Oldest Quilt Shop in Lancaster to Close

Janneken Smucker

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.

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Interior of Witmer’s Quilts, 2016. Photo by Janneken Smucker

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.

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Quilts for Sale, Lancaster New Era, 1987

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.

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Harmony A-Hmong the Cultures quilt, by Witmer’s Quilts, New Holland, PA, 2016. Collection of the International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2016.030.0001

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.


References:

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.

International Quilt Study Center & Museum, World Quilts: The Amish Story, 2016.

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.

Witmer, Emma. Interview by Heather Gibson, October 20, 2003. Quilt Alliance, Quilters’ S.O.S. — Save Our Stories. Library of Congress, American Folklife Center.

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.