Adventure U.S.

Amish Quilt Exhibition: Smithsonian American Art Museum

Pattern & Paradox: The Quilts of Amish Women exhibition at the Smithsonian will wrap you in wonder like a homespun coverlet to see how Amish women created quilts over a century ago.

This extraordinary exhibition of 50 historic Amish quilts is at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) in Washington, D.C., until August 26. The museum said, “It reveals historical quilting among the Amish as an aesthetic endeavor that walked a line between cultural and individual expression.” Admission is free. (Check out my 2-Day Itinerary to Visit the Smithsonian Museums here.)

Learn how these Amish women artfully sewed fabric masterpieces. See the intricate quilt patterns, such as “tumbling block, “ocean wave,” “crosses and losses,” “double wedding ring,” and “sunshine and shadow.”

Shockingly, most of the quilters are “undefined makers.” We do not know the names of the Amish women who sewed the quilts hung in this exhibition.

Faith and Stephen Brown

Museum visitors can thank the collectors—Faith and Stephen Brown—for this significant gift of Amish quilts to SAAM.

The Browns began collecting quilts in 1977, four years after encountering Amish quilts for the first time at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C.

In a published interview with the Smithsonian, the Browns described being “knocked out by the exciting and unusual graphics, subtle color combinations, and intricate stitching we saw—the exact opposite of what we expected. We started reading about the Amish and, as we learned more, we were as amazed by the back story as by the quilts themselves:

“The idea that Amish women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with limited education, little exposure to art, strict societal norms mandating conformity and discouraging individual expression, could create works that foreshadowed some abstract modern artists seemed so incongruous and almost incomprehensible to us.”

Stephen and Faith Brown

Spanning Multiple Amish Communities

The Browns collected the quilts over four decades. Their collection includes quilts from Amish communities in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

The quilts were made between the 1880s and 1940s and embody the astonishing design innovation and stitching skills of Amish women.

SAAM

The 50 quilts featured in “Pattern and Paradox” include 39 from the museum’s collection and 11 promised gifts. “Around 100 additional quilts from the Browns’ exemplary collection are promised to the museum as a bequest,” according to the museum.

Quilter’s Delight


Since the quilt exhibition opened on March 28, I have visited twice in one week and plan to return regularly.

“ . . . the quilts’ limitless colors and patterns delight the eye and intrigue the mind”

SAAM

I needed time in front of each quilt to examine the choice of colors and types of fabric blocks. Just as a painter only requires his brush and oil paints, the quilter simply needs her needle and thread to sew.

Questions multiplied in my head as I stared at the Amish quilts.

Why a black background for a double wedding ring quilt? Why the absurdist patchwork of fabrics for a crazy quilt?

Smithsonian Amish Quilt Lecture

The museum does not offer a docent tour for the quilt exhibition, but the placards can teach you a lot about the different styles of quilts.

I also signed up for the free “Pattern and Paradox: The Quilts of Amish Women Lecture” with Janneken Smucker. (Sign up here.) Attendees can attend the physical lecture at the McEvoy Auditorium on  May 23 at 6:30 pm EDT or listen to the virtual YouTube lecture.

Smucker will discuss the significance behind the prolific creative time period in quilt making, from 1880 to 1950. 

Aesthetic Endeavor

What I desperately need is insights to understand how these Amish women created these exquisite masterpieces.

I do know that quilts are deeply personal to a family. The women sewed the quilts to mark marriages and births.

The exhibition’s title—Pattern and Paradox—suggests the essential question lurking behind the mostly undefined quilters.

“The quilts paradoxically twin the plain with the spectacular, tradition with innovation, and a dismissal of personal pride with objects often seen as extraordinary artworks.”

SAAM

These Amish women sewed by candlelight after completing their chores. They handpicked the colorful fabrics. Days turned into weeks that spanned months before the quilts were finished. Eventually, the quilt adorned the newly married couple’s bed or the babe’s cradle.

“We stitch together quilts of meaning to keep us warm and safe, with whatever patches of beauty and utility we have on hand.”

Anne Lamott

About SAAM

The Smithsonian American Art Museum, the nation’s first collection of American art, is an unparalleled record of the American experience. The collection captures the American people’s aspirations, character, and imagination throughout three centuries. The museum is home to one of the world’s largest and most inclusive collections of American art. Its artworks reveal key aspects of America’s rich artistic and cultural history from the colonial period to today. (Source: SAAM)

The museum is located in Washington, D.C., in the Penn Quarter neighborhood. It is open seven days a week from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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  • Hannah
    April 6, 2024 at 11:59 am

    What a fascinating exhibition! I love quilt-making so I’d love to visit and see the quilts in person! I love how each quilt is unique and shares a little of the makers personality! We have a similar exhibition in Kendal, England at the Quaker Tapestry Museum which has a collection of quilt panels made by members of the Quaker community from around the world. It is well worth a visit if you are ever in the area! Thanks for the great guide, hopefully I’ll have an opportunity to visit!

    • Terri
      April 6, 2024 at 12:11 pm

      I am visiting England in May but I won’t be near the museum to visit. I have to add to my list. I love seeing art museums Mount textile art exhibitions.

  • Bejal
    April 6, 2024 at 12:05 pm

    I had no idea there was a museum dedicated to these Amish quilts. I loved reading this through your visit. These rugs have such history and the colours and designs are so beautiful.

    • Terri
      April 6, 2024 at 12:10 pm

      The Smithsonian American Art Museum isn’t dedicated to just showing quilts. This is a special exhibition that will run until August 2024.

    • Julie Silber
      April 7, 2024 at 12:47 pm

      While the Smithsonian is not dedicated exclusively to quilts, there is a museum in the U.S. that is dedicated to quilts. The International Quilt Museum in Lincoln, NE has well over 6000 examples of quilts, and creates marvelous exhibitions on a rotating basis to share as many as they can with the public. If you love quilts, IQM is an absolute MUST!

