Crazy Quilts – Scrapbooks in Silk and Satin

Our current exhibit features a gallery of Crazy Quilts, the asymmetrical art quilts dating from the 1880s into the first half of the twentieth century. These masterpieces from our collection will be on display through July 29th.

Pieced, appliqued and elaborately embroidered, Crazy Quilts were made of irregular bits of luxurious fabrics such as silks, satins, brocades and velvets. Every joining of fabric was covered with various styles of silk embroidery stitches. The quilts had an amazing richness of color and detail and still elicit a sense of wonder in the viewer.

Appearing haphazardly joined, these quilts were carefully planned. Once the finished size of the quilt was determined, hours were spent arranging and piecing the blocks used to assemble the quilt. Backing material was cut into blocks and the small pieces of precious fabrics were basted to the backing, lapping the edges and turning the upper one under. Then every seam was covered by fine and varied embroidery stitches such as feather- stitch, cross-stitch or any fancy stitch of the quilter’s invention. The patches themselves were filled with all sorts of embroidered motifs and the finished work was backed with a piece of plain or machine-quilted fabric. The top was then attached with thread ties rather than by quilting. The completion of a crazy quilt required a heavy commitment of time and labor. It has been estimated that it would take 1,500 hours of labor or one hour a day for four years to complete the task.

A lady made pieced quilts until she was sure of her craft. When she had developed enough skill she would begin a "masterpiece" quilt. A fine quilt handmade by the owner was a huge status symbol. Quilts of this caliber were often exhibited at country fairs and were entered into competition. A piece in the New York Times, written in the winter of 1885, described a Crazy Quilt and Needlework Art Exhibit to be held in the Masonic Hall offering prizes of gold and silver medals as well as cash prizes amounting to $3,000. It is interesting to note that not only women, but also men exhibited their handiwork. Crazy quilts also served to raise funds for worthy causes.

The women creating crazy quilts were collectors and their quilts served as a kind of fabric scrapbook in which embroidery, painting and drawing were used to display the maker's political and social affiliations, hobbies and fashionable good taste. Popular motifs included political and commemorative ribbons, autographs, poems or sayings, painted or embroidered flowers and animals, Kate Greenaway figures, likenesses of dear and admired persons, Masonic symbols, and good luck symbols such as horseshoes and shamrocks. The craze at the time for all things Japanese was also evident in the use of the images of fans, branches bearing blossoms, the chrysanthemum and exotic insects and birds. An embroidered spider and web were frequently included in crazy quilts and were said to bring the creator good luck.

As you admire the skillful needlework, painting, arrangement of color and texture, and the artistic sensibilities displayed in every quilt, look closely for the many clues revealing stories and portraits contained in these "fabric scrapbooks."

By DHS Board Member Alison Hughes