By Donna di Natale
A quilt show I recently attended had a special exhibit of crazy quilts. They were wonderful crazy quilts – mostly old, but some newer. All had embroidered stitches of some kind, and most were embellished with lace, buttons, ribbon, embroidered design, and small bits of broderie perse.
Needless to say, they were amazing. The crazy quilts in my collection may not be as amazing as the ones in the exhibit, but I will share them with you anyway.
Some quilt historians, Ruth Finley among them, think that crazy quilts are the oldest known style of truly American quilts. In Colonial times, when every bit of fabric was so valuable, women used entire scraps for their quilts, regardless of how irregular the shape or how small the size. Some think that an exhibit of crazed porcelain in the Japanese pavilion at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition triggered the popularity of crazy quilts in the American Victorian period.
Crazy quilts of the late 1800s were made mostly by upper class women who had plenty of leisure time and who could afford to use silk, velvet and satin in their quilts. These fabrics were readily available as pieces left over from decorating their home or from clothes made after the Civil War. (Remember Scarlett O’Hara’s green tapestry gown?)
The majority of the quilts were made using cotton as the foundation fabric. The makers stitched irregular pieces of fabric to the foundation one at a time. They sewed blocks together, and then began the creative process of embellishment.
Needlework skills were taught in schools and were considered essential for 19th century ladies. It was also one of the few crafts considered an acceptable outlet for women’s creativity. Thus every seam in a crazy quilt was covered with fancy embroidery stitches, and patches were embellished with embroidered designs, broderie perse, ribbons, lace, beads and sequins. This was a showcase, after all, and perhaps there was a bit of snobbery or one-upmanship involved in selecting embellishments. Crazies often contained images relevant to the quilters’ hobbies, occupations, politics or travel. Quilters also made crazies to memorialize departed loved ones, using bits of fabric from their clothing, military ribbons and cigarette silks.
The first example shown here is what I call semi-fancy. The maker was certainly skilled in embroidery, but the embellishments are not as elaborate as many crazy quilts I’ve seen. The fabrics are typical of the period 1880 to 1900 and remain in remarkably good condition for their age. The embroidery thread appears to be silk, but I have not tested it. Various cotton fabrics were used as foundations, as seen in the areas where the top fabric has disappeared or worn. There are dozens of different embroidery stitches, as shown in just one block.
The quilt includes a spider web, a Far Eastern symbol of prosperity in many crazy quilts of this period. The quilt also has pansies that appear to be velvet flowers taken from something else, perhaps a greeting card or corsage, and affixed to one of the patches. There is a fan in one block, something else often found in a crazy, and another block has what appears to be a garlic or onion bulb. Perhaps this was intended to ward off disease.
This quilt is not tied. The border is velvet, and the backing is linsey-woolsey. The backing is pieced, and the seams are covered with feather-stitch embroidery.
The next two quilts are more difficult to date. The fabrics include wool, linsey-woolsey and cotton sateen. The embroidery is not very fancy, with a type of feather stitch the predominant stitch. Both are tied with wool yarn. The second quilt has thick batting that feels like loose cotton and is extremely heavy. It would either keep you very warm or suffocate you.
The last crazy is a modern, commercially made crazy. I bought the quilt from a friend, whose brother got it in India. It simply demonstrates the fact that crazy quilts are still popular today, and there is no such thing as over embellishment when you are getting crazy.
Next week is installment two of Crazy for Crazies, when I’ll show you the crazy quilt my mother made in the 1940s and 1950s. I love that quilt because mom made it, but also for the fabrics. It may be responsible for my being crazy about crazies.
Donna di Natale is an author and editor for Kansas City Star Quilts. She writes every Wednesday.