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Posted 10.03.05

Business Dealings with Outside World Benefit Amish Culture, MU Research Finds

COLUMBIA, MO -- For many, Amish-made quilts are a collector's item or a way to keep warm, but to the Amish themselves, the quilts represent much more. Jana Hawley, assistant professor of textile and apparel management at the University of Missouri-Columbia, recently completed a study examining the cultural significance of quilts in Amish culture.

"Amish quilts mean different things to different people," Hawley said. "For many of us in the dominant American culture, we either covet or possess Amish quilts because the quilts represent a simpler existence compared to our hectic lives. For collectors, Amish quilts serve as an economic investment with increasing value. For the Amish, though, the quilts are domestic products that offer a creative outlet while supporting the Amish ideals of simplicity, humility, and community; therefore, the quilts are imbued with cultural significance."

Hawley lived in a Midwestern Amish community for 11 months and participated in daily life in the community to examine how the changing use and production of Amish quilts became a force for change in Amish culture as a whole. Based on her experience, she concluded that although selling quilts to the outside world seems counterintuitive to Amish beliefs and practices, doing so actually helps Amish communities preserve their culture.

"In the community, economic gain was facilitated when the non-Amish community decided to develop cultural tourism," Hawley said. "Extra money from quilting contributes to the maintenance of Amish tenets."

Hawley found that the Amish culture's controlled association with outsiders actually benefits the community. For example, the profits from quilt sales might help an Amish community pay for a family's medical bills or renovate a school, thus helping the community to remain self-sustaining.

In addition to economic gain, making quilts serves important cultural purposes. Since Amish quilters do not use electrically powered machines, all quilting is done by hand, which requires multiple laborers, typically women. Amish people rarely gather socially without performing some sort of work, so quilting "frolics" are opportunities for Amish women to have a creative outlet and to socialize with one another. The act of making a quilt is culturally significant because it helps the community to have a creative outlet, form a sense of community, and preserve family values and traditions, all important tenets of the Amish culture.

"As culturally produced and marketed goods, Amish quilts not only offer the quilt makers a substantial opportunity for economic livelihood but also render an opportunity to conserve the culture, substantiate ethnic identity and bolster the culturally specific social structures," Hawley said. "In other words, the Amish have consciously decided that it will not be detrimental to the culture when traditional quilt making skills are used to make quilts that outsiders want while at the same time economically sustaining Amish livelihood."



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