Crazy Quilts as an Expression of "Fairyland"

Beverly Gordin © 2007

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1. Abstract of the article by this name appearing in the 2006 Uncoverings (Vol. 27) (see for more information about the journal).

This article looks at crazy quilts as an expression of the "fairyland" sensibility that pervaded the late nineteenth century. Fairyland, overlaid in the popular mind with the sensuousness of the Orient, was an aesthetically charged, imaginary place-the kind immortalized in the period's Wizard of Oz. It was a "beautiful, romantic dream," a counterpoint to the rule-bound, rationalistic industrial age. By the last decades of the century, fairyland was also increasingly associated with femininity and sweetness.

Crazy quilts captured the fairyland ideal. They were visually dazzling, with bright colors and "bewitching" effects made possible by the exciting fabrics the textile industry was producing. Filled with fairy-identified iconography such as dragonflies, spiderwebs, and woodland flora, they were like mythic gardens. Women fell to "crazy quilt mania" and found themselves unable to resist the sensuous materials and iconography. The quilts suggested endless possibilities and provided great aesthetic satisfaction.

2. Script of presentation given at the American Quilt Study Group conference in 2006.

What is fairyland and how did I come to the whole concept --I kept coming across references to fairyland in much previous research -statements like "it looked like a thousand fairies had been at work" "it was a veritable fairyland."

[SLIDE OF CRYSTAL PALACE] As early as 1851, Queen Victoria proclaimed that the effect of the Crystal Palace Exhibition was like fairyland. She was particularly entranced by the sight of reflective glass, which was new at the time, and the fluttering banners. Similar proclamations continued for decades. The press routinely referred to public spaces that were imaginatively decorated for fairs or parties in this way, as I learned I studied the history of bazaars. One of the most popular attractions at the Civil War fund raising fairs, in fact, was called "Undine's Vision in Fairyland." It was an evening tableaux performance staged at a decorated flower and perfume booth in Rochester, New York. In the performance, Undine, the mythic heroine met up with a group of fairies in a dream, who introduced her to the sensual pleasures of the earth.

[SLIDE OF THE WHITE CITY] Fairyland imagery was still used in 1893 to describe magical effects. The White City created for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago was repeatedly described this way, especially because of the shimmering electric lights reflecting off the white buildings at night.

Thus, fairyland was a quality, a sense of magic, a beautiful, ideal place-a dreamland or Never-Never-land that existed far-away, apart from any painful realities or practicalities. It was a brightly-colored, sensually rich, happy, child-like world, and it was enchanting-it cast a spell.

[SLIDE OF A FAIRY PAINTING] The fairyland sensibility arose in the Victorian period, probably because it represented a counter tradition to the rule-bound conventions of the industrialized era-it expressed a yearning for a pre-industrial, non-rationalist, perhaps simpler time. The general attitude toward fantasy had indeed shifted in this era; it was only in the early nineteenth century that the word "fantasy" represented something positive, related to dreams and reverie. Interest in fairies grew as well, and for the first time they were represented as winged, decorative creatures, often seen in woodsy or garden settings. Actual fairies were not necessary for a fairyland quality; any event, object or place felt to be aesthetically charged, fanciful and otherworldly could hold the association. The fairyland idea was so much of a leitmotif in the second half of the nineteenth century that the term functioned as a code word, implying something appealing and seemingly magical.

[SLIDES OF DRESS-UP COSTUMES AND OTHER "FAIRY-LIKE" OBJECTS] Over the last decades, I have studied many other elements of late 19th century culture that had this fairyland element, including dress up or costuming, both in private entertainments, and public pageantry. I kept coming upon artifacts and even environments that carried this sensibility.

[SLIDES OF PAPER DOLL HOUSE COLLAGES] Recently, I've researched a wonderful genre of scrapbooks, collage albums that ostensibly represented a house for paper dolls, with the front door of the album corresponding to the front door of the house and subsequent pages representing the rooms. These were sensually rich as well, with overlays of color, texture, pattern, and detail. As art historian Linda Hartigan said about these collages: "They … cast their spell. Their array of … detail was dizzying,… [they were]… disarmingly picturesque. and . . tantalizing. . . .The sheer thrill of [my] first encounter [with them] will always reverberate for me."

