A Cooperative Crazy Quilt for a Civil War House Museum:
Part I

Cindy Thury Smith © 2009

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The crazy quilt pictured above was a cooperative effort by members of the Quiltropolis online crazy quilting list. It was begun in 2007 and completed in June 2008. It was the third quilt in a series made specifically for display at the LeDuc House Museum in Hastings, MN.

The LeDuc House was built in 1862-1865 for William and Mary LeDuc and their children. William LeDuc served as Quartermaster during the Civil War, and later as the first Commissioner of Agriculture (later this position became the Secretary of Agriculture).

The crazy quilt above is embellished only with embroidery because two of the LeDuc daughters, Alice and Florence, were noted embroiderers. They started a crazy quilt but only completed about a dozen blocks. They stopped sewing on the blocks because they began their own custom design embroidery business, an unusual endeavor for gently bred women of the time. Their business was successful for many years, enabling them to employ a travelling saleswoman to show samples and take orders in the five state area. Their designs were also featured in the October 1903 issue of House Beautiful magazine.

Alice Sumner LeDuc, circa 1894.
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Florence Gray LeDuc, 1885.
A.A. Scott Photography Studio, Hastings, MN.
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

When the LeDuc daughters were making their crazy quilt blocks they recycled fabric from clothing of family members, mostly fancy fabrics. They did embroidery on the seam lines with a few embroidered motifs inside the patches. They made detailed notes on the foundation where the fabrics came from.

When I was organizing this cooperative quilt I consciously tried to conform to the design decisions the LeDuc daughters made for their crazy quilt blocks. I did compromise on some of the construction to ensure a quilt that could be on display for many years. I planned to sew all the blocks out of silk fabrics then send them out to volunteer embroiderers.

I was worried I would not get many volunteers due to the limitations I had put on embellishing the blocks. Although the LeDuc family lived in a large “mansion” for the times, they were cash-poor and the daughters would not have had the funds for fancy ribbon embellishments, laces, etc. They would have had ample access to embroidery floss of the time.

When I solicited volunteers I had to tell them no beading, no laces, no charms; embroider only on the seam lines. And the embroidery floss would have to be cotton, silk or wool, solid colors only (no fancy metallics or gorgeous hand dyed variegated.) I was hoping for maybe a half dozen volunteers.

Imagine how happy I was when twenty-eight women volunteered from the list! It made the project move from a wishful dream to a possibility. So I set to work sewing the blocks.

A few practical pointers if you ever want to organize a cooperative crazy quilt project:

  1. Buy at least TWICE as much fabric as you think you will need. I had to go back to the silk warehouse twice, and it is an hour and half drive from my home.
  2. Add at least ONE MONTH to every step of the project (give yourself an extra month to organize, give the volunteers an extra month before you need the blocks back and give yourself an extra month to put all the blocks together).
  3. Send out twenty-five percent more blocks than you really need. Let’s be realistic here: if you have close to thirty women working on a project for six months, there are going to be babies born, graduations, weddings, moving households, illnesses, etc. Even with the best of intentions some of your volunteers will not be able to complete the project, and you probably will not get the supplies or blocks back (because they are ill or moving or whatever). Take this into account in your planning.
  4. OVERSIZE your blocks. You don’t know how much they will shrink up in the embellishing process, and you will have to cut all your blocks to match the smallest sized block (which could drastically affect the finished size).
  5. Have a back up plan. In this case, if twenty-five blocks came back, the quilt setting would be five rows of five blocks. If fewer blocks came back, I could go to four blocks in five rows (which is how the final quilt came out), or even smaller; four rows of four blocks.

I knew I wanted to include fan blocks in the corners of the quilt. I wanted each fan block to be unique and embroidered by a different person. I also knew that these blocks would take more time to embroider because of the long seam lines in the fans. So even though I got many more volunteers than I needed to embroider the fan blocks (and several people requested more than one fan block), I made an executive decision that only four people would receive one fan block each to embroider. I did not make any extra fan blocks. I especially encouraged the fan embroiderers to get these blocks back to me promptly. Kerri Murphy, Maureen Flaherty, Sandra Pearce and Freda Butler all graciously put up with this nagging.

I have included photos of the four corner fan blocks at the end of this article. Patterns and instructions for the four fan blocks are also included. About half of the fabrics used in the fan blocks were silk tie remnants.

