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An Informal History of Crazy Quilting posted: 1/18/2003
by Cindy Brick Printable Page
Category: History Method: All
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Everyone knows that:

  • Crazy Quilts are America's earliest quilt style.
  • Crazies are only made from fancy fabrics, like silks and satins.

If you agreed with either of these statements, you're not alone. Many people have all sorts of misconceptions about the Crazy Quilt style, its age, and its origins. Let's explore this colorful but often-misunderstood style a little more.

How old are Crazy Quilts? We don't really know. Camille Cognac, a national expert on Crazy Quilts, including their restoration, has pointed out that the European harlequin - that multi-patched jester with bells on his pointed hat - wears a costume very similar to a Crazy Quilt. According to Cognac, textiles with a crazy-patched look have also been documented in Egyptian tombs.

Quilting-book authors earlier in this century, including Marie Webster and Averil Colby, asserted that Crazy Quilts were the American Colonies' first quilts, by necessity. Fabric was scarce and expensive; why not just patch threadbare quilts with irregular scraps, and keep out the cold one more winter?

1839 Crazy Quilt

Unfortunately, there are no existing Crazies from the colonial period to back these authors up. Until recently, the oldest documented Crazy Quilt was thought to be an 1865 version in the collection of the Shelburne Museum. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a Contained Crazy, made up of crazy-patched squares sashed in a striped fabric, with the following inscription in the middle of the top: "Made by Mrs. Nancy Doughty in the 82nd year of her age for her friend Miss Lizzie Cole, A.D. 1872." (The blocks, incidentally, are stitched to the sashing by sewing machine.) It wasn't until recently that a stunning Crazy surfaced from the Fitzhugh family estate, and was purchased by the Maryland Historical Society. It is dated 1839 - nearly three decades before its nearest cousin! (See this amazing quilt in the May 1998 issue of Quilter's Newsletter Magazine; its history was discussed in more detail in the Spring 1998 issue of the Crazy Quilt Society newsletter.)

How did the Crazy Quilt style begin? A pre-World War I catalog from Joseph Doyle & Co., in Newark, New Jersey, makes it easy for us: "It may interest many to know that the first 'crazy quilt' was made at Tewkesbury (Mass.) almshouse by a demented but gentle inmate, who delighted to sew together, in haphazard fashion, all the odd pieces given her. One day a lady visitor was shown the quilt as a sample of "poor Martha's crazy work." The conglomeration of color, light and dark, of every conceivable shape and size, caught the visitor's fancy, and within a week she, herself, was making a crazy quilt. And thence the furor spread...

Although thoughts of "poor Martha" are appealing, the Crazy Quilt really seems to have sprung from a combination of factors begun by the Industrial Revolution. By 1850, American companies were manufacturing good-quality fabrics that were colorfast more often than not. (Consistently colorfast fabrics were not available until later in the 19th century, when washday blues and Turkey reds appeared.) Fabric prices moderated. Thanks to higher-paying factory jobs, women could actually afford to buy cloth, instead of going to the trouble of weaving it. Also, sewing machines, which had been used by commercial sewers for years, became increasingly affordable for the average family, thanks to the advent of the "layaway plan." Family sewing was accomplished more quickly, giving the average woman time for more genteel pursuits, like embroidery and lace making.

The Civil War changed all that. Fabrics, if they were available at all, skyrocketed in price - especially for the South, which had few factories of any kind. Women's extra energy went toward their families, instead of fancywork. Exhibitions, called sanitary fairs, became a popular way of showing off one's skills, as well as collecting quilts, shirts and funds for soldiers. It is from this period, at a Sanitary Fair in Cleveland, Ohio, that the first published mention of Crazy Quilts appears. In February 1864, Mary Brayton wrote: "Above the grim surroundings of this busy corner hangs the 'crazy bed quilt', a grotesque piece of newspaper patchwork, which is sold by lot every day, with the express condition that the unlucky possessor is not obliged to keep it, but will be allowed to present it to the fair. A considerable sum of money and a great deal of fun are realized by this transaction which takes place every noon just as the clock strikes twelve."

Crazy Hankie

Perhaps Mrs. Brayton's complaints were just sour grapes that she never won the bid! Only a year later, Peterson's Magazine was recommending "mosaic applique" and "oriental embroidery" for a look quite similar to todays "controlled" Crazy Quilts. By 1874, the "grotesque" Crazy had been renamed "ornamental fancy work" in the pages of Peterson's. The war was over; prosperity had begun. And everyone was thinking about stitching a Crazy Quilt.

What fabrics does a Crazy Quilt use? All of the earliest examples, so far, at least, were made from cottons. Period. (Only one is embroidered or embellished: the Shelburne quilt.) It wasn't until after the Civil War, when Log Cabin-style silk quilts began appearing, that the Crazy Quilt style seemed to become associated with the fabrics we now call "fancies:" silks, satins, velvets and such.

For one thing, these elaborate fabrics began to be more reasonably priced. By the 1880s, even a rural housewife could afford silk for her best dress. Packets of silk scraps were readily available from textile companies, who saw the Crazy Quilt trend as a great way to make a profit on what was previously considered a throwaway item.

Other companies, including magazines, joined the rush by offering patterns, patterns, fabrics, threads, and laces. There were even r eady-made embroideries that could be stitched on a Crazy top, much like the jacket patches available today.

