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Collectors Go Nuts for Crazy Quilts

In Victorian times, scraps of colorful fabric and creative cutting and stitching were combined to make one-of-a-kind works of art.

From the late 1800’s through about 1910, the creation of crazy quilts was all the rage.  Many of these textiles represented an early form of recycling. Fine scraps of fabric, left over from Victorian-era garments, were repurposed into beautiful quilts to warm the heart, but not necessarily the body.

The making of a crazy quilt offered women an opportunity to show off their creativity and needlework skills, using sumptuous fabrics such as velvet, silk and brocade, and marrying them with fancy stitches.  Despite the name, crazy quilts were not haphazardly cobbled together.  They were carefully planned showpieces. 

The asymmetrical art shown in the Japanese exhibit at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition (the first official world’s fair in the United States) inspired the crazy quilt, according to Wikipedia. Crazy quilting went on to become quite the fad, and was fueled by articles in women’s magazines of the time.

I’d always wanted to add a vintage crazy quilt to my collection, but prices in antiques stores and on line were out of my reach.  Then I went to a textile show, and there sitting in a pile of linens was the object of my desire - a gorgeous hand-sewn, antique crazy quilt.  I asked the vendor its cost, and he responded, “forty dollars.”  Thinking I did not hear him correctly, I asked again, and he verified the price, adding that the quilt had a few frays in some of the squares.  To me, the imperfections add to the character of this well-designed work of art.  I immediately paid the man and walked away in disbelief and happiness with my prize.

A friend carefully sewed hanging pockets on the back, and now the quilt graces a large wall in my home. There are 36 squares with pieces of damask, satin, and lace in every color you can imagine, cut into various shapes and sewn with hundreds of intricate stitches in colorful silk thread over a blue ticking backing. (Crazy quilts rarely had the internal layer of batting that traditional quilts had.)  Over time, I’ve examined each square and found that many have a special design that you can find only after looking very closely.

There is the square with a dainty piece of black lace cut to form a woodpecker sitting on a branch, sewn on to a piece of tan satin.  One square reveals a picket fence with hand embroidered flowers peeking out from behind the fence posts. Another square uses delicate beads and thread to form leaves, and my favorite, the square that features a perfectly shaped, embroidered lilac heart. 

I continue to find the secrets that this quilt divulges, gifts of a sort from a talented Victorian seamstress, and I am reminded of the day I was fortunate enough to find this treasure.  I know that some day soon I will have to  carefully pack it away to preserve the delicate silk and other fabrics, and only take it out on occasion to admire. 

diane smith March 01, 2011 at 05:25 PM
I love quilts but never appreciated crazy quilts. The intricacies (like the woodpecker) would be easy to miss if the author had not pointed them out. Delicious!
Julie March 02, 2011 at 04:51 PM
... and the thistle - stunning! Nice article, Lisa!

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