Quilting, for Amish women, provides many personal benefits to the quilters, such as venues for expressing artistic creativity, justification for social activity, and satisfaction about contributions to family economies. Although quilting lost its popularity for much of American society in the middle of the 20th century, it never lost its appeal among very traditional cultures in the U.S. such as the Amish, the Mormons, and rural Appalachian women. For older women in these societies especially, quilting continues to contribute positive feelings that counter the negative images of aging prevalent in society as a whole.
Cheryl Cheek and Kathleen W. Piercy recently published an intriguing study of the effects of quilting on the development and perception of identity among older Amish, Mormon, and Appalachian women. To gather their data they conducted semi-structured interviews, ranging from 25 minutes to three hours, with 10 older women in Lancaster County, PA, 10 Appalachian women in Eastern Kentucky, and 10 Mormon women in Logan, Utah. Of the ten women interviewed in Lancaster County, seven were Old Order Amish, one was Old Order Mennonite, one Beachy Amish, and one Amish Mennonite.
The theoretical basis for their research was what they call “age identity theory,” which sets out the parameters of the ways people think of themselves as they grow older. The “master narrative,” the prevailing American viewpoint on aging, is that people progress and grow during the first halves of their lives but after age 40 they begin to deteriorate. Individuals can either accept this negative view of the second half of life, or they can challenge it with more positive approaches to aging.
Cheek and Piercy investigate the alternative narratives, the positive identities that women in the three traditional cultures develop through their quilting work. Because of the nature of their sampling, they see their research as preliminary, though it is obviously an innovative approach to exploring the identity development of older women. For readers who do not have personal acquaintance with older Amish, Appalachian, or Mormon women, the article provides warm insights into the pride, self-satisfaction, and sense of personal respect that these women gain through their work.
Their findings highlight some major differences between the three groups. The Mormon women pride themselves on their lifelong learning skills, their willingness to try new approaches and new technologies that will assist their quilting. In contrast, the Amish women are part of a culture that resists change, but they are often quite innovative within the norms of their community. For instance, many use compressed air to power their sewing machines rather than electricity, which their society doesn’t allow in their homes. Among the three groups, the Amish culture particularly emphasizes respect for the experience and wisdom of the elderly, an important factor in establishing value for the accomplishments of older women quilters.
The authors found that the Amish women in particular take a great deal of pride in their quilting work. One Amish woman said that a king-sized quilt should have between 250 and 500 yards of thread, and nearly all 30 women quilters felt that the quality of the overall quilt was a reflection of the obvious amount of work that went into producing it. One woman took pride in the 14 hand stitches per inch she could produce, work as good as a sewing machine on a fine setting. All three groups, but especially the Lancaster County Amish women, stressed the importance of effective color choices in their quilts. As one of the Amish women said, “the colors are really important. It is good when you can make the colors talk to you.”
The older women derived a lot of satisfaction from the fact that they could still make quilts, even while admitting that they could not do as well as they did when they were younger. The quilting often fosters organizational and business skills, particularly among the Amish women. The ones who own quilt shops choose the patterns and colors, and they employ other women to cut, piece, quilt, add batting, trim, and bind edges. One woman reported she no longer had time to do any quilting herself—she had 50 women working for her. The fact that Lancaster County is a major tourist destination near the center of the Mid-Atlantic metropolitan region of the U.S. must help the prosperity of these Amish quilt shop owners, though Cheek and Piercy do not explore that issue.
The authors describe the benefits for these older women of quilting. For the Lancaster County Amish women, it brings in extra money, in some cases more than the men can earn from their farming work. As the women employ other family members, they gain increased self-awareness, self-confidence, and an ability to cope with life. When the Amish woman changes from housewife and mother to quilt seller to shop owner to employer, she epitomizes for her community a sense of growth, progress, and contribution to the family, but all realized within their traditional, conservative, change-resistant belief system.
For all three of the societies investigated, quilting helps to keep the older women mentally sharp, and it provides them the pleasure of mentoring younger women who are eager to learn their art. It gives the women a sense of personal worth from the fact that they had make quality objects that will long outlast their lifetimes.
The conclusion to this fascinating study is that quilting assists the women in the three groups to create an alternate narrative to those in the major media. It gives a woman, in the words of Cheek and Piercy, “the ability to hear one’s own voice in the midst of the clamor of outside voices in the media and others that support the master narrative of decline” (p.335). It helps the quilter to meditate, it provides a venue for socializing, and it emphasizes people defining themselves in terms of their own strengths rather than their weaknesses. Despite the infirmities of aging, for many of these quilters their skills for sewing, choosing colors, working hard, and marketing effectively seem to increase rather than decrease with age.
Cheek, Cheryl and Kathleen W. Piercy. 2004. “Quilting as Age Identity Expression in Traditional Women.” International Journal of Aging and Human Development 59(4): 321-337.