Crazy Quilts: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Antique Crazy Quilt

For anybody used to geometrical and block based quilts, the first sight of a Crazy Quilt must be a great surprise or even a shock. The very ornate embellishments and “crazy” shapes evoking the work of an inebriated tiler fit neither the concept of block based quilts nor that of the free-form quilts made by today’s quilters.

And yet, the time when Crazy Quilts became the highest of fashion does offer some parallels to our world today. People back then experienced great changes both in their society and in technology. They saw their lives changed and changing more rapidly than most previous generations had.  What’s new!

So it is not only the beauty of Crazy Quilts, their intricate and surprising patterns and motifs, and the role they play in quilt history that prompted us to dedicate this “Focus on” article to Crazy Quilts.

The article is broken down in three parts. The first part gives a brief introduction answering the question, ”What is, in general, understood by the term Crazy Quilt? The second, rather long part, gives an overview of the history of Crazy Quilts. The third part tries to find some parallels with our modern times and invites you to join in a slightly philosophical discussion on quilts, quilting and Crazy Quilts... ;-)

What is a Crazy Quilt?

If you look up “Crazy Quilt” in a dictionary, you might come up with something like this: "a quilt made of pieces of cloth of various colors and irregular shapes and sizes."

Detail Crazy Quilt

Actually, we like this definition very much as it leaves the door open for many different approaches to Crazy Quilting. It comprises the Victorian Era Crazy Quilts with their extensive embroidery, but could also apply to many 20th century free-form wall-hangings making use of contemporary techniques for fabric fusing and embellishment.

In fact, most (Victorian) Crazy Quilts are not even quilts in the strictest sense as they were very rarely quilted.Very often they only had two layers, therefore more decorative than warm and usually not very practical.Crazy Quilts tended to be fragile due to the use of delicate materials, such as rich, dark silks, velvets, brocades, satins, and taffetas -- either new or taken from the quilter’s scrap bag. Therefore, Crazy Quilts were difficult to clean.Crazy Quilts required a lot of fabric, especially for base and backing.Light-coloured fabric was rarely used.

In the picture below, you can see what can have happened to those delicate materials some hundred years later:

Cushion

When stitching a Crazy Quilt, irregularly shaped scraps are pieced together by fixing them onto a fabric base forming a block that is later joined to other Crazy blocks. The blocks were often irregular shapes and sizes.

The most typical embellishment used was any kind of embroidery, often using a variety of different threads. The embroidery stitches cover the seams between the patches to hide the raw edges, but are also worked on the patches themselves.

Crazy Quilts often contain rich symbolism and there is abundant use of the Language of Flowers  with which the Victorians were of course very familiar.Animals, birds and children were other favourite motifs, as were Japanese designs, such as fans, cranes, and peacock feathers.

Historical Background

The history of Crazy Quilts appears to occupy quilt historians to this very day. We did a little research into the evolution of this particular quilt type and will try to give you a brief summary of the different viewpoints discussed by the experts. As often in history, some details will, perhaps, never be revealed, some assertions may never be proven and a lot might remain forever subject to speculation and interpretation.

Disputed Early Origins

Most books on the history of Crazy Quilts jump right into the Victorian Era when quilts such as shown in the picture above were the height of fashion. Some historians, however, go back farther in history and draw our attention to the fact that Crazy Patchwork has probably existed ever since mankind has been in need of clothing. Clothing that would eventually need to be mended.

In the Venetian commedia dell’arte for example, we meet Harlequin, a character dressed in a multicoloured or patched costume. A similar dress code is reported for jesters at kings’ courts, the patches of their costumes probably coming from their lordships’ discarded outfits.Even today, it is fairly easy to imagine that, after again and again patching over holes or threadbare areas, a garment would very much resemble a Crazy Quilt.

While very little is known about quiltmaking in US colonial days, it is to be supposed that any expensive textile brought over or imported from England was patched and mended for as long as possible. Imagine a quilt that may have started out as a wholecloth quilt and, thanks to generations of patches sewn over frayed or torn parts, ended up as a Crazy Quilt! Although there is no historical proof that such quilts existed, it is not an improbable thought.