So the blocks were sewn and sent out to the volunteers; and I settled down to wait. If I were smarter, I would have been shopping for the sashing and backing fabric (this became a last minute problem when I ran out of sashing fabric and could not find a suitable fabric for the backing).

I had no idea how many blocks would actually come back and what quality they would be. I sent out a few reminder emails and tried to remain hopeful.

The blocks started trickling in, and each one was wonderful. They were so lovely that after about ten blocks had been returned thoughts started entering my head such as, “Cindy, what were you thinking? Look at these gorgeous blocks! And you promised to sew them all up and GIVE IT AWAY!” Alas, these evil thoughts continued in my head until the day I hung the completed quilt in the LeDuc House. I admit it: I had lust in my heart.

Plans for placement of each block continuously evolved as new blocks arrived. When I got twenty blocks back, I started to get serious about placement. I received a total of twenty-two blocks, so there were two leftover blocks.

I constructed this quilt specifically to be hung, so I did some extra steps to strengthen it. A cotton batting was inserted, and a heavier weight cotton upholstery fabric was used as the backing fabric.

I searched for several weeks for the backing fabric; I wanted it to be as beautiful as the front. I was not going to stint on the backing because the volunteers had obviously labored long on their embroidery, and made such stunning blocks. The backing of your quilt does get seen, and I encourage you to finish your crazy quilts as finely as you embroider them.

The fabric I finally chose for the backing is a large scale, floral print upholstery cotton. The background is a black tone-on-tone stripe, with large rose colored urns holding sprays of flowers and bluebirds flying between the urns. The white, pink, rose and maroon sprays of flowers gave me the idea to bind the edge of the crazy quilt in maroon twisted cording.

Between the blocks, and around the outer edge of the quilt top, narrow black silk sashing was used. The blocks were sewn into vertical rows, and then a continuous strip of sashing (running from the top of the quilt to the bottom) was inserted between the vertical rows. This construction sequence is important because it allowed me to use machine stitching to vertically support and strengthen the quilt.

I sewed all the vertical rows of blocks together using these long vertical strips between the rows. I then smoothed the quilt top onto the batting/backing. Next, I flipped the right side of the quilt over to lay on top of the left side of the quilt, exposing the long middle vertical seam. I carefully smoothed the seam allowance flat so the stitched seam was easily visible. I pinned through all the layers the length of this seam, and then machine stitched over the previous stitching. Do this flipping, smoothing, pinning stitching on all the vertical seams across the width of the quilt, and you will have stitched in good vertical support.

Lastly, I added sashing strips around the outer edge of the quilt, sewing through all the layers and flipping the sashing strip open/flat. The end result is a quilt with machine stitched channels going through all the layers of the quilt with the edges of the quilt stitched also. These channels will show on the back of the quilt but not on the front of the quilt. I also did invisible machine stitching in each block to further stabilize the quilt.

After the top was stabilized, I trimmed the batting to match the quilt top and added twisted cording to the edge. How to do a twisted cording edging using a facing will be described in a later issue of CQMagOnline. A detailed full page label crediting all the embroidery volunteers was also sewn onto the quilt back.

Let’s take a look at the four corner fan blocks.

Constructed by: Maureen Flaherty (left), Kerri Murphy (right)

Constructed by: Freda Butler (left), Sandra Pearce (right)

I wanted four individual fans, but I did want some continuity between them, so each fan consists of six fan blades. Each fan is set 1" away from the corner of the block; this is to avoid accumulated seam allowances in the corners of the quilt, making it easier to apply whatever finish you want to the quilt edge (ruffles, binding, cording, etc.). I also set the wider ends of the fan blades back from the curved seam. This will make it easier to sew the curved seam (which is actually a pressed under edge). You will notice ALL the embroiderers took the opportunity to place some special embroidery along the space by the curved seam.

By choosing six fan blades in each fan it is fairly easy to draft these patterns.

Each fan needs to make a ninety degree angle; ninety degrees divided by six equals fifteen degrees in each blade. The patterns for these fan blades are at the very end of this article. Each pattern includes a 1/4" seam allowance. I sized them to make an approximately 7” fan set into a 9” background quarter circle, but by shrinking or enlarging them using a copier, you can customize this for your own use.

