Utter the words Amish and a few images come to mind – rolling farmlands, windmills, horse-drawn buggies, handicrafts, and a people frozen in time. The Amish are known to shun modern technology and remain wedded to the soil. For centuries, the Amish have meticulously preserved their medieval customs and ways of life, which include pursuing farming as a profession, having large families, making things by hand, and a social life centered on face-to-face communication.
But are the Amish really “frozen in time”, as they are often said to be, or were they, all this time, seeing way farther than us all?
For most of the 20th century, the Amish received ridicule for being resistant to change. As the rest of the world rode the exhilarating bullet train of technology in which every frontier of human capability was breached at breakneck speed, the Amish were criticized for being regressive. But as we head into the middle of the 21st century dazed and confused, overwhelmed by technology and consumerism, drained out by the constant stream of information unleashed upon us every minute, jaded by the shallowness of electronic communication, and repulsed by the cheap, ersatz love of app-based relationships that feel about as warm as a still-moist chewing gum stuck under a table, many of us are now beginning to feel motion sick. We want to get off this supersonic train, in which all we see are blurred montages of the world through condensed glass as everything swishes by at the speed of light. We want to smell the brown earth by the tracks, watch the worms turn in the soil, hear the crickets chirp at sundown, be blinded by the glint of quartz in little rocks, and marvel at all the small wonders that make up life.
We have many catchy words and phrases for this phenomenon – unplugging, going off the grid, getting off the consumer treadmill, and more. There are now books and manuals teaching us how to live life off the grid.
But long before all of this, there were the Amish and their crafts. This is their story.
Who are the Amish?
The Amish are a Christian denomination that trace their origins to a split among the Swiss Anabaptists in 1693. The sect gained followers among the Swiss and German populations of Europe. Following religious persecution in Europe, the Amish began migrating to the north-eastern United States in the 18th century, especially to Pennsylvania.
The Amish are distinguished from other communities by a set of principles that they diligently adhere to, to this day. These include shunning the use of modern technology such as electricity, motor cars, and the internet; following farming, the making of handicrafts, and manual professions for a living; and wearing simple dresses that have remained unchanged from the fashion of the 17th and the 18th century rural Europe.
The Amish believe in traditional values such as having large families, living a simple life, and helping others within the community. As a result, most Amish children are not educated beyond 8th grade, as the Amish believe that any further education is not needed to lead a productive life in the Amish community. The Amish also do not rely on state-funded programs and benefits.
Perhaps the most conspicuous sight of Amish culture is their horse-drawn buggies, which the Amish still use for transportation. Since the Amish do not use motorized transport, horse-drawn buggies are the most commonly used means of getting around in Amish communities. This also means that the Amish do not travel large distances, and remain mostly confined to their own communities, as horse-drawn carriages can not travel great distances, at least not on modern expressways. But the Amish see this as the greatest advantage of their way of life, for they have no desire to venture forth into the world outside and sample the temptations it has to offer. They are quite content in their little pastoral, picture-postcard towns. Since Amish towns are devoid of most modern amenities, they look like beautiful pictures from a medieval sketchbook – farms being plowed by horse-drawn plows, houses without electricity, appliances, and internet, architecture built in the 18th and 19th-century style, and above all, Amish markets piled with handmade goods that are the cornerstone of the economic life of Amish communities.
The World of Amish Crafts
Amish crafts are a throwback to a time simpler, and more beautiful. All Amish products are handmade through techniques that are passed down the family as heritage. These are items of everyday use that are handy, utilitarian and long-lasting. Since the Amish do not take up employment in modern professionals, these crafts supplement the income they earn through farming. Amish handicrafts are sold in stores in Amish settlements and in Amish markets that have long been a part of American cultural heritage.
The most popular Amish handicrafts are:
Amish Quilts – Amish quilts are perhaps the most popular of Amish crafts, being known the world over. In Amish culture, quilts hold a special significance, as these are made and gifted to mark special occasions such as weddings and the birth of children. Completely hand cut and hand stitched using techniques that are now 2 centuries old, Amish quilt patterns come in both floral and solid designs. A typical Amish quilt can require up to 40,000 stitches, and each stitch is made using needle and thread. Given the time and patience it takes to prepare each quilt, no more than a few are made by each family in a year.
Amish Furniture – Amish furniture is made entirely of solid wood, without the use of engineered wood such as MDF or plyboard. The Amish are particular about attention to detail – each piece of wood is carefully handpicked keeping the end product in mind. While Amish quilts are stitched by women, Amish furniture is the domain of men. Amish furniture is renowned for its heirloom-quality – stuff that lasts generations and becomes part of a family’s heritage. From cabinets, tables, chairs, and beds, to the classic Amish quilt rack for placing the quintessential Amish quilt, Amish furniture covers everything that a simple family home can need, all crafted lovingly by hand, without the use of any tools that use electricity.
Amish Baskets – Amish wicker baskets are charming, handy, and spacious. There is an Amish wicker basket for every need – from a bed for a puppy, to a picnic basket, to a basket for laundry, wicker hampers, and everything in between. These make for great gifts on occasions such as Christmas and Easter.
Amish Dolls – Amish dolls are perhaps the most remarkable of Amish products, for these dolls have no faces. There’s a head, with a hat for a man and a headscarf for a woman, but no distinguishing facial features are painted. This is done to emphasize a fundamental part of Amish belief – that all humans are equal in the eyes of God. These dolls, made using cotton fabric, muslin, and oilcloth, have become a quintessential part of the Amish and American folk culture, and are considered culturally significant. Antique Amish dolls are considered a collectible item and highly prized among collectors of vintage items.
What Makes Amish Products Different?
What makes Amish products different is the fact that not only are these handmade but they are crafted using tools that do not use electricity. Amish furniture, for instance, uses hydraulic powered tools, but no electric drills are used. Amish quilts are either stitched by hand or using foot-pedal stitching machines. Moreover, since they are hand made with the best quality materials, they last generations, ending up as valuable collectibles and antiques.
Until recently the only way one could buy Amish products was visiting an Amish market. However, over the last few years, Amish products have slowly started appearing online. Since the use of the internet is prohibited, Amish craftsmen rely on others to list their crafts online.
The Amish Market
The Amish market is a landmark in every major Amish settlement. An Amish market is where Amish farmers and craftsmen sell their produce. One can find both fresh farm produce as well as homemade snacks, jams, cheeses, and meats made using centuries-old recipes at the Amish market. Customers implicitly trust the products and their makers, building lifelong relationships between the farmer and the buyer, just the way things would have been 300 years ago before Walmart and Amazon warped our idea of food and the marketplace. The most famous Amish market in America is the Pennsylvania Dutch Farmers Market, where Amish farmers from nearby Lancaster sell their produce.
What Language Do Amish Speak?
The Amish speak a dialect of German known as Pennsylvania Dutch. The word “Dutch” here can be misleading, as the language is properly classified as German, and Dutch is used in the same sense as Germany is called Deutschland by its inhabitants. Since most Amish are the descendants of Swiss and German immigrants from Europe, this was the language of their ancestors, which they have kept preserved to this day. English is known and widely spoken among the Amish too.
Image Courtesy: Randy Faith on Unsplash