Then, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, quilts made in uneven patchwork, characterized as Crazy, started to appear. These early cotton Crazy-style quilts resemble each other in the choice of materials (mostly cotton, including chintzes and calicos), technique (simply pieced and quilted, hardly any embroidery), and layout (pieced as squares, strips or other sections, contained by sashings, or long strips of plain or print fabrics) The reason why the interest in these quilts died down is unknown, but it had effectively died out before the Civil War of 1861.

Crazy Quilts as Outgrowth of the Victorian Era

Crazy Quilts became most popular at the end of the 19th century, a time in history that also became known as the Victorian Era, named after Britain’s Queen Victoria who reigned from 1837 to 1901.

Not only did Queen Victoria give her name to this era, but spending decades as a mourning widow, she also contributed to the tendency of looking back upon the past with strong nostalgia. Caught between puritanical restraint, nostalgic reminiscence, and unbridled emotionalism people had to cope with the stresses and uncertainties of a world that was changing very rapidly due to the Industrial Revolution.

During the Victorian Era, women wore tight bodices over corsets. Huge hooped skirts surrounded them. Bustles at their backsides appear ridiculous to us today (who would want to emphasize and optically enlarge their bottom?!), but were the height of fashion then. Ribbons, laces and ruffles were heavily used. At home, too, more was considered better, imitating Queen Victoria’s collection of clutter and mementos.

Victorian Crazy Quilt Detail

Crazy Quilts seem to be an almost natural and logical outgrowth of this general sentiment. Crazy quilts combined opulent colours, lush fabrics and unrestrained pattern. Needlework was one of the very few "acceptable" occupations for women at that time. Cultural societies sprang up, inspired in great part by Britain's Royal School of Art Needlework. One magazine, The Art Amateur, wrote, "It is the fashion to talk about art and, in a fashionable way, to practice it. Young ladies, instead of spending their mornings at the piano... take lessons in painting on china, in oils, or water-colours, or ply their nimble fingers in the production of 'art needle work.'"

Contemporary Crazy   Detail of contemporary Crazy Quilt (“Roter Garten” by Halina Judith Schmitz)

The Aesthetic Movement and Japan

With the backdrop of Victorian sentiment, historians state both the Aesthetic Movement and Japanese craft and design as two other major sources of inspiration and influence for the development of the Crazy Quilt wave that swept over America in the late 19th century.

The so called Aesthetic Movement, a 19th century European movement, emphasized aesthetic values over moral or social issues in literature, fine art, the decorative arts, and interior design. “L’art pour l’art” being one of its most ostentatious slogans, the Aesthetes developed a cult of beauty and thought that life should copy art. Art should not teach, but should only be beautiful. Nature was considered as crude and lacking in design when compared to art. Suggestion was preferred to actual statements, symbols were used extensively, and different art forms – words, colours, music - were supposed to create synaesthetic effects, i.e. literature, the fine arts , and music should stimulate each other and be mutually beneficial.

One of the Aesthetic Movement’s most prominent figures and most visible spokesmen was Oscar Wilde, the Irish writer, who is today most famous for plays such as “The Importance of Being Earnest” and the novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray”. Oscar Wilde toured the United States in 1882 and 1883 which was very important for the Aesthetic Movement  taking hold of America.

Oscar Wilde   Oscar Wilde (source: wikipedia.org)

The Aesthetic Movement and especially aesthetic furniture and furnishings were greatly influenced by Japanese design. As trade with Japan had just opened in the 1850s and 1860s, it was still a fairly new development in the late 19th century. Ebonized furniture made of wood painted or stained to a black ebony finish became increasingly popular. Very often, gilding was added in a profusion of stylized flowers, birds, gingko leaves, and peacock feathers which adorned the furniture.

