Following in the Footsteps of Civil War Era Crazy Quilters

Sandra Pearce © 2008

   
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An appeal flew through cyberspace one day and landed in hundreds, if not thousands, of home computers; a request from a member of one of my online crazy quilt groups. I recognized the sender, Cindy Thury-Smith, a long-time member and crazy-quilter I had seen on television.

Cindy was looking for volunteers to help make a “reproduction” crazy quilt for a museum. The LeDuc mansion in Hastings, Minnesota was once the home of adult sisters Florence and Minnie, who lived there with their father, William LeDuc during the civil war. The sisters ran an embroidery business from the home – one of the few acceptable ways for ladies to earn income in those days. I was intrigued.

Cindy, a member of the Friends of the LeDuc House and a museum volunteer, had offered to create for the museum a replica crazy quilt in the style of the sisters. Thus the call-out to crazy quilters across the globe: Cindy would make blocks, we would embroider them and finally she would assemble the whole quilt.

“I’m in!” I replied, without hesitation. Then began the wondering: What would the limitations be; how will I handle that challenge; and what fascinating details could I glean from this history lesson?

The months passed as Cindy crafted blocks of richly colored silks, and wrote the embroidery guidelines. When the plain brown envelope arrived in my post office box, the curiosity was too much – I jumped in my pick-up and ripped open the envelope.

“Oh my gosh!” I thought. It was much bigger than I imagined (the sixteen inch block size had been mentioned, but I obviously ignored that in my enthusiasm to participate). And then, “Wow, that’s a lot of pieces, a lot of seams.” Per the included information, every seam must be stitched (no question there, I never leave a bare seam anyway). More thoughts raced as I gazed at the corner fan block: "Am I going to be able to finish this in time; I have another charity deadline to meet prior to this one; have I bitten off more than I can chew?" But those doubts quickly faded, as I knew I would enjoy the challenge and the relaxing hours stitching by the fire. I could do this!

I laid out the block one day and re-read the guidelines. Thread embroidery only, no ribbons, lace, beads or other embellishments that we tend to lavish on our crazy quilts today. The LeDucs would not have had the funds for such luxuries. Colors were to be medium to dark, no variegated or modern colors, and one of the sisters had a disdain for yellow and orange. The block was all dark and medium color fabrics, with some gold silk pieces, which livened it up. I gathered threads; all cotton because most of my silk threads were variegated.

Seams could be single or multiple rows of stitching, and of one or more colors, and since the LeDuc sisters were accomplished in their craft, less common stitches were perfectly acceptable. This was getting even more interesting! They used heavier threads on seams and single threads on a few small motifs – we could add none, or up to three.

I developed a plan of action to ensure the block would be in some state of readiness by the due date. I would do a single stitch line on every seam first. (If time ran out at any point after that, it could go as is.) Then I would go back and do additional stitches and colors on the fan seams. “Should I extend the fan seams into the black corner triangle?” “No,” I thought, it was the largest fabric piece and rather eye-catching; it needed a motif – flowers perhaps, favored by the LeDuc sisters. No floral in my library of motifs was just right, so I traced parts of two: a wild rose and forget-me-nots. A few leaves drawn in filled the space. I tacked down the tracing paper and stitched away with gold thread.

But what to do with the outer edge of the fan? A big variety of stitches would be inconsistent with the rest of the block and too distracting. Simplicity and unity were called for. Remembering lace fans of old, I decided to extend the “ribs” with chain stitch, and fill in between with needlelace for a delicate touch.

I always find that a crazy quilt tells me when it is finished and this was no exception. Any more work would have thrown the block out of balance. I was finished, and a whole month before deadline; further proof that I thoroughly enjoyed this project.

Now it is Cindy Thury-Smith’s challenge – and joy – to take all those twenty blocks, made by as many pairs of hands and in as many styles, and transform them into one congruous piece. She will join them with strips of sashing and bind it. I can’t wait to see pictures of the final result. It will be magnificent to be sure.

What an undertaking this was, by a generous community-minded crazy-quilt enthusiast. I am grateful to Cindy for the opportunity to grow, learn and contribute to future generations’ appreciation of the history and art of crazy quilting.

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