By Elizabeth J. Bailey, Curator
Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts
April 1, 1999
|By the end of the nineteenth century America had come a long way. In 1870, the United States was home to over forty-six million people living in thirty-eight states stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Thirty-five thousand miles of railroad track ferried passengers from coast to coast. Gas lighting, trolley cars, telephones, and railways were common place and illustrative of the great technological advances being made in America. New mechanical inventions meant that Americans had more leisure time to pursue pleasurable activities. People moved outdoors and pursued leisure activities like baseball and bicycling. For women, this also meant more time to create fancy needlework, manifesting most explicitly in the crazy quilt.
The craze that developed in the last two decades of the nineteenth century is a brief but significant part of quilt history in America. In a time when a strict moral code existed, the crazy quilt was a deliberate statement of artistic abandon. These quilts are characterized by the random placement of fabric scraps on a foundation. Generally, they have no central theme or focus; their singular feature is irregularity itself. Often the seams of the fabric pieces are heavily embellished with elaborate embroidery stitches executed in silk floss or filosette (an inexpensive silk floss). The quilts are then sometimes further embellished with chenille work, fabric painting, or appliqué. More was often considered better when it came to decorating a quilt with fancy embroidery.
The earliest mention of a crazy quilt is found in Our Acre and Its Harvest. This book is a history of the Soldiers’ Aid Society of Northern Ohio. As a fund-raiser at the 1864 Cleveland Sanitary Fair, the Society sold a quilt each day at noon. For one quilt in particular, the women used the term “crazy” to describe the design they found “unusual and grotesque.” The name “crazy quilt” stuck and soon ladies magazines, like Godey’s Lady’s Book and Peterson’s Magazine, picked up on the style and began printing suggestions and hints on how to construct the new quilt. In 1865, Peterson’s Magazine advised adding embroidery to the edges of patchwork to create the effect of mosaic. Magazines also listed possible embroidery designs that could further decorate fabric patches.
There are various possible explanations for why this fad so thoroughly gripped American quilters at the end of the nineteenth century. However, the design seems to stem from the Victorians interest in Asian art. Whether inspired by Japanese needlework, crazed Japanese ceramics, or Japanese patchwork kimonos, the quilt style soon acquired fad status in the 1870s and 1880s. The 1876 Centennial Exhibition also played a major role in America’s thirst for Asian objects. It was at this exhibition that Americans first explored in first-hand detail Asian, especially Japanese, cultures adding fuel to the Japanese fad sweeping the nation. Silks, elaborate embroidery, and Japanese motifs like fans began appearing not only in quilts but also in clothing and home accessories.
At the same time a “sentimental” trend was sweeping the nation. As a reaction to the booming Industrial Revolution some Americans, longing for a return to simpler times, began to treasure the old ways of life. In quilting this feeling manifested in the use of wedding dresses, ribbons, baby clothes, men’s ties, and pieces of a deceased’s clothing in quilt patches. Often bits of these treasured items found an honored place in a crazy quilt which soon became like a trip down memory lane.
The crazy quilt is a unique phenomenon in American quilt history in that it was not meant to be used for bedding but instead as a show piece. Crazy and silk quilts were not usually found in the bedroom, but instead, found in the parlor where callers could examine and discuss a woman’s skill as a sewer and seamstress, pass on fancy stitches and learn new ones. The quality of a crazy quilt was not judged by the number of stitches per inch like most other quilting styles, but rather, on the embroidery that embellished the piece. In the minds of the Victorians the more intricate the stitchery the better the quilt. On most crazy and silk quilts, each patch is completely outlined in embroidery of every stitch imaginable. Some quilters further embellished the patches of fabric by embroidering flowers, animals, fans, and other motifs upon them. Most crazy quilts do not have batting, normally added for warmth, between the top and back layers. In addition, most makers of crazy quilts chose not to quilt the layers together but instead to tie them at intervals with lengths of ribbon or yarn. In many crazy quilts even this step was skipped, and the layers of the quilt are held together only by the binding on the edge of the finished piece.
The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts has over two dozen quilts and bedspreads in its collection including four crazy quilts Two of these quilts are currently on display in the Emlen Physick house and both are fine examples of the intricate piecing and stitchery of the crazy quilt style. Look for them both when touring the Emlen Physick Estate.