In her essay “Crazy Memories” published in 1993, one of the most notable quilt historians, Virginia Gunn, remarks, "By promoting new types of embroidered bed coverings and rejecting calico patchwork as artistic needlework... women wishing to participate in the art movement and to continue making quilts required new forms of expression. Crazy quilts and outline quilts emerged as grassroots responses to Aesthetic Movement fashions."

The passion for crazy quilts reflected this new aesthetic sentiment, which, on the other hand, looked down very decidedly on traditional patchwork quilts: "[W]e have quite discarded in our modern quilts the regular geometric design once so popular... Now we are very daring. We go boldly on without any apparent design at all."

But not only via the Aesthetic Movement did Americans become influenced and inspired by Japan and Japanese design. During the Centennial Exposition of 1876 held in Philadelphia (Pennsylvania), the Japanese pavilion was among the most popular, provided American women with a very immediate access to Japanese craft and imagery, and created a craze for everything Japanese.

Geometric designs in quilts were discarded and women’s work started to resemble “the changing figures of a kaleidoscope, or the beauty and infinite variety of Oriental mosaics."

If you try to conjure up a spontaneous image of what you know of Japanese design, you might find many of these elements also in Crazy Quilts: asymmetrical design, stylized flowers, leaves and animals, a profusion of silk and embroidery etc.

Heyday and Decline

With the backdrop of all these influences and sources for inspiration, Crazy Quilts had their heyday in the 1880s. Their decline had already started in the late 1880s, but Crazy Quilts stayed around more or less until the 1920s and then disappeared almost entirely.

By 1884, the editor of a well known women’s magazine wrote that "of all the 'crazes' which have swept over and fairly engulfed some of us, there is none which has taken a deeper hold upon the fair women of our land than this one of crazy patchwork."

Every woman who considered herself a serious needleworker, wanted to be able to display such a proof of her proficiency with a needle. It was believed that, as an outgrowth of the Aesthetic Movement, it was an important duty for a woman to make any attempt to beautify her family’s home thus helping them to a higher and nobler outlook on life. The ugly world outside should be shut out from the artistic haven within the family home.Democratic America believed that beauty should not be a privilege of the wealthy, but should be resident in any home throughout the country.

If you have ever done any serious hand embroidery, it will not surprise you that a dedicated quilter needed approximately 1,500 hours to finish one Crazy Quilt. This is equivalent to one hour a day for over four years. Women were very proud on their masterpieces. Luckily, their pride encouraged  them to preserve the quilts with the utmost care even when they went out of style.

Victorian Crazy Quilts were mostly made for display. They are usually smaller than a bed-sized quilt and adorned the parlour, thrown over the back of a sofa or draped over the piano. But they also served as a personal scrapbook. Important dates (birthdays, weddings, deaths), initials of the quilter or of family members were embroidered on the fabric pieces, and bits of clothing, handkerchiefs, ties, or hat bands were included in the quilts. Commemorative ribbons were placed in the quilts, thus reminding the admirer of the quilt of a family’s involvement in fairs, military reunions, and political campaigns.  This is the reason why, for us, Crazy quilts have become fabric documentations of history.

It is not surprising that commercial manufacturers quickly sensed the business opportunity that the Crazy Quilt fad offered them. A lot of material is necessary to complete a Crazy Quilt and the women’s stashes of silk and velvet scraps, lace and ribbons, buttons etc. were soon depleted. Manufacturers started to offer scrap bags containing little pieces of lace, ribbons and silks and even pieced and embroidered sample blocks.

Crazy Quilting might be considered as one of the first trends in needlework actually fanned by commercial interests.

Materials becoming more readily available, Crazy Quilting became accessible to women who had neither the artistic capabilities nor the proficiency in embroidery to complete a Crazy Quilt that could be considered a work of art by the contemporary tastemakers. By the mid-1880s, patterns of questionable artistic merit started to appear. Needlework shops provided services to relieve women of the more tedious aspects of making a Victorian Era Crazy Quilt. Thus, a Crazy Quilt no longer represented exclusive and therefore luxurious artwork, but a rather commonplace article of soft furnishing.

