Dyed and Gone to Heaven – An Online Magazine and Needlework Resource  

The History of Crazy Quilts, Part II
By Betty Pillsbury in Collaboration with Rita Vainius

Click here if you missed Part I, last month.

Regardless of exactly how the fad came into being, there is no doubt it was an intense passion. At the height of its vogue, crazy work must have become a kind of obsession with some women. At least one story, "The Career of a Crazy Quilt" in the July 1884 "Godey's Lady's Book", and several poems of the period note the lengths to which women went to get free fabric scraps. Part of the fun was to procure your silks and velvets by whatever means you could manage, without paying for them.

Soon the ladies magazines of the day were publishing embellishment patterns to be used on crazy quilts. Manufacturers offered an assortment of fabrics to be used in these projects. Many thread companies touted their wares as the quintessential product for crazy quilt embroidery stitches. Crazy quilt in its heyday must have appealed tremendously to the prevailing taste, which tended to visualize all objects, arts and architecture as "potential collage or mosaic, subject to layering, encrustation and ornamentation".

If finding the exact origins of crazy work is elusive, determining how its popularity grew is not. This phenomenon was the first of many to be spread by a form of mass media, the magazine. Hundreds of thousands of women read the most popular ladies' journals: one copy was often shared by as many as ten women. Even tobacco companies jumped on the bandwagon. Inserted in packages of cigarettes were small pieces of silk to be used in a crazy quilt. These cigarette silks featured pictures of flowers, queens, flags, animals and butterflies. Think of children today emptying a box of cereal to get the prize and you have an idea of the Victorian woman sending her husband out for a package of smokes to get the coveted cigarette silk bonus. Today these silks are very rare and get premium price at antique shops, if you can find them!

The value of a crazy quilt was determined by the intricacy and variation of the stitching. Remember, there were no quilting stitches or batting. These quilts were not made for warmth and comfort, but to lie across the fainting couch in the parlor to showcase milady's needlework proficiency.

Often a muslin or flannel foundation was used and the scraps of fancy fabrics sewn onto it. Then, the seams were embroidered. The center of the patch was also embellished with exquisite motifs stitched onto them. Sometimes political ribbons were sewn into the design. Painting on velvet and satin became a popular way to decorate patches. Ribbonwork and beading were also utilized to enhance the beauty of the work. Victorians were a sentimental lot and used symbolism extensively. Foe example, there was a language of flowers, where every blossom held a different meaning: a red carnation meant "Alas for my poor heart", Rosemary was for remembrance. It is perhaps from this tradition that even today we send roses to the one we love. On many crazy quilts you will find a spider web as a symbol for good luck. Anchors represented faith and wreaths were for mourning.

The variety of crazy work objects was as large and diverse as the fabrics, threads and embellishments that went into them: table and pillow covers, scarves, lambrequins ( a kind of short valance to hang from a shelf or mantelpiece), piano covers, fire screens, robes and kimonos, slippers, wall pockets, coffin covers and anti-macassars (a doily or linen placed on the back of a chair to protect the upholstery from the popular men's hair gel of the day, macassar oil) were all potential candidates for adornment in this fashion. Entire rockers were smothered in crazy work and lap robes were thrown over the backs of living room chairs and sofa's to exhibit the homemaker's skill and taste. A coffin cover executed by a woman in Missouri at the turn of the century was made for the family to drape over the coffin at a funeral service. Embellishments would be added as a memento to the deceased. The cover was then kept for the next funeral and appropriate new decorations would be added for it's subsequent use.

Though crazy work continued to be popular into the 1920's, as early as September 1884 "Harpers" had somewhat reversed its previous endorsement. An article entitled "Crazy Work and Sane Work" criticized women for wasting their time on the 'busy idleness that has been made to seem improving.': " The makers of 'crazy patchwork' seem to have eaten of the insane root that takes the reason prisoner. Their countless stitches and ugly ingenuity appear to them to fit expression of aesthetic instincts, and they give thanks that they live in the cultivated age which ornaments its whisk-broom holders. RAPHAEL and LEONARDO would never have thought of that!"

In its time of glory, crazy work had tremendous appeal, possibly because the maker could do her work any way she chose, thus allowing for a good deal of freedom in an age that restricted women in so many other ways. Despite its short lifespan, it seems to have filled a vital contemporary need (or possibly void) in these women's lives. As Sally Garoutte has noted: "Better than swooning, better than nervous breakdowns, better than gin or patent medicines, Crazy Quilts were American women's answer to the constrictions of the Victorian age."

When this fashion died out and tastes changed crazy patchwork was regarded as one of the worst examples of Victorian over-ornamentation. Today this style is regarded much more fondly. It is evocative of an opulent age and an ideal way to indulge oneself with the pleasure of lavish stitchery, sumptuous fabrics and glowing jewel like colors and in so stimulate the imagination by teasing and tickling one's creative yearnings.

