What Makes a Crazy Quilt a Crazy Quilt?

Merikay Waldvogel © 2009

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Merikay Waldvogel has given us permission to print the essay she wrote for the Alliance for American Quilts in conjunction with this year's contest/fundraiser, "Crazy for Quilts." You can learn all about the contest by clicking on the graphic below.

Crazy quilts with oddly shaped pieces and embroidered stitches in brightly colored silks, satins and velvets burst onto the scene about 1880. The exact date and origin is still debated, but they seem to have emerged just after the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. At that fair, art and needlework exhibits in the Japanese and British pavilions caught the attention of American artists and needle workers. It may have been coincidence, but soon after, American quilt makers broke with long-standing traditional quilt construction and design to make quilts with elaborate embroidery and block layouts that incorporated both the British needlework and a subtle Japanese design esthetic.

Making crazy quilts soon became a craze. The origin of the name is also in dispute, but the style caught on quickly and spread like crazy. Thousands of crazy quilts were documented in state quilt projects. Based on crazy quilts with inscribed dates, the years 1880-1920 are considered their period of popularity. The 1880s examples were the most elaborate and most heavily embellished, but quilts with some of the most innovative images were made in the early 1900s as the craze diminished. Crazy quilts were made in both urban and rural communities. Printed cottons, wool challis and even home-woven fabrics were used in crazy quilts.

What caught the attention of the quilters? I think there were embroiderers and china painters who had never attempted a quilt. In crazy quilts, they found a new opportunity for applying their craft. I think younger people saw it as a fun project—a challenge to find the most diverse array of fabrics among their friends. Some branched out and collected souvenir ribbons of college teams, sporting events, state fairs and political activities. In a sense, their crazy patchwork projects became memory quilts.

In 1886, one writer commented, “No species of fancy-work yet invented, has ever given more scope for the exercise of artistic ability and real originality; hence, the secret of its wonderful popularity. It is probable that it will exercise its fascinations for years to come.” ¹

True enough, more than 120 years later crazy quilts remain fascinating. By breaking every rule of traditional quilt construction and design, they elicited experimentation with long-standing (unwritten) rules of color, design and symmetry. Fabrics could be mixed, colors might clash, and open spaces were filled in; sometimes to excess. Pictorial images were embroidered as well as painted on the fabric pieces. Beading and all sorts of ribbon work found a place on a crazy quilt. Smaller sized projects such as cushions, table covers, and piano covers were covered with crazy patchwork that complemented the Victorian decorating theme of late 19th century homes.

A crazy quilt became a canvas to display one’s embroidery skills. Besides the fancy edging stitches, pictorial designs filled the open areas--including birds, insects, floral displays, children at play, musical notes, owls, crescent moons, stars and sewing instruments. One could purchase hot transfer patterns or trace designs using carbon paper. The pieced fan block was one of the few traditional pieced quilt patterns that appeared in crazy quilts.

The crazy quilt was made of equal-sized blocks with oddly shaped pieces basted to a muslin foundation. The turned-under edges of the basted pieces were covered with embroidery stitches; the finished blocks were then seamed together, and a wide border added. Crazy quilts were not, as a rule, quilted, but were often backed with a loose lining or pre-quilted material.

Because crazy quilts have such loosely defined rules, quiltmakers did some of the most innovative work ever seen in quilt history. In fact, the art quilt movement owes much to the crazy quilts of the late 1800s. I consider them America’s first “art quilts.” They were not designed for daily use, laundering, or even warmth. They were decorative, fanciful, and a joy to examine up close. Many were dated and initialed. As such, they became heirlooms handed down from generation to generation.

They often won acclaim not because of their quilting; but for what they contained; the amount of work involved, and their unusual designs. Were they really quilts? Should they be judged in a separate category? By the quilt revival of the late 1920s and 1930s, crazy quilts played only a minor, nostalgic role. The quilt patterns of the 1930s that only remotely resembled crazy quilts were called “string quilts” and were made of pieces of pastel plain and printed cottons, or feed sacks stitched to a newspaper foundation with very little embroidery and no embellishments such as beads, ribbons, and sequins.

The collage formats, beading, fabric painting, and even photo transfers used in today’s quilts all have their roots in crazy quilts of the late 19th century. Interestingly, the first two AAQ contests with the themes “Put A Roof Over Our Heads” and “My Quilt/My History” featured traditional aspects of crazy patchwork. Themed quilt contests, by their very nature, produce quilts with pictorial, textural and symbolic images.

“One Crazy World” by Ellen Levine for the Put a Roof Over Our Head Contest. 2006.

“The Home in the Garden" (First Place) by Allison Ann Aller for the My Quilts/ Our History Contest. 2008.

Think of your contest entry as a multi-layered collage laden and enlivened with fanciful and meaningful material images. It can be celebratory, jubilant, pensive and reflective. Set the tone with the colors you choose. Include images around you on billboards, on posters, on the internet, in the newspaper, and in magazines. Rejoice and reflect on our new president and the future he faces. Reminisce on the decade of your high school or college years. Transfer photos or postcards of a favorite family vacation. Collect small items to embellish your piece. Remember a favorite teacher, friend, grandparent or even a pet. The possibilities are endless.  Go to www.quiltindex.org; click SEARCH on the tool bar, and type in “crazy” in the pattern space. Over 1100 images of crazy quilts, including close-up details, should pop up. Most are 19th century examples, but you will even find newer examples.

Other Talking Points About Crazy Quilts:

The fabrics came from clothing; remnants left over from sewing projects, salesman sample books, neck ties, and hat and shoe linings.

Embroidery images were dogs, single birds, birds on nests, flowers, insects, spider webs, sewing tools, eating utensils, children at play, cats, musical scores, shooting stars, moons and many more. Quiltmakers found their design sources in booklets or purchased tissue paper sheets of hot iron transfer patterns, but certain women were quickly innovative with the new quilt style. It is this potential for personal creativity that makes the crazy quilt as interesting to today’s quilters as it was to the original crazy quilters.

Crazy quilts, besides being a compendium of embroidery stitches and silks of that era, contain commemorative ribbons from political campaigns, Civil War veteran reunions, beads, sequins, sayings, dates, initials and names.

Originally, in the 1880s, crazy quilts were made of bright silks and richly hued velvets. But there are also crazy quilts made of wool challis with wool embroidery thread—and crazy quilts made of cotton print fabrics with cotton embroidery thread.

A sub-group of crazy quilts, known as “tile quilts,” were made of printed cottons without any embroidery. The pieces were appliquéd to the white foundation so that the white would show around each piece as if it were the mortar between the tiles.

“Kaleidoscope Quilt” was another name for crazy quilts in the 1880s.

Interestingly, crazy quilts were once incorrectly thought to be the oldest quilts made. In fact, they fall at the mid-point of the 250-year history of American quilts. It is assumed the writers thought that the more organized and balanced look of American quilts evolved from the unorganized format of the crazy quilts.

1. “Crazy Patchwork. All the New Fancy Stitches Illustrated and Plain Instructions for Making the Patchwork” (Philadelphia: Strawbridge & Clothier, 1884) as quoted in Piecework Magazine (March/April 1998), 98.

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