You’re reading this blog because 37 years ago an Amish woman invited me to sit down next to her and put a few stitches into a quilt. I had never seen a quilt in frame before, and I wasn’t all that familiar with Amish people either.
There are moments that define us. We may not recognize them at the time, but looking back it is easy to see the profound impact a single moment can have in our lives. A single moment, a gesture of friendship, can be life-changing.
In the summer of 1975 I was about to start my senior year of college. As an anthropology major I was required to write a thesis that year, and I had decided to study the Old Order Amish. There was a large community close by, my advising professor had an “in” and I showed up at a barn raising one steamy August day hoping to meet Harry Stutzman. He and his family had allowed several introductory anthropology classes to visit their dairy farm. My plan was to somehow make a connection which would allow me to study Amish culture by participating in it.
I met Harry as he and about 40 other Amish men were taking a break in the shelter of a tool shed across the road from the barn that was being rebuilt. Only the young men were still working on the framing as it drizzled. I felt everyone’s eyes on me. It didn’t help that I had driven up to the barn twice before (turning around each time, driving back to the main road) trying to work up enough courage to stop and get out of my car. I’m sure they were quite interested to know what an English girl (non-Amish) with out-of-state plates was doing driving back and forth on this small country lane.
Harry smiled and shook my hand. He walked me over to the barn and we stood chatting in the center of the structure as the hammering went on above us. I felt like an idiot. Growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, I didn’t have much experience with barns. It was really hard keeping up my end of the conversation. After a while Harry suggested I drive over to a “quilting” and meet Ida, his wife.
Geographically challenged anyway, and totally befuddled with directions that included only compass points, type of road surface and references to curves and hills, I set out for the quilting, whatever that was. I was used to roads with names, traffic lights, and landmarks that were buildings. I got so lost I had to ask an Amish man on a bicycle for directions. I must have looked really confused because he offered to have me follow him there!
Ida invited me to sit down next to her at the frame. I knew what a quilt was but had no idea how they were made. I didn’t expect to see something that looked like a giant trampoline. She asked if I wanted to quilt. I wanted her to like me, so I said yes. Did I need a thimble? No, I didn’t need one. All the women around the frame giggled.
I tried to imitate the quilting stitch, thinking it was a peculiar way to sew since the object seemed to be to push the needle straight down without any clue where it was going to come out on the other side. Then, unbelievably, you had to find the needle by touch (I didn’t see any of the women bending over to stick their heads under the trampoline to find their needle) and push the needle back up again without the benefit of sight. My stitches were huge and I bled all over the quilt, top and bottom.
Still, somehow, I found the process and the camaraderie of the women sewing together as appealing as it was painful. Long story short, after I finished my thesis I asked Ida to teach me how to quilt. For years I wouldn’t quilt a top until I had driven back to Indiana to show Ida. She always told me I had done well. Without her encouragement I never would have had the confidence to continue.
I am a quilter because of Ida. The moment when I first sat around that quilting frame changed my life.
Ida and I became good friends over the years. Visits with Ida and her family always included recalling the several months after we met when I stayed with the family. I dressed Amish, learned how to milk cows, pick corn, hitch up a buggy, and find my way around on the country roads. I was given an incredible opportunity to learn about Amish life. Most of all I have been blessed to have Ida and Harry and the Stutzman family as part of my life.
On Friday night I got a phone call that Ida had “gone to eternity.” She was 91. Harry and their daughter Martha preceded her in death. Mourning Ida’s passing are her nine living children, 43 grandchildren, 98 great grandchildren, and an English girl in Flint, Michigan whom she taught to quilt.
Thank you, Ida. You will always be in my heart.