Some of my friends and family members are Mennonite Quilt Collectors. Or perhaps I should say that they are Mennonite Mennonite Quilt Collectors because they are Mennonites who collect Mennonite quilts. Which makes it sound like they just collect their own quilts.
My friends and family who collect Mennonite quilts are mostly Mennonites of Russian Mennonite heritage who may know how to operate a sewing machine but have no history of putting together little fabric cutouts to make works of art and blankets for their beds. It’s not that a Russian Mennonite can’t quilt or that all Swiss Mennos can. I’m just talking about the Mennonite Mennonite quilt collectors I know.
The Mennonite Mennonite Quilt Collectors I know are also mostly – though not entirely – people who might be considered fallen-away Mennonites. So there are questions as to whether they are authentically Mennonite. Some people might call on me to drop the first Mennonite in their title. But this is just part of the great but fairly run-of-the-mill Mennonite identity crisis that I have talked about before. And as I’m a believer in the big tent use of the term Mennonite, I refuse.
Anyway, I’m not talking about that today. I’m talking about a crisis around the second Mennonite in the title. Apparently Mennonite quilts have their own identity crisis. Who knew?
As I prepare for heading to this year’s Mennonite Relief Sale in New Hamburg, I do so in the knowledge that the quilts I see there are not – in the quilt collecting world – understood to be as authentically Mennonite as the ones that had been for sale not too long ago at a similar sale in Pennsylvania. I don’t think anyone actually calls the Waterloo ones pseudo-Mennonite quilts or calls them out publicly as not really Mennonite (like happens quite regularly to some of us).
I am here to stand strong for the KW Mennonite quilts and quilts made by ethnic and/or professing Mennonites anywhere. I don’t care what those geographically-biased quilt collectors say. I say that in Menno quilts there is no east or west. In quilts, no north or south. Just one big family of quilt makers across this whole wide earth. And none of them more or less Mennonite than another.
Not so according to Twitter – that great resource of Menno-learning that never ceases to provide education on all things arcane and Anabaptist. And quilts.
There I had explained to me that because the Mennonites of Lancaster County were the oldest continuous Mennonite settlement in North America, it was assumed that their quilt patterns had been less influenced by the vicissitudes of change and worldliness. So quilts made by Mennonites in Ohio or Waterloo County might still be beautiful but they lack the stamp of authenticity of a blanket pieced and quilted in or around Germantown.
It’s all part of the myth of the timeless Mennonite. The Mennonite that represents something pure about the past that modernity, postmodernity and/or metamodernity have since lost. This is the myth that says Mennonites live still exactly like they did in the nineteenth — nay, even the seventeenth — century.
It’s a false narrative in many ways. Even about quilts.
According to Janneken Smucker, quilt scholar, Mennonites in America picked up quilting from their anglo neighbours probably sometime in the second half of the nineteenth century and most of the traditional Mennonite and Amish patterns can’t actually trace their origins to an Amish or Mennonite quilt designer. They came from commercial patterns found in magazines especially from the 1920s. Sure, the Mennos may have adapted them a little, and they change up the colours from time to time but there’s nothing particularly Anabaptist about them.
I guess I should have known. If they were particularly Anabaptist, we’d have themes of Dirk Willems running across the ice well-represented at every single relief sale in the Mennosphere. Maybe some graphic representation of four-part harmony. Shape notes, anyone?
But never mind. The Mennonite Mennonite Quilt Collectors of my acquaintance don’t usually talk about the authenticity of the patterns. They might like some better than others – aesthetically speaking – but I’m pretty sure that they’d agree that as long as it’s made by Mennonites, it gets to call itself a Mennonite quilt. Whether it’s a new pattern, one frequented by Mennonites of the past, or one taken directly from a magazine pattern (they do, however, frown upon those made from kits).