So it is not surprising that opinion regarding Crazy Quilts started to change towards the negative in the late 1880s. In 1887. There was even a recommendation to exclude Crazy Quilts from juried competitions.

Of course, American women continued to make Crazy Quilts despite changing public opinion. In the 1890s, Crazy Quilts become much simpler and less sophisticated both in overall design, embroidery and material and therefore more practical for daily use. The so called “contained” Crazy Quilt was again favoured – a combination of block based designs with blocks or other design elements created using Crazy techniques.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, when incomes were decimated, women returned to stitching Crazy Quilts from old scraps and tying  them into warm bedcovers. For some of these quilts, even military uniforms or suit samples were used – probably more out of necessity than artistic inclination.  

Crazy Patchwork Today

So, why all this fuss about some quaint old quilts containing a number of embroidery stitches that most of us will not have time to complete in a lifetime? What significance do Crazy Quilts and Crazy Patchwork have for 21st century quilters?

Today, Crazy Patchwork can be counted as one of the many different techniques and design options the contemporary quilters’ world has to offer. There are again quilters who dedicate themselves to hours and hours of hand embroidery, but modern sewing machines have, for many years, allowed us to use fancy machine embroidery.

Many contemporary Crazy quilts are made from mostly “fancy” fabrics: velvets, satins, brocades, and of course, silk. With so many interesting “new” cotton fabrics, such as batis, on the market, these have also entered the Crazy Quilt stage.

Contemporary Crazy   Detail of contemporary Crazy Quilt element (“Eiszeit” by Anita Hackl)

Modern techniques using fusible materials to attach pieces of fabric can be considered to have some “blood ties” to the underlying idea of randomly attaching fabric to a base.

Contemporary Crazy

Thoughts and Ideas Provoked and Inspired by Crazy Quilts

Victorian Crazy quilts reflect late 19th century artistic ideals and domestic lifestyle. Is that also the case for the quilts we sew today? Do our quilts reflect the contemporary artistic ideals and lifestyle? Are we even aware of our own artistic ideals, let alone a more general artistic ideal?

Crazy quilts were, at their heyday, considered a means to liberate the quilters’ creativity and as a perfect starting point for exploration and creation. A book published in 1884 promised that Crazy Quilts would fascinate quilters for years to come.Is that true? Are we fascinated by antique Crazy Quilts? Do we just admire the fancy work or do we see them as works of art? Will our quilts hold a fascination for future generations?

In making a quilt and especially in making a crazy quilt, a quilter could achieve a sense of simple satisfaction and achievement. She would use up accumulated scraps while at the same time finding relief from tedious household tasks that had to be redone in a perpetual cycle. Quilting time was “dreaming time” – while working on her quilt, the quilter could dream and hope for a brighter future.Don’t we share this idea of “dreaming time”? Is quilting today “only” a means to obtain a beautiful bed or wall quilt? Or is it rather the process of putting stitch after stitch into a piece of fabric that slowly evolves and changes in our hands? Do our thoughts, hopes and dreams evolve likewise?

Crazy Mini   Miniature Crazy Quilt by Halina Judith Schmitz

Bibliography

Aestheticism. Available online http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aestheticism.

Brick, Cindy (2008): Crazy Quilts. History - Technique - Embroidery Motifs. Minneapolis, MN, USA: Voyageur Press.

Crazy Quilt Lush, Lavish, Victorian. Available online http://www.quilting-in-america.com/Crazy-Quilt.html.

Gunn, Virginia(1996): Quilts - Crazy Memories. In: Duke, Dennis; Harding, Deborah (Hg.): Quilts. Köln: Könemann Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, pages 150–171.

Kiracofe, Roderick (1993): The American Quilt. A History of Cloth and Comfort 1750 - 1950.  New York: Clarkson Potter.

Montano, Judith (1986): The Crazy Quilt Handbook. Lafayette, CA: C&T Publishing, Inc.

Schmitz, Halina (2010): Geschichte der Crazy Quilts. Unpublished manuscript, 2010.