Quilting History: American ‘Crazy Quilts’

294878386_2d7384c6b9Crazy Quilt 1883-1893 [source]

Crazy Quilting is an American style of quilting made popular in the late 19th century. The term actually refers to the type of patchwork, which lacks a repeating motif. A crazy quilt rarely has the internal layer of batting that is part of what defines quilting as a textile technique.

Crazy_QuiltingModern Crazy Quilt, gold hand embroidery [source]

Crazy Quilting takes name from pottery, where “crazed” glaze is scattered randomly over the surface of a pot. Betty Pillsbury cites the first use of the word crazy “as used to describe a random, asymmetrical pattern in needlework” appearing “in the “Cultivator and Country Gentleman” in 1878. It referred to an embroidered canvas cushion, to be passed among friends. Each would invent and embroider her own design, and when finished it was returned to its owner. As the article suggested, ‘You will think it a ‘crazy’ cushion indeed!'” [Source] Similarly, irregular pieces would be used in Crazy Quilts, often incorporating luxury fabrics like silk, brocade and velvet, and using embellishments like lace, buttons and ribbons. The style was freeform, and designs, names, current events and dates were often included. Crazy Quilts could take years to make, and were generally used as decoration rather than for warmth.

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Crazy Quilt with Fans -detail- Quiltmaker: Parrott, Louiza Jane Griffith [1891] Tennessee State Library and Archives: Quilts of TennesseeThe Crazed Quilting phenomenon seems to have enjoyed a boom in the United States after the first

American World’s Fair was held in Philadelphia from May 10 to November 10, 1876. Roughly 20% of the American population at the time would attend this fair, making it a hugely influential cultural event. Many sources casually report that the “asymmentrical art” of the Japanese Exhibit would be a prime inspiration for the Crazy Quilting boom. As Pillsbury points out, the reality was probably more nuanced:

During this Exposition, Japanese art was highlighted. Some of the oriental ceramics of the time had a finish called crazing. This technique produced an overall random, broken appearance to the object’s glaze. The influence of Japan on crazy work was both direct and indirect. The Japanese aesthetic is very different from the Western one: asymmetry is preferred to symmetry, and a central perspective from a fixed viewpoint (a basic concept in Western art) is absent. Broken planes and the separation of planes by a strong diagonal, as well as objects occurring across a field of vision are all uniquely Oriental. Additionally, the Japanese had developed “a compositional style in which the most disparate pictorial forms-circle, oval, fan shape, double circle, gourd-shape, and the more usual rectangle and square – are used in conjunction, one format within another.”

Such a style might very aptly describe the American crazy quilt. A totally new aesthetic, one that influenced Western style in decoration and clothing, had an indirect influence on both needlework and other forms of decorative art. The frontispiece to Clarence Cook’s influential decorating manual, “House Beautiful”‘ first published in 1878, displays Japanese fans prominently in a room setting that is itself a kind of crazy quilt of various styles of decoration and design. More directly, traditional Japanese motifs like storks, owls, and other birds, as well as dragonflies, insects, spider webs, butterflies, flowers and fans (both folding and panel shaped) began appearing everywhere. [Source]

Crazy quilting began in the homes of wealthy women and gradually became widespread as magazines and women’s publications increased its popularity. Marketers from all areas of consumer goods were jumping on the bandwagon. Cigarette packs reportedly contained small scraps of silk to be used in crazy quilts!

By the 1920s, the craziness had tapered off. What is incredibly interesting to us here at 24 Blocks is the fact that this quilting trend, popular amongst ladies of leisure who didn’t even have the vote yet, was actually incredibly avant garde. So-called high art would follow in the footsteps of crazy quilts beginning in the 1910s and peaking in the 1920s. The 1919 work by Fernand L√ąger pictured below could have easily been stitched by a housewife in Kansas in 1889, and has all of those same characteristics of flattened geometry, lack of perspective and planes intersected by strong diagonal lines. Abstract art, like crazy quilts, overtly traces its roots to Eastern art as well.

Could it be that the occasional abstract artist was inspired by the Crazy Quilt that he saw casually draped over the chaise longue of a female friend?

We like to think so.

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More Crazy Quilting Resources:

The History of Crazy Quilts, Betty Pillsbury in collaboration with Rita Vainius

Crazy Quilting – The Complete Guide, J. Marsha Michler.

Allie Aller’s Crazy Quilting: Modern Piecing & Embellishing Techniques for Joyful Stitching, Ally Aller.

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