to New York quilt dealers. He was the expert. I was the student. Here I think I came close to achieving the elusive “shared authority,” with his interview completely transforming my understanding of the relationship of Amish individuals to the market for quilts. When I wrote articles drawing on what I learned from him, I sent him drafts, and he gave me feedback. I even invited him to attend my dissertation defense, where he engaged in the discussion along with my committee members (he continues to relish telling people about that momentous event).

Excerpt from interview with Benuel Riehl, conducted by Janneken Smucker, May 13, 2008.

Throughout my career as a historian, I am continually reminded of the power of the first hand accounts gained through oral history. But I worry about what interviews we might never have the opportunity to record because of the challenges of conducting interviews with some Anabaptist groups. I also fear for the collections of interviews that have been recorded—like the ones with Mennonite women about childbirth—but remain inaccessible, on analog cassette tapes in faraway archives. Too often oral history projects result in amazing resources that are virtually undiscoverable, although new technologies have made it increasingly affordable and possible to provide access. And most importantly, we need to find ways to ensure that we as historians freely share our authority with our publics, listening not only as a way to elicit details of the past, but also as a way to check our perceived expertise as historians.


  1.  Thieleman J. van Braght, I. Daniel Rupp, and Thieleman J. van Braght, The Bloody Theatre, or Martyrs’ Mirror, of the Defenceless Christians: Who Suffered and Were Put to Death for the Testimony of Jesus, Their Savior, from the Time of Christ until the Year A.D. 1660 (Near Lampeter Square, Lancaster Co., Pa.: David Miller, 1837); John A Hostetler, Amish Roots: A Treasury of History, Wisdom, and Lore (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989); Ervin Beck, MennoFolk: Mennonite and Amish Folk Traditions (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2004). 
  2. Donald A. Ritchie, Doing Oral History, 3rd edition (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014), 1. 
  3.  Michael H Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990); Michael Frisch, “From A Shared Authority to the Digital Kitchen, and Back,” in Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, ed. Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski (Philadelphia, Pa.; Walnut Creek: Pew Center for Arts & Heritage ; Distributed by Left Coast Press, 2011). 
  4.  See Janneken Smucker, Amish Quilts: Crafting an American Icon (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013). 
  5.  Emma Witmer, interview by Heather Gibson, October 20, 2003, Quilt Alliance, Quilters’ S.O.S.—Save Our Stories, Library of Congress, American Folklife Center, http://quiltalliance.org/portfolio/qsos-emma-witmer/

On Exhibit: Contextualizing Amish Quilts

Janneken Smucker

In the early 1970s, art enthusiasts began to display Amish quilts from the early twentieth century on the walls of apartments, galleries, antiques shops, and museums, noting how their strong graphics and minimalist designs resembled abstract paintings of the post-World War II period. Prior to the 1970s, no one really had paired the adjective Amish with the noun quilt. Yet with this cultural dislocation, Amish quilts shifted in status from special, heirloom bedcovers, kept folded in chests and treasured as gifts between family members, to cult objects in demand within the outside world. Amish families responded by selling their “old dark quilts,” happy to have extra money that could be split among descendants in a way a quilt could not be, and glad to remove objects now considered “status symbols” by outsiders from their homes. In turn, Amish entrepreneurs began making quilts to sell to consumers, creating a quilt industry that could capitalize on increasing tourism to settlements and the growing fascination with Amish-made bedcovers.

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Center Diamond, Unknown Amish maker, Circa 1920-1940, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Machine pieced, hand quilted. International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Nebraska – Lincoln; Jonathan Holstein Collection, 2003.003.0072

This intersection between the Old Order Amish and the worlds of art, fashion, and commerce is a central tension of my recent book, Amish Quilts: Crafting an American Icon (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013). As I worked on this book, I frequently imagined it as an exhibition, with the objects themselves serving as evidence and touchstones within the narrative. With this mindset, I was thrilled when the International Quilt Study Center & Museum at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln invited me to guest curate an exhibit of Amish quilts. This exhibit, Amish Quilts and the Crafting of Diverse Traditions opens October 7, running through January 25, 2017.