      • Terri
        April 7, 2024 at 12:49 pm

        Julie, thank you so much for sharing this information about the International Quilt Museum in Lincoln, NE. We are all so lucky when we can visit museums to see the quilts on display.

  • Sonia
    April 6, 2024 at 1:07 pm

    It sounds like a great opportunity to see the Amish quilts while they are at the Smithsonian.

    • Terri
      April 6, 2024 at 4:46 pm

      Lucky is the word! I think the exhibition will have a lot of visitors.

  • Laureen Lund
    April 6, 2024 at 1:17 pm

    I am a quilter and I wish I would be in DC in time to see these. I’ll never have the talent or the patience to create a masterpiece like these and appreciate that these quilters are recognized as the artists they are. Even though we don’t know the names of most of them. Isn’t that remarkable? Loved this piece.

    • Terri
      April 6, 2024 at 4:45 pm

      My folks were from York, Pennsylvania so I grew up going to the Amish markets and seeing their handiworks. I was thrilled that the Smithsonian mounted this exhibition. The quilts are in spectacular conditions. You would never guess they are over 100 years old. Lucky you to be a quilter!!!!

  • Jenn P. | By Land and Sea
    April 6, 2024 at 2:29 pm

    This is such beautiful craftsmanship on display! Absolutely lovely work!

    • Terri
      April 6, 2024 at 4:43 pm

      They are gifted quilters! I wish I could buy an Amish quilt but they are very expensive. Their exhibition was extraordinary.

  • Sara Essop
    April 6, 2024 at 3:06 pm

    I’ve always been fascinated by the Amish and would love to see this exhibition! I also want to visit the Smithsonian some day.

    • Terri
      April 6, 2024 at 4:42 pm

      The Smithsonian museums are AWESOME. I hope you get to visit Washington DC and spend a few days at the Smithsonian.

  • Anita
    April 6, 2024 at 3:28 pm

    Amish culture has always seemed a bit mysterious to me. It is interesting to learn more about that through this Amish quilt exibition. Thanks for sharing!

    • Terri
      April 6, 2024 at 4:41 pm

      I am looking forward to the Smithsonian lecture to learn more about the quilters and their works.

  • Jasmina
    April 6, 2024 at 3:47 pm

    Amish culture sounds pretty interesting to me & I think that I would love this exhibition!

    • Terri
      April 6, 2024 at 4:41 pm

      The Amish settled in the U.S. to escape religious persecution in the old country. Their communities are still thriving in America today. It is fascinating.

  • Meghan
    April 6, 2024 at 5:40 pm

    I live in DC, but I haven’t gotten the chance to visit this exhibit yet. Looks like a great place to spend some time learning about the Amish and their culture.

    • Terri
      April 7, 2024 at 5:36 am

      You still have time to see the exhibit since it runs through April. You will enjoy it.

  • Pam
    April 6, 2024 at 6:56 pm

    What a beautiful exhibit! I didn’t realize that their quilts would be an exhibit, but it makes sense now that I see all your pictures. They’re stunning!

    • Terri
      April 7, 2024 at 5:35 am

      I made a video on my Instagram page that showcases all the quilts. The range in styles and patterns amazed me. You would never guess these quilts are over 100 years old. They look so modern.

  • Kim
    April 7, 2024 at 3:55 am

    Such an interesting exhibit. I would love to learn more about the Amish culture and you have provided a small glimpse into their world. Thanks.

    • Terri
      April 7, 2024 at 5:33 am

      You are welcome! I find these historic quilts fascinating. They are masterpieces.

  • Linda (LD Holland)
    April 7, 2024 at 3:57 am

    Even after several visits to Washington DC we have missed the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The Amish Quilt Exhibit looks quite interesting. I love the variety in the quilt designs. And admire the time it takes to create such art.

    • Terri
      April 7, 2024 at 5:32 am

      I do home you get to visit SAAM and the Portrait Gallery on your next visit. They co-exist in the same building. It is the former Patent Building (the third oldest building in the United States).

  • Anja
    April 7, 2024 at 7:29 am

    The Amish quilts are so elegant yet to simple. I would love to see this exhibition and keep my fingers crossed that it comes to Europe one day.

    • Terri
      April 7, 2024 at 12:48 pm

      You can attend the free lecture even if you don’t live in DC. The lecturer is an expert. I think she will include slides of special quilts of interest.

  • Michelle
    April 7, 2024 at 8:36 am

    I feel like the art of quilting is soon to be a lost art. These are so simplistic and beautiful, and what an honor to have a exhibit in the Smithsonian! Thanks for a unique article!

    • Terri
      April 7, 2024 at 12:47 pm

      Since I live in DC, I live to write articles for my blog about special exhibitions at the Smithsonian museums. I think I will also expand to covering special exhibitions at the National Gallery of Art. I do feel like I travel to far away lands and times when I visit these exhibitions. We are so lucky that the quilts were given to the Smithsonian. They are a TREASURE.

  • Stephen Brown
    April 7, 2024 at 12:42 pm

    The Smithsonian Amish quilt exhibit actually runs until August 26.

    • Terri
      April 7, 2024 at 12:46 pm

      Yes I mentioned the closing date for the quilt exhibit in the second paragraph of the article. Thankfully, prospective visitors have LOTS of time to get down to see the exhibit.

  • galatia savva
    April 7, 2024 at 2:44 pm

    wow, the time and attention to detail to all these quilts – such pieces of art! you were lucky to catch the exhibition! thank you for sharing!

    • Terri
      April 8, 2024 at 8:04 am

      I feel very lucky to see this exhibition!