[SLIDE OF FAIRYLAND STAGE SET] As I delved more and more into the aestheticized world of the late 19th century and became attuned to the idea of fairyland, I sought out information about its conventions. This included a whole genre of theatrical productions, including plays, operas and ballets, known as "fairy spectacles." They often involved novel stage effects, such as garlands of flowers raining down from above, or characters flying through space (think of Peter Pan!). The magical quality of the productions was enhanced by new technologies such as gas and lime light, which made it possible to imitate the effect of a shimmering moon. Midsummer Night's Dream was produced often in the 19th century as such a spectacle.

[SLIDES OF KATE GREENAWAY AND WALTER CRANE ILLUSTRATIONS]. Again, fairyland was a place of eternal innocence-Peter Pan really didn't want to grow up. An ideal, picturesque childhood was represented over and over in the work of the era's most popular illustrators: Kate Greenaway and Walter Crane.

This was the same period when fairy tales were being "discovered" by scholars, and such tales were collected and anthologized by the Brothers Grimm and others. There were also overt fairy themes in contemporary literature. Influential writers such as Dickens and Ruskin told fairy stories, and books with titles like History of Tom Thumb, Phantastes, Water Babies and Dealings With The Fairies reached wide, enthusiastic audiences (many were first serialized in popular magazines). There were toys, games and playing cards that carried the same imagery.

[SLIDES OF FAIRY PAINTINGS] Several Victorian painting traditions were also steeped in this same sensibility. The Pre-Raphaelite painters depicted a dreamy, mythic world. Its quality was eloquently expressed by Edward Burne-Jones (one of these painters) when he described the kind of art he wanted to make: "a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be-in a light better than any light that ever shone-in a land no one can define or remember, only desire." There was also a genre of self-proclaimed "fairy painting," which typically featured scenes set in a magical woodland kingdom, bathed in moonglow. Tiny creatures inhabited this kingdom. The imagery drew on dramatic literature, including Midsummer Night's Dream, and many of the paintings were in turn used to illustrate the proliferating fairy stories or provide inspiration for stage sets in fairy spectacles.

[SLIDES OF MAXFIELD PARRISH PAINTINGS] Other painters, such as Maxfield Parrish, created different kinds of imaginary kingdoms. Parrish's images were used in widely distributed advertising material toward the end of the century, so much so that they were nearly ubiquitous. Notably, Parrish's images were filled with references to the picturesque, "mysterious" East. Fairyland too was overlaid in the popular mind with the Orient, primarily due to its sensual quality. Fairyland descriptions were peppered with phrases such as "delicious abandon," "seemingly transported from the Arabian Nights."

The Crazy quilts themselves:
[SLIDES OF CRAZY QUILTS-WHOLE VIEWS AND DETAILS] The fairyland theme peaked between about 1880 and 1900, the same time as the crazy quilt phenomenon. What I will spend the rest of my time demonstrating is how much these quilts were a part of the fairyland sensibility. Previous scholars have discussed these quilts in relationship to the Aesthetic movement, and I build on that idea. In fact, John Ruskin, one of the spokesmen of that movement, lectured on fairyland, advocating the same kind of dreamy, ideal beauty as Burne-Jones. I assume my audience's general familiarity with the crazy quilt genre-decorative textiles pieced from irregularly shaped and random scraps of fabric, and overlaid with free-form stitches and embellishments. They were usually made with silk and velvet. They were not stuffed or meant to give warmth; rather, they were tied together and used as decorative showpieces.

Crazy quilts arose as a phenomenon of an advanced textile industry, when luxurious fabrics were plentiful and relatively cheap; they were an expression of luxury and well-being. Note that in 1913, the consumption of silk in the United States topped consumption in France, Germany, and England put together.