And women responded in a rush. An 1884 book, Crazy Patchwork, asserts, "The so-called Crazy-Quilt, which seemed destined to but an ephemeral popularity, has, within the last few months, gained a firmer hold upon the public mind; so that now the fancy for making such quilts is literally a craze." Even The National Stockman and Farmer, in its Feb. 28, 1889 issue, was urging, "A nice way to use up worsted scraps of all kinds is to piece them as 'crazy work' for a comforter..." Only the editor of Godey's Lady's Book was still saying in 1887 "the time, patience, stitches and mistakes the crazy quilt represents...[are] too awful for words." No one cared, though. They were too busy planning their next Crazy Quilt.

Queen Victoria, England's ruler during the latter half of the 19th century, was also an unwitting influence on the Crazy Quilt style. Her Majesty loved embroidery and rich fabrics, to begin with, and favored the cluttered look in home decorating. When her beloved husband Albert died, the queen went into mourning for the rest of her life. The rich dark fabrics she favored, as well as the sentimental themes and keepsakes she prized soon became an essential part of the Victorian-era Crazy Quilt.

Patriotic Prez

Another major influence was the Centennial Exposition, held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. People from all over the country flocked to the city to celebrate America's 100th anniversary. They admired the Glass Pavilion, constructed of huge glass panels. And they gawked at displays hosted by countries from around the world.

But the most popular exhibit, by far, was from Japan. (It's no surprise that Gilbert and Sullivan's famous operetta, "The Mikado," dates from this period.) Americans fell madly in love with the delicate Japanese porcelains and fabrics. They stared at the dainty women in kimonos and admired, among other things, an unusual floor screen, made up of "crazed," or unevenly broken pieces, and highlighted with lavish edgings. Soon the "crazed" look of the screen, as well as Japanese motifs, designs and colors, added their own flavors to the Crazy Quilt trend.

Women took pride in scrounging their silk patches - or worse. Many a young man sacrificed a favorite silk handkerchief or tie so his lady fair could add a patch to her quilt. A poem from The National Stockman and Farmer, c. January 1891, says, in horrified tone:

"Oh the crazy quilt mania triumphantly raves,
And maid, wife, and widow are bound as its slaves.
On that quilt dimly seen as you rouse from your sleep
Your long-missing necktie in silence reposes.
And the filoselle insects that over it creep,
A piece of your vest half-conceals, half-discloses...

Your breakfasts are spoiled,
And your dinners half-boiled,
And your efforts to get a square supper are foiled
By the crazy quilt mania that fiendishly raves,
And to which all women are absolute slaves...

But make it she must,
She will do it or bust,
Beg, swap, and buy pieces, or get them on trust.
Oh, the crazy quilt mania, may it soon cease to rave
In the land of the free and the home of the brave."

It wasn't until the 1890's that interest in Crazy Quilts changed. Now a new kind of Crazy emerged, sewn mostly of wools and embroidered with wool yarn or silk floss, made in bed-comforter sizes for warmth. (Previous Crazy Quilts were more decorative than useful, and became throws, cushions, curtains, and even robes and slippers.) Crazy Quilts from fancy fabrics were still made in great quantities, as well. New embellishments were available, small "tobacco silks" or "cigarette silks," printed in a wide variety of motifs, and offered as premiums in cigarette packs. Women wouldn't be smoking cigarettes - God forbid! But they could and would encourage the men folk to smoke a certain brand so they could get the latest actress or bathing beauty silk. (The men probably enjoyed these lissome lovelies, too.)

By the 1920's, when interest in other traditional methods of quilting had revived, the Crazy Quilt trend began to slow down. A hefty amount of Crazies from the 1920-40 period have endured, but they often make use of the newly available synthetic satins and rayons, as well as the more traditional silks and velvets. Although the Crazy was put on fashion's back burner, women continued to stitch Crazy Quilts throughout the years. Perhaps these crazy quilters had made them in their youth - or perhaps they liked the Crazy style too much to quit.

In 1984, Penny McMorris' "Crazy Quilts" was followed in 1988 by "America's Glorious Quilts", which featured an extensive chapter on Crazy Quilts. Handcrafters flocked to learn silk embroidery techniques from Judith Montano, who was eventually joined by people like Faye Labanaris, Dorothy Bond, and Ellie Sienkiewicz, all teachers and writers in their own right. Montano's books, including the "Crazy Quilt Handbook", "Crazy Quilt Odyssey" and a host of embroidery stitch collections, were runaway bestsellers, and the circle was complete. Crazy Quilts were back!

Today, you can choose from a blizzard of Crazy Quiltmaking fabrics, threads, and embellishments, as well as books and patterns for every level, including both hand and machine techniques. Crazy quilting groups exist all over the country, including the national Crazy Quilting Society. Perhaps the Crazy quilt style was pegged as only for the insane when it first appeared. Nowadays, though, you'd be crazy not to try it!

Cindy Brick, an editor and designer, an AQS-certified textile appraiser, travels the country teaching about quilts and quilt history. She also regularly publishes articles on crafts and quiltmaking for magazines from McCall's VINTAGE QUILTS to the NQA QUILTING QUARTERLY to AMERICAN QUILTER. She is the author of the FABRIC DATING KIT, the only quilt/fabric i.d. book on the market with actual fabric samples; THE STITCHER'S LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS; and HANKY PANKY CRAZY QUILTS, a handkerchief quilt method that is fast and beautiful. Visit her at the Brickworks Website, http://www.cindybrick.com, or e-mail brickworks@att.net.

For more information on the Crazy Quilt Society and its annual conference, write the Crazy Quilt Society, P.O. Box 19452, Omaha, NE 68119; call 1-800-599-0094; fax 1-800-811-1610

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