They don’t even care which subsect of Mennonites made the quilt. Most of the quilts sold at the Mennonite Relief Sale in New Hamburg are not made by Old Order Mennonites. Some are. Some are made by Conservative Mennonites. Some are made by us milquetoast Mennonite Church, Canada types (not me in particular, mind – I make cocktails, not quilts). The catalogue doesn’t distinguish between different branches of the faith so if you wanted to discriminate based on theology and clothing, you’d have to do some research.
If there’s one mark of authenticity that matters to the Mennonite Mennonite quilt collectors of my acquaintance, however, it’s that the quilt involved a needle and thread held between the fingers of the quilters and painstakingly pushed through the layers of cloth and batting. Preferably for hours on end.
In the olden days, quilts were made by hand. Well – not really. Mennonites – and the Amish, too – have always been happy to take advantage of the sewing machine for piecing together the little bits of fabric. Nobody objects to that. Piecing together a quilt by hand would take a ludicrous amount of time and energy and everyone has better things to do with their time.
But the actual quilting – the time spent after the quilt top has been pieced and the back and the batting and the top need to put together with intricate and decorative stitches – that was until recently done by hand. And the value of the quilt was, in part, marked by the perfection of the tiny, even stitches in the quilting.
These tiny stitches are all the more impressive when quilts were stitched up by collectives of women in Church basements across the country, all of their fingers worn and their backs broken by the labour needing to work in uniformity. Which makes me wonder if these purportedly joyful sessions of community and gossip were actually defined by strict discipline and control.
It’s possible that even the quilting bee is a bit of a myth. I know that they happened – I know this both by the documentary evidence and because I have been diligently avoiding these events all of my life. But it’s also true that many quilts never did have their day in a Church basement. Janneken Smucker claims that Amish quilts are made less collectively than sequentially – one person designing, another piecing and so on so that no single person is responsible for the whole quilt but it isn’t exactly a group effort either. And it is certainly true that the NHMRS quilt catalogue always had a number of quilts made by individuals, not by collectives.
But it is also true that quilting bees appear to have been going out of fashion just as technology advanced to make machine quilting possible. Or well, if Mennonite women are still holding quilting bees, they have finally learned to stop inviting me. Still, looking through the NHMRS quilt catalogue, I see that only a few this year were made by groups and many only have one name listed as quilter (and sometimes a different name for designer). And about half of the 200+ quilts on sale are machine quilted.
Some claim that you can’t tell the difference between a machine-quilted quilt and a hand-quilted one on sight. And maybe that’s true sometimes. But not always.
For one thing, the machine makes all of the stitches perfectly even, as if laughing at the frail humans who toil remorselessly and can only aspire to such consistency. But worse than that, the machine-quilted quilts I have seen veritably bounce with the glee of the power of the machine, with an abundance of curlicues and a downright lack of moderation in stitches. There’s just nothing humble about these displays of reckless stitching.
And so I am prepared to agree with my Mennonite Mennonite Quilt Collector friends and family and lend my endorsement to their position that machine-quilted quilts are not as authentically Mennonite as hand-stitched, no matter where they come from. I know there are counter arguments about frugality and practicality but I’m not budging from my position until a machine can prove its Anabaptist cred.
You know, by stitching Dirk, or shape notes onto a quilt. Or lots and lots of Twig ‘n Beaky’s.
The Quilting Bee
This cocktail pays homage to that relic of the past – the quilting bee – by riffing on a classic cocktail that dates back to the days of the 1920s quilt rage. Based on the Bee’s Knees, this variation adds a bit of strawberry to brighten things up. Make the strawberry honey syrup by heating up an equal amount of honey and water and cooking briefly with 2-3 strawberries until they are soft. Mash the berries and strain the syrup.
- 2 oz gin
- 3/4 oz strawberry honey syrup
- 3/4 oz lemon juice
Shake the ingredients together in a cocktail shaker filled halfway with ice. Serve in a coupe glass and stay away from a needle and thread. In fact, convert that needle into a garnish skewer. Much better idea. Seriously — drinking while quilting can result in uneven stitches and other quilting atrocities.