May 26, 2006 - July 22, 2007

Stager Gallery | Jean L. Druesedow, Director

Directions for making crazy quilts first appeared in ladies' magazines in 1882. They were the first style of quilt for which commercial patterns were widely available. Kits cold be purchased containing a variety of silk fabrics and embroidery threads, as well as embroidery transfer patterns responsible for many of the charming designs found in the quilts. The public fascination with the Japanese pavilion at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 also encouraged the production of designs based on oriental motifs, especially fans. The asymmetry of Japanese art also may have influenced the use of irregular pieces of fabric in these quilts. Many of the quilts contain mementos meaningful to the maker such as wedding dates, ribbons or scraps from a favorite dress, political campaign ribbons, and flowers with symbolic meaning such as forget-me-nots.

More silk fabrics were used in both fashionable dress and quilts in the last quarter of the 19th century because of the increased availability of silk produced in the United States after the Civil War. More raw silk was imported from the Orient, shipped overland on the new transcontinental railroad, and tariffs on finished imported silk goods protected the American silk industry. Cotton was expensive after the Civil War. This economic shift is discussed by Ellice Ronsheim in "From Bolt to Bed: Quilts in Context," in Quilts in Community, Ohio's Traditions, the book resulting from the Ohio Quilt Research Project published by Rutledge Hill Press in 1991. Thus silk dresses, previously a luxury reserved for special occasions, became accessible to a much wider group of women for day wear, and there were more silk scraps to be used in quilts. After the industrial revolution, production of silk in the 19th century involved the use of metallic salts to give cheaper fabrics a better draping quality. Many of these salts contributed over the years to the irreversible deterioration of the fabrics. This can be seen in the now shredded and fractured silks of crazy quilts.

The technique for making a crazy quilt involved laying out a piece of foundation fabric the size of the finished quilt and arranging the various pieces on it in pleasing patterns and juxtapositions. Prior to assembly images might be embroidered or painted on the silk fabrics. Appliqué and ribbon work were frequently used. The edges were cut and shaped so that the pieces could be seamed together. Then the seams were covered with a variety of embroidery stitches made through the foundation fabric to give the quilt stability. After the pieces were stitched to the foundation, batting and backing were added.

Crazy quilts were fragile because of their fabrics and ornamentation, so they were usually placed for show in the parlor where visitors could admire them. They were an expression of Victorian taste which was informed by ladies' magazines and books on interior decoration. It was a taste that utilized the vivid colors of new synthetic dyes, a full complement of industrially produced furniture upholstered with patterned fabrics placed against patterned carpets and wallpapers. Visually, too much was not enough. Although some women continued to make crazy quilts into the 20th century, the fad for them began to wane as early as the December 1887 issue of Godey's Lady's Book where the editors declared, "We regretted much the time and energy spent on the most childish, and unsatisfactory of all work done with the needle, 'crazy' patch-work . . . ." We are fortunate that not all quilters felt the same, for today the crazy quilt allows us a glimpse of the sentiment and taste of late Victorian needlework.