Let me introduce the qualities of crazy quilts that echoed the fairyland idea. We can start with the whole look and feel of the quilts-their surface qualities. They were brightly colored and lush, with an enormous complexity of color, pattern, texture, embellishment and images.

The color was often highly saturated, variegated, and compelling. "Every hue and shade and color is combined in every imaginable and unimaginable way, to please the fancy and taste of every chance beholder," reported an Ohio newspaper. Seemingly every color was available: Cheney Silks advertised almost 500 hues in the 1880s, and Jordan, Marsh & Co. advertised $1 packages of assorted silk squares with "300 or more colorings, . . . no two alike." Even the color names were appealing: "garnet," "bronze," "sapphire," "shrimp," "rouge," "terra cotta," "raisin," and so on. Many fabrics included shaded effects and variegated colors, or iridescence.

There was also a purposeful use of color juxtaposition-a single ribbon, for example, might be made so as to look like a woven rainbow. The effects were heightened by the fact that most crazy quilts were made from silks with reflective qualities, which constantly changed and shimmered as the light moved. (Note that these photos were very hard to take, because areas are so small and light so reflective).

Frankly, I can't stress the amazing nature of these fabrics enough- there was a truly astonishing assortment of sophisticated fabrics in the last part of the nineteenth century. The more I looked closely at them, the more impressed I was. Nothing like it on the market today! The industry produced wonderful textured plushes and velvets, sometimes with areas cut away or woven in different pile heights, or made so as to resemble animal skins.

Pattern was, in Victorian terms, "kaleidoscopic." A description of a crazy quilt exhibit stated, "It looked as if somebody had shattered two-thousand rainbows and heaped the fragments into two thousand different mounds of rich and wonderful color." Remember that this same approach to pattern -a rich, sensual overload--was common in other fairyland-like genres.

[SLIDE LISTING QUALITIES OF "CRAZY QUILT MANIA"] These fabrics were sensuous, and women were irresistibly drawn to them. It was so strong at times as to be considered erotic-- identified with both the Orient and a kind of dangerous, unbridled passion. This was literally referred to as crazy quilt mania. The idea was that women could not help themselves, and would do almost anything to get more and more of the appealing scraps-they would cut apart the linings of their husband's coats or hats, for example, cajole their brothers for their ties, or even cut off pieces of silk from store shelves or dressmakers' worktables. This mania was a kind of enchantment-like fairyland, it was bewitching. Women were under a spell. (To resolve this issue, Montgomery Ward even made its samples so small as to be useless in a quilt).

Crazy quilt mania primarily related to procuring fabrics, but there was also an addictive and beguiling quality to working with these sensuous materials. In one quilt, I counted seventeen different plaid fabrics, twenty five different stripes, and six different checks,] along with hundreds of other patterns, colorful stitches outlining the blocks, and dozens of superimposed embroidered images. Quilters were creating their own "imaginative pleasure grounds." As the title character in an 1882 story called "Bessie's Silk Patchwork" explained, she took up crazy quilting "for a play spell;" it was her "bottle of patent medicine," and the means by which she made herself happy. "Every shade of weariness and worry went out of Bessie's face" as she worked on her crazy quilts.

Yet other elements contributed to the addictive crazy quilt spell. One related to fabrics that functioned as literal souvenirs. Silk ribbons were abundant in this period, so much so that they used for everything from fair prize premiums to badges for fraternal organization meetings. Pre-printed ribbons and silk scraps also came as premiums with tobacco products. Silk was even used in lieu of paper for printed announcements or holiday greetings, and in some cases, restaurant menus or even laundry lists. Collecting and incorporating these evocative fabrics into the quilts added another layer of complexity and enchantment, laced with personal history.

Also important were the surface treatments that could be added to the base fabrics. There was a wonderland of available materials: decals, beads, spangles, ribbons that could be used for stitching, fur edgings, and textured threads like chenille. There was room to play with a wide range of embroidery techniques-- everything from outline stitch to French knots and ribbon appliqué. One could also paint on the fabric, or even work with photo transfers.

The infinite sense of possibility was exhilarating.

