So, why does the Costume Museum have quilts if we focus on apparel? At one time, quilts were often the final resting place for the fabric that started out as a clothing; as the garment wore out, it would be reworked: the style could be changed, it could be scaled down for a child or younger sibling, it could be patched and worn as work clothes; the final stage would be worked into a quilt or rug, or just used as rags.
Crazy quilts are significant because of the fashion of constructing them out of scraps of silks and velvets, the finer fabrics that would never have been used for rags.
This wonderful piece in the Costume Museum collection was donated by the Pugh family and quilted by their grandmother, Margaret Pauling for her mother-in-law, Isabella Katherine Wilson. Mrs. Wilson was the wife of a doctor in the British Army and had spent time in India. We see one monogrammed square with the recipient’s initials, which was a common feature on these items.
Despite their popularity through the end of the 19th century, there are competing theories for the origin of the crazy quilt: the collected scraps closely resemble the motley costumes of Venetian jesters in the 1100s; Japanese nobility in the 1500s also wore motley scraps of finer fabrics; or, patches used to repair Colonial whole-cloth quilts built up to resemble the irregular collections on crazy quilts (Brick, 2008). These are all potential influences, however the crazy quilt seems to have been born more from the Industrial Revolution. By 1850, American companies were manufacturing mostly colorfast fabrics. Because there was no longer a need to ship fabric from Europe as frequently, prices began to moderate and, thanks to higher-paying factory jobs, women could actually afford to buy cloth instead of weaving it. The advent of the “layaway plan” meant that sewing machines because more affordable for the average family, this reduced the amount of time required for necessity sewing and left more time for genteel pursuits, like embroidery and lacemaking. (Pillsbury and Vainius, 1997)
The Civil War years changed the landscape once again. Fabrics became difficult to find, prices skyrocketed and women’s extra energy went toward their families, instead of fancywork. Exhibitions to collect quilts, shirts and funds for soldiers became a popular way to show off one’s skills however (Brick, 2000).
Post Civil War, Log Cabin-style silk quilts began appearing out of England and the use of “fancies”, ie silks, satins, and velvets spread to crazy quilts. One of the most popular exhibits of the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia was of Japanese art and textiles. Asymmetrical, irregular geometric patterns and crazed lines (the term came from ceramics) were associated with the Japanese style that took the public by storm.
The country was entering a time of prosperity, the Age of Abundance, which continued right up until the First World War. Textile mills were at peak production capacity which brought fabric prices back down. By the 1880s, even a rural housewife could afford silk for her best dress. Quilt makers of the time challenged themselves and one another to make quilts with thousands of pieces of fabric reflecting the massive abundance of fabric available to sewers.
Queen Victoria, England’s ruler during the latter half of the 19th century, was also an unwitting influence on the Crazy quilt style. Her Majesty loved embroidery and rich fabrics to begin with and favored a cluttered style of home decorating. The rich, dark mourning clothes that she wore for most of her reign as well as the sentimental themes and keepsakes she prized, soon became an essential part of the Victorian-era crazy quilt. During the height of this style, homes could not have enough embellishment. Women wholeheartedly threw themselves into decorating every inch of the floors, walls and furniture (Brick, 2000).
Eventually, as with all crazes, the enthusiasm waned as the fashions changed. The turn of the century brought cleaner, simpler clothing design and home decoration and the quilts became a symbol of Victorian ostentation and over-embellishment.
All right, so that’s the textbook history but why did they really catch on the way that they did? At one point, the variety of crazy work objects was as diverse as the fabrics, threads and embellishments that went into them: table and pillow covers, scarves, lambrequins (a short valence 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 the chair to protect the upholstery from hair oil) were all potential candidates for adornment. 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 with embellishments added as a memento to the deceased (Pillsbury and Vainius, 1997).
Good For Business
Crazy quilts were good for business. Textile companies packaged silk scraps for purchase by mail order, now turning a profit from something that was previously thrown away. Mass media in the form of women’s magazines and home journals became very popular, a single issue sometimes being shared with up to 10 people. Magazines contained patterns and templates, giving away thread and lace samples that women collected and traded. 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. It should be noted that women weren’t generally permitted to smoke, she was expected to influence her husband’s brand decision!
Appliqued patches were quite popular and could actually be a source of income for a woman, if necessary.
These quilts also served as a family record, with squares commemorating births, deaths and family events. Most of the fabric was from recycled garments and the quilt serves as a record of their affluence and leisure. This aspect of crazy quilts is the most important for museums and collectors, these are the individual details which tell us about the lives of these families.
In the Pugh quilt we can see the monogrammed initials of the woman receiving the gift. There is also a dated block which places the quilt in 1886.
If the family record is the most compelling part for museums, the crazy quilt as a form of creative expression is the most compelling for artists and quilters. These were showpieces, masterworks, and true labours of love. Making a crazy quilt was one way that women could temporarily escape from the unsettling, rapid change that accompanied industrialization, urbanization, and immigration at the end of the 19th century. “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 (Gordon, 2009).
Crazy quilts broke every rule of traditional quilt construction and design, they elicited experimentation with long-standing (unwritten) rules of color, design and symmetry. Fabrics could be mixed, colors might clash, and open spaces were filled in, sometimes to excess (Waldvogel, 2012). But while the design gave the impression of pretty chaos, it’s important to note that the irregular patches were sewn in place just as neatly as traditional patchwork. The flimsier fabrics were sewn to a stable muslin base into blocks which were assembled securely before the seams were embellished.
In the Pugh Crazy quilt, we see many of the common themes: spiders, flags, gardening tools, flowers and insects, wreaths and crosses, moons and stars, and both Japanese and European fans. It was not uncommon to include musical scores, birds, and painted portraits. Symbolism was important during Victorian times and crazy quilts are filled with the small details that filled a woman’s life.
As one 1884 book, Crazy Patchwork announced “No species of fancy-work yet invented, has given more scope for the exercise of artistic ability and real originality; hence, the secret of its wonderful popularity. It is probable that it will exercise its fascinations for years to come.”
(Originally given as a presentation to the Winnipeg Embroiderers’ Guild on March 6, 2014)
Brick, Cindy. Crazy Quilts: History-Techniques-Embroidery Motifs. Voyageur Press, 2008.
Brick, Cindy. An Informal History of Crazy Quilts (http://www.cindybrick.com/ClassyGirl/index.php?option=com_content&task=viiew&id=93&Itemid=73) 2000. Accessed: January 20, 2014.
Gordon, Beverly. Exhibit notes from “A Fairyland of Fabrics: The Victorian Crazy Quilt”, July 24-October 25, 2009. International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. (http://www.quiltstudy.org/exhibitions/online_exhibitions/fairyland/crazy_quilts.html) Accessed: January 20, 2014.
Pillsbury, Betty and Vainius, Rita. The History of Crazy Quilts (http://www.caron-net.com/featurefiles/featmay.html) 1997. Accessed: January 20, 2014.
Waldvogel, Merikay. What Makes a Crazy Quilt A Crazy Quilt (http://www.allianceforamericanquilts.org/news/articles/1-4-11/Crazy%20Quilts/) 2012. Accessed: January 20, 2014.