I “cleaned up” the bottom corner of each fan block either by cutting a diagonal clean edge and piecing in a triangle, or pressing under the lower edge and appliquéing to a quarter circle. I did not want any seam lines to go deep into the corner of the block because I did not, at that time, know what kind of edge I would put on the finished quilt. I did not want a lot of bulk at the corners of the quilt. Again, the four embroiderers surprised me by embroidering a motif in this open corner area.

How were the individual fans sewn together? The Flaherty fan and the Pearce fan blades were sewn together; raw edges pressed under, and then they were appliquéd onto large quarter circles of black silk.

The Butler fan and the Murphy fan were paper pieced to include a large piece of black silk on the ends of the fan blades. This extra fabric extended to the curved seam. A 2” wide strip of black silk was sewn to the two outer edges of the fans, and then a diagonal cut was made across the bottom of the blades, and a silk triangle was pieced in. I’m hoping you can see this in the close up photos of these blocks.

Let’s take a closer look at Sandra Pearce’s block.

Look at that lovely embroidered orange lace along the top of the fan! And the yellow flower embroidered in the corner really highlights the block.

To make this fan block you will need to cut six of the pattern given and sew them together in an arc. I then drew the finished shape of the fan on lightweight cardboard, and basted the sewn pieces onto the cardboard. A good pressing will give you a nice finished edge all around. Pull out the basting stitches to remove the cardboard, and appliqué your curved arc onto a large quarter circle of fabric.

All of the fans have crazy piecing filling out the rest of the area to make a square block. The fan wedges are sewn down onto the black silk, so they do not need any further foundation. But I needed a foundation shaped to curve over the raw edges of the fans and square up the block.

To do this I used lightweight tagboard and drew a square the desired finished size of my corner blocks. Using a compass draw a quarter circle in one corner that will represent the fan applied to its background quarter circle (I used a 9” quarter circle). Cut this quarter circle out of the tagboard and you are left with an odd shape which you need to crazy piece to fill out the rest of the square block. BUT before you trace this odd shape onto your foundation fabric, add 2” on all the straight edges and ½” on the curved edge.

After you have crazy pieced on the foundation, lay the cardboard down on the back of the foundation and trace just the curved edge. Use your machine to straight stitch on the traced line. This line of stitching should help you easily turn under the curved edge; you may need to do a little clipping. This piece is now laid over the fan’s raw edge and appliquéd down to get a square block.

Kerri Murphy’s block (below) was supposed to be slightly Art Deco in design. She has placed tiny angled spider webs along the top of the fan blades and continued the embroidery into the blank corner. Those little firecracker bursts along the inner corner of the curved edge really pack a punch.

To sew this fan you need to foundation piece it using the patterns provided. Note: on the wider center piece you need to sew two strips together and align the sewn seam on the center line of the pattern, and then sew in one piece of background fabric above. Finally, you need to trim the fabric edges to match the foundation guidelines before you sew on the side pieces.

Maureen Flaherty’s block (below) is made from segments that are sewn so that the pointy edge of the blades folds in on itself and is a totally finished edge. The blades are then sewn together to get the completed fan, and the straight sides and curved bottom edge are pressed under. Lastly this fan is applied to the large background quarter circle.

How do you get that finished pointy edge? Cut out the shape from the pattern, and fold it right sides together along the length of the piece. Sew across the wider edge, lockstitch the beginning and end of this seam. Turn the fabric right sides out and you will magically get a pointed end. Fold the piece in half again lengthwise and finger press a crease about 2” from the point. Reach a finger inside the pointy end and push the seam allowance one way or the other while lining up the sewn seam with your crease; press well. This will make your point evenly centered.

When you put two blades rights sides together to sew them it is tempting to align the points, but actually you need to align the lower outer sides (what will become the bottom V between the points) so when they are sewn together you get a crisp V. Press these seam lines open.

This fan block is easy to make out of even the most slippery fabric. Maureen stitched a folk art heart in corner of the fan, flowers between the pointed ends of the wedges and stitches along the curved edge.

Freda Butler’s fan block (above) is also foundation pieced. I used three silk tie remnants and three plain silks chosen to match the colors in the ties. Background fabric (black silk) is pieced above and below the colored silks so the colored pieces “float”. I especially liked the embroidery following the shape of the fan blades and the wide, intricate embroidery along the curved edge. The small embroidered fan in the corner mimics the larger fan.


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