Crazy quilt iconography and fairyland
[SLIDE SUMMARIZING FAIRYLAND CRAZY QUILT ICONOGRAPHY] Imagery on crazy quilts also echoed fairyland conventions and alluded to it. Pictures of actual fairies were relatively uncommon, but there were elves, sprites and cherubs, ethereal winged creatures associated with the fairy kingdom, including butterflies and moths, dragonflies and other sparkly insects, and hummingbirds. There were motifs associated with the woodlands where the fairies lived --oak and other autumn leaves, ferns, squirrels, deer, and violets. There were images denoting night time (fairies were understood to most often appear by moonlight). Included were stars, crescent moons (sometimes appearing with a face and understood as the Man in the Moon), owls, bats, and spiderwebs.

The spider web was one of the most ubiquitous crazy quilt motifs. It may also have connoted good luck, but it was such a familiar trope of fairy painting, evoking both the woodlands and the evanescence of the other-worldly place, that I am convinced this was its primary association. In paintings, the webs were often touched with dew and sparkled in the ethereal light. In some quilts, clear beads would be added to the webs for this same effect.

Crazy quilts also included motifs alluding to innocence and sweetness, equated in the late 19 century with fairyland. This included images that evoking beautiful, happy gardens-Edens, really, mythic habitats of the uncorrupted child. Everything in the garden was sumptuous and desirable: the fruits (strawberries, grapes and cherries were especially popular) looked ripe and delicious; the flowers beckoned with their seemingly soft petals; the birds were graceful, swooping creatures. Common too were also water lilies, lily pads and waterfowl-images associated with both Aesthetic taste and the fairy world.

Very common were picturesque children inspired by Kate Greenaway illustrations. They were the visual embodiment of innocence and goodness. Usually worked in outline stitch, the children were often seen playing or doing seemingly cheerful domestic tasks. There were other motifs evoking a kind of happy domestic world-seemingly dancing scissors, shoes, forks, teapots, cups and other pottery were common. (These always remind me of the tea party in Alice in Wonderland and the many references to bric-a-brac in the Wizard of Oz books.) There were also many motifs evoking cheerful leisure pastimes, such as badminton rackets and musical instruments.

There were also cheerful animals-domestic and farm creatures such as cats, dogs, chickens, and horses, and some seemingly tamed wild creatures as well, such as the elephant. Hearts and good luck images were common too.

This was a female world (fairyland was definitely gendered as a woman's place). There were many examples in the quilts of both mythic female figures and portraits of actual women.

Since fairyland was overlaid in the popular imagination with the Orient, there were many images that evoked the imagined East. Japanese fans and kimono-clad figures were typical. There were also Egyptian-style lotuses and ibises, pagodas and Chinamen.

Even with unrelated iconography, the fairyland feeling was still prevalent in any given crazy quilt. Given their saturated, opulent color, texture and pattern; their many layers of sensual elaboration; and their ever-surprising juxtapositions, the overall gestalt of the pieces was far more than the sum of their individual parts.

Crazy quilts have an irresistible draw. This was true in the Victorian era, and is equally true today, when this type of quilt is experiencing something of a revival. Even casual viewers are struck by their sensual quality, and are able to share at least a part of the quiltmaker's aesthetically charged experience. Making a crazy quilt was-and is-a way of cultivating the fairyland state and stepping into its dream-like quality; it was a way of intensifying and enriching life. Elsewhere I have written of the many ways that turn-of-the century women "fed" themselves emotionally by creating this kind of aesthetically "saturated world." It is my hope that an understanding of this intangible but salient fairyland quality will contribute to the general understanding and appreciation of the crazy quilt legacy. It points to an important element of the human spirit, one that crazy quilt makers were masters at bringing to life.

Professor Beverly Gordon, Chair
Environment, Textiles & Design Department
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Beverly Gordin Uncoverings 2006, vol. 27 ISBN 1-877859-22-2

Editor's Note: Because of the copyright restrictions we are unable to show the actual pictures included in Ms. Gordin's article or slide presentation. To give you some additional information on the topics we have provided some web sites you might find interesting.

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