Victorian Crazy Quilts

Betty Pillsbury © 2005

   
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Victorian crazy quilting has always held a dear place in my heart. There is something magical, almost mythical, in these antique concoctions. Velvet, satin, and brocade patches intermingle with painted motifs, woven ribbons and inventive embroidery to produce a sinful conglomerate of color and texture with no other raison d'etre than to delight the eye. Crazy quilts certainly weren't utilitarian. Rather, they were draped artfully in the front parlor - a needlewoman's canvas. Really, the very first art quilts.

As with any other form of art, a mastery of the technical aspects of one's chosen medium, combined with an aesthetic value makes for the most pleasing outcome. There is much more to a beautiful crazy quilt than a hodgepodge of random fabrics and embroidery stitches. Design principles of color, composition, repetition, flow and theme come into practice for a truly outstanding result.

from Middleburg, NY   An absolutely stunning crazy quilt from Middleburgh, NY (where I currently live). From the NY State Historical Society collection.  

From the 1890 book, "Needle-craft, Artistic and Practical":

"The furor prevailing in woman's kingdom for "crazy" effects - otherwise known as mosaic and oriental effects - in portieres, quilts, sofa-cushion covers, etc., has brought into use every kind of stitch hitherto employed in embroidery, and has developed many pretty new stitches.

The well-known darning stitch has become quite a favorite and effective embroidery stitch, and is used for decoration in all its stages, from the first simply crossed threads to the heavier and completed state ordinarily called the "basket" stitch. Feather, herringbone, button-hole, cross, satin, Kensington and cat stitches are all used, and a little ingenuity and artistic taste will, out of these and the excellent variety of stitches which are illustrated in this chapter, create the most fascinating mosaic effects that could be imagined.

All sorts of shapes in scraps of velvet, silk, satin, Surah, fancy and plain ribbons, pretty brocades in silk and wool mixtures, etc., are used in mosaic patch-work. They are basted to blocks of muslin, crinoline or sheet wadding; the edges slightly turned under and then applied in any and all the fancy stitches mentioned, with flosses in a veritable rainbow of colors; and the result is brilliant in a bewildering assortment of hues, shapes and embroidery. Birds, animals, Japanese figures, flags, stars, ships, monograms, Greenaway figures, flowers, single and in sprays, fruits, vegetables, etc., are introduced in this peculiar patch-work, and the more varied the effect, the more perfect the Oriental results will be. The blocks are usually square and may be of any size preferred; and, in uniting them, care should be taken that no suggestions of their joining be apparent. A broad band of brocaded, plain or fancy velvet, silk, plush or satin is a handsome bordering for the work, and should be monochromatic in its coloring, as the solid tone affords an artistic framing for the brilliant work and heightens the Oriental look.

Black, dark garnet, deep crimson, navy-blue, ruby, violet, olive, purple, dark green, cardinal and brown are especially effective colors for borderings, the depth of their hues softening the brilliancy of the work,yet bringing out its beauty in the same way as a suitable frame shows off a handsome painting. Neatness in application and general work is an absolute necessity."

There is another dimension to Victorian crazy quilts that is very appealing - the whimsy. Often, you will find clever quotes and embroidery motifs interspersed with the artistic handiwork. The most famous example of whimsy would have to be a certain crazy quilt in the Missouri State Historical Society collection. On it, under an embroidered tree, sits a taxidermically stuffed chipmunk. No kidding!  Frog & banjo 

Crazy quilting became more than popular, it became an obsession. Ladies' magazines of the day were happy to include motifs and stitching advice within their pages. Women were always on the lookout for new motifs and stitching combinations. Fabric shops and dry good mercantile would hand out postcards with crazy patchwork stitch combinations on them.

In my collection of Victorian booklets, I have an 1885 catalogue of "New and Original Designs and Stitches for Crazy Work and Needle Art Show." There were 1,898 entries for this one show alone.

Examples include:

"Crazy Quilt, consists of 5,000 pieces, exhibited by Miss Ella Mc Arthur."

"Crazy Curtain, exhibited by Miss Maud Atkins."

"Sofa Pillow of Crazy Work, exhibited by Mrs. I. W. Derby, made by a gentleman, and contains 2,500 pieces."

"Crazy Quilt, entered by Miss H. I. Ellis, made of pieces of the dresses of the leading society ladies in Washington."

"Crazy Quilt, containing five hundred and eighty-eight pieces, seventy-eight different stitches, made and exhibited by Miss W. Stevens."

Very often among the entries there is mention of age of maker and number of pieces. I assume part of the competition were prizes for oldest and youngest competitor, highest number of patches and highest number of stitches.

Today's crazy quilters enjoy looking at antique quilts and interpreting them in their own way. Some like to replicate the antique look closely. Others want a very modern look. I like a combination of antique and modern.

In my crazy quilt collection, I have a few fan-shaped crazy quilt wall hangings. This inspired me to make my own fan-shaped wall hanging. I used many stitches from my antique booklets (I have a compilation of such stitches for sale on my web site). I also used beads and photo transfers on my piece.

Antique Fan  Fan 
Beaded Butterflies  Beaded Paisley 

My multi-award-winning piece, "Homage to Ardelia" has many motifs gleaned from antique crazy quilts. I've incorporated a velvet umbrella and a pieced circle (inspired by an antique motif), yet updated with the addition of the forget-me-nots and beaded lace. It also has modern day motifs (check out the "oracle" in one of the blocks. The initial "B" was adapted from a Victorian book and beads and metallic threads added to the silk satin stitching.

The fan block with the roses was adapted from a Victorian motif of roses. The overlay embroidery on the rail block is an antique doily pattern. I pieced the block, then stem stitched the doily pattern on top. The "ice cream" border pattern on "Homage to Ardelia" was inspired by several antique crazy quilts. This border was also quite popular in non-crazy quilts too.

Homage  Initial 'B' 
Umbrella  Forget-Me-Not Circle 
Embellished Face  Rose Fan 
Block Overlay 

There really is no end to the inspiration that can be gained from looking at antique crazy quilts. Always keep a sketch pad handy to jot down unusual stitch combinations you may run across. In the Louisville, KY airport, there is an exceptional crazy quilt hanging in the hall. I remember getting napkins from the nearby airport café to scribble notes to myself regarding this quilt. There were stuffed strawberries, a woman on a penny-farthing bicycle and other fun motifs.

Get inspired by an antique quilt or a contemporary one. Use a stitch combination found in an old crazy quilt, but add beads to it to make it modern. Use quotations that have meaning to you. Photo transfer a picture of yourself onto your quilt. Be flighty, be quirky, be artistic.

Most of all, enjoy the journey on your road to making a crazy quilt.

Betty Pillsbury's Website

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