Since the 1971 landmark exhibition Abstract Design in American Quilts at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the typical mode of display for quilts in museum settings has been on walls, hung vertically like the paintings to which Amish quilts in particular have often been compared. As I began work translating my research into an exhibition, I struggled to figure out how to simultaneously interrogate the de-contextualization of Amish quilts while participating in the process itself. I did not want to simply hang quilts on walls as they had been for the last 45 years, where too often they appear merely as great works of design, rather than as objects symbolic of the Amish emphasis on community, mutual aid, and Gelassenheit. But what could we do instead that would fulfill the museum’s dual mission of showcasing quilts’ artistry and cultural significance?

All public history requires careful and deliberate communication; it’s intended to translate complex ideas into meaningful and engaging forms. Working with the IQSCM staff, we’ve developed ways to communicate the multiple contexts of Amish quilts. When museum-goers enter the gallery, they will indeed still see quilts hanging on walls. But in the center of one gallery, there will be an object strangely foreign to most quilt exhibits, Amish or otherwise: a bed. My parents, who live in Goshen, Indiana, generously loaned the museum the ¾ size four-poster rope bed that descended in my mother’s family from our Amish-Mennonite ancestors. Made in the family of Solomon Beachy from Holmes County, Ohio, c. 1840-1860, the bed will be the perfect showcase for an early twentieth-century quilt made by Barbara Yoder.

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Nine Patch, Made by Barbara Yoder (1885-1988) Circa 1920, Made in Weatherford, Oklahoma, Machine pieced, hand quilted. International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Nebraska – Lincoln; Gift of the Robert & Ardis James Foundation, 2005.039.0005

But the Amish origins of these quilts are not the only context through which I interpret them. The lives of these objects since they left Amish homes are equally intriguing, and I explore them as influential within contexts of art, consumer culture, and fashion. The Esprit clothing company, well-known for its color block designs of the 1980s, was home to a significant corporate collection of Amish quilts which hung on the walls throughout its San Francisco headquarters. We will hang a quilt that Esprit once owned alongside a mannequin dressed in one of my personal favorite objects of material culture—this amazing Esprit vest that in my mind was clearly inspired by Amish quilts.

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One Patch/Checkerboard, unknown Amish maker, circa 1900-1920, machine pieced, hand quilted. International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Nebaska-Lincoln, Ardis & Robert James COllection, 1997.007.0469

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Espirit women’s vest, circa 1985, United States. Collection of Janneken Smucker

We will also display images of contemporary Amish quilt shops, along with two new quilts made for the consumer market, with designs in clear contrast to the “cult objects” with which art enthusiasts became enamored. I also had the pleasure of attending the Gap (Pennsylvania) Fire Company Sale last March, known locally as a mud sale. We include photographs from this event, which supports the local volunteer fire company, along with quilts I acquired on the museum’s behalf there (not a bad gig — bidding with someone else’s money). The quilts include a white and lavender Dahlia quilt from the mid-twentieth century, complete with intricate lavender hand quilting and ornate fringe—not what we expect from an Amish made quilt, but one of the many styles that have co-existed within Amish communities.

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Dahlia, Unknown Amish maker, circa 1940-1960, probably made in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Nebraska – Lincoln Gift of the Robert & Ardis James Foundation, 2016.030.0003

I have relished the challenge of translating my research into this physical form. I hope my thesis—that the craft of Amish quiltmaking has never fossilized, but has been a living, evolving, and diverse tradition, adapted by creative quiltmakers, capitalized upon by businesswomen eager to earn a livelihood, and embraced within both Amish communities and the broader artistic and consumer worlds—comes through. But even if my message is lost, the quilts look great, as they always have, both in and out of context.