The Art of Crazy Quilt Conservation

Lynn Schoeffler 2009

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Under the direction of Joyce Hulbert, a small group of skilled and dedicated volunteers is undertaking the painstaking and delicate work of crazy quilt conservation in preparation for the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textile's Still Crazy exhibit, which opens November 22, 2009.

When I called to inquire about the workshop, Joyce graciously invited me to come and view the on-going activity. Although I did not get to meet all the volunteers in the group, it was very rewarding to talk to the women there.

Joyce, Collections Care Manager at the museum, conducted an initial workshop on conservation techniques that all volunteers attended, which included a review of the pieces in the collection, types of construction of the articles, and the impact of treatment. As a professional textile conservator and restoration expert with over twenty years of experience, Joyce operates her own restoration and conservation business, and lectures on a variety of textile related subjects.

And that was my first lesson: the difference between "conservation" and "restoration". Explained to me by Sara Zander, (Education Chair, Greater Pacific Region EGA), the museum's work on their crazy quilt collection is to preserve the appearance of the quilts while respecting the fiber and the fabric, maintaining the original historical information of the materials and the focus of the artist.

The volunteers, who all have some form of needlework background, do not replace the embroidery, or use new fabric patches. Badly deteriorating patches are stabilized to halt further deterioration and enable the quilt to be shown with as little stress to the original fabric as possible. Conservation work considered essential is the edge of the quilt and any patches particularly unstable, especially significant pieces of embroidery.

The museum tries to minimize any barrier between the viewer and the quilt; materials and conservation stitching are to be as unobtrusive as possible. Much of the work involves placing scrim (a fine, organdy-like material) over badly shattering fabric--usually the old silk. Joyce hand dyes silk scrim for this purpose, but I was surprised to learn that in some cases, synthetic scrim is used for its strength and durability. Extremely fine polyester thread from Spain is used for stitching the scrim into place; the edges of the scrim must be rolled and stitched using a curved needle. The curved needle helps to prevent the stitches from connecting with the backing fabric of the quilt, which places stress on the pieced fabric of the front of the quilt.

The scrim is pinned into place with fine gauge insect-mount pins. Longer stitches are used, because tiny regular stitches add more holes and further stress the fabric. The conservator must determine if the scrim will be placed over decorative stitching--in many places the fabric under the stitching is deteriorating, and must be stabilized with an overlay of scrim.

Working on the same quilt as Sara, at the opposite side, volunteer Ruie Capps carefully stitches black scrim to a patch on the edge of the quilt to stabilize it. All of the quilts are laid out for work on large tables lined with archival tissue.

Joyce develops individual and innovative techniques for the display of each quilt with minimal stress. For this particular quilt, a black acrylic sleeve is stitched on to support the border lace. The weight of the quilt is actually supported by a second sleeve on the back of the quilt for the wall hung display.

This quilt is a gift to the museum from Mrs. Lloyd Plesse, and is dated 1880-1900. Done in the style of the popular English Medallion Mosaic quilt pattern, you can actually see a scrap of the original paper that was used as a template for one of the hexagon-shaped pieces+. Interestingly, polyester scrim will be used to cover deteriorating medallions, because it can be burned with a heat tool to conform to the shape of the medallion, showing no raveling edges, as silk would.

Here, LaVerne Parmley, Joni Strother and Joyce Hulbert discuss how a scrim overlay will be used to enclose the entire silk taffeta edging to preserve what is left of the intricate border. It took almost a full day to stitch the scrim into place on the front and the back of the quilt.

In the photo below, Joyce works to stabilize silk fabric that has fallen apart to individual threads. To the right, you can see the very fine synthetic thread laid over several of the silk threads, and then couched down at intervals through only the primary layers of the quilt's construction. It is interesting to note that the chenille thread of the decorative stitching is in near perfect condition.

As the work is finished, the quilts are moved to other tables that completely support them, in layers of archival tissue. They are vacuumed, if necessary, with meticulous care through hand-held rectangles of synthetic screening; the edges of the screen are taped to avoid snagging the quilt.

The San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles contains a permanent collection of over 798 pieces. Ann Croll, another long-time volunteer, is working to develop a digital, pictorial archive with relational database and searchable records that will include the donor and dating information of a given piece, its provenance, and a record of any conservation work done. As the museum occasionally loans its pieces for other exhibitions, Ann's intensive work will facilitate the museum in managing the information and location of all pieces.

Another fascinating aspect of the exhibit will be several pieces of Japanese yosegire patchwork. According to Jane Przybysy, Executive Director of the museum, textile historians suspect that exhibitions of Japanese and British arts and crafts at late 19th century international exhibitions in Chicago , New Orleans , and Philadelphia sparked the imaginations of North American needle artists who created the first crazy quilts. Visitors to the Japanese exhibition at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition marveled at the yosegire patchwork and embroideries.

Still Crazy will run from November 17, 2009 until February 7, 2010. With over thirty pieces, it would be a trip well worth your while. Visit the museum's website at:

+ Cindy Brick, Crazy Quilts, Voyageur Press 2008

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