The 1980's and 1990's has seen a renewed interest in crazy quilting. Today's artists are using the idea of random piecing and embellishments to make modern crazy quilts. Some honor the traditional method and others pioneers have taken crazy quilting to new heights. Judith Baker Montano makes simply marvelous landscapes and wearable art. She has authored several books on crazy quilting that have helped revive this Victorian art form. Crazy Quitters today still use the velvets, satins, silks, and brocades of yesteryear, but also employ cottons, hand dyed silks, rayons and polyesters. Embellishments may include lace, pearls, seed beads, jewelry, silk ribbon embroidery, appliquéd trims and buttons. Embroidery no longer confines itself to just the seam lines, but meanders throughout the composition. Crazy Quilting is still showcasing the stitcher's needlework but more importantly are now valued as significant works of art.

Enhance Your Crazy Quilts

The Caron Collection's uniquely dyed threads offer the opportunity to wonderfully enrich and enhance your crazy quilt stitching and embroidery. Try a feather stitch in Evergreen Waterflowers; add lazy daisies in Rose Quartz Waterlilies; try Soie Cristale instead of mundane floss when embroidering your next rose. All these or even just one of them, will make a world of difference in the look and texture of your stitching, Your herringbone stitches will never be the same once you stitch them with Double-Dipped Rachel!

The above article was written by Betty Pillsbury who is president of the Omaha Needle Artists Chapter of the Embroiderers Guild of America. Betty is also active in the American Needlepoint Guild, Living Lace of Omaha, Crazy Quilters' Support Group of Eastern Nebraska and the Society of Creative Anachronism. Over 100 Ribbons have been awarded to Betty for her needlework. Hand-made ornaments were created by her for the White House and the National Museum of Women Artists. Her work has been featured in "Needlearts", "Needle Pointers" and "Miniature Quilts" Magazines. In addition to teaching locally and nationally, Betty is currently writing a book on embroidery for crazy quilting, which is eagerly awaited by us all! Betty will be heading a special "study hall" class on crazy quilting techniques at the Kirk Collection Show (mentioned above), this July in Omaha, Nebraska. Betty's colleagues: Leslie Levison, Judith Montano, Penny McMorris, Camille Cognac and Cindy Brick will also be on hand to share their expertise with crazy quilt enthusiasts. You can contact Betty at (402) 292-0672 or by email at flyingneedle@webtv.net

Crazy Quilt Resources on the Web:

Quiltropolis Chat List - There is a chat list on the internet for crazy quilt lovers: http://www.quiltropolis.com and follow the links to mail lists and sign up. This group is more than 700 members strong and topics of discussion have included basic piecing ,to dyeing silk ribbon, to how to drill holes in seashells so they can be affixed to an ocean themed crazy quilt.

Crazy Quilt Central web site - Your one-stop web site for all types of crazy quilting. Dawn Smith has set up an excellent site at http://www.geocities.com/Soho/Lofts/6531/ Here you will find links to antique quilts, contemporary works, frequently asked questions, book reviews and more.

Vintage Vogue web site - Another wonderful site that showcases contemporary crazy quilting. Go to http://www.vintagevogue.com and follow the links to crazy quilts. Janet, who maintains this site, also carries many supplies for crazy quilting.

Evening Star Designs mail order for quilting supplies - Located at http://home.att.net/~evening.Star.designs even has a crazy quilt club. Carolyn, the owner, will send a packet of coordinating fabric, threads, beads and some suggestions for embellishments for crazy quilting.

The Kirk Collection for Crazy Quilt Fabrics - For the most splendid antique and reproduction fabrics for crazy quilting. You can also find authentic cigarette silks here.

"Crazy Quilt Conference" - Nancy Kirk is hosting this conference on July 9 to 12 to be held in Omaha, Nebraska. You will find their home page at http://www.kirkcollection.com

The "Quilting Show to End All Quilting Shows" - Each and every year the American Quilt Society sponsors this incredible event which takes place every year around April. For more information, their web address is http://www.aqs.com


American Quilts by Elizabeth Wells Robertson Studio Publications, N.Y.C. 1948

Wrapped in Glory - Figurative Quilts and Bedcovers 1700 - 1900 by Sandi Fox Thames and Hudson, L.A. County Museum of Art 1990

Quilting Manual by Dolores Hinson Hearthside Press 1966

Patchwork and Applique by Sara Parr and Pamela Tubby Marshall Cavendish Unlmtd.1970

"Folk Art Magazine" "Show Quilts - The Collection of the Museum of American Folk Art " Spring 1995 by Elizabeth Warren

"Folk Art Magazine "Crazy Patchwork - Victorian Mania" Fall 1986 by Judith Weissman

Suggested Reading:

Crazy Quilts by Penny McMorris Dutton, NY 11984

Crazy Quilt Odyssey by Judith Montano C & T Publishing , Ca 1991

Silk Ribbon Embroidery C & T Publishing, Ca. 1993

The Language of Flowers by Margaret Pickston The Yeoman Group, NY

Editor's note:

Rita Vainius was honored to collaborate with Betty Pillsbury, an acknowledged foremost historian, teacher, writer, authority and creator of Crazy Quilts, on the above feature.

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: No part of this feature story nor the included designs/charts can be reproduced or distributed in any form (including electronic) or used as a teaching tool without the prior written permission of the CARON Collection Ltd. or the featured designers. One time reproduction privileges provided to our web site visitors for and limited to personal use only.

© 1997 The Caron Collection / Voice: (203) 381-9999, Fax: 203 381-9003

CARON email: mail@caron-net.com