Monday, February 20, 2012

Still Crazy After All These Years

QUESTION: I recently purchased a crazy quilt at a country antique show. I love the intricate designs, but, otherwise, don’t know much about it. Can you tell me more and perhaps tell me how I can take care of it? It’s in pretty good condition, but I can see that it’s somewhat delicate.

ANSWER: Your crazy quilt is the result a fad that began here in the United States over 100 years ago, roughly from 1875 to 1900. As with many country quilts, it became a way for women to use up their extra scraps of cloth or fabric from worn-out clothes, but crazy quilts also were a form of self expression, much like samplers were a 100 years before that.

Victorian women created crazy quilts like giant jigsaw puzzles, made of irregular pieces of silk, satin, velvet, or plush fabric sewn onto a solid backing of a lighter material, then decorated with embroidery stitches. Many became sentimental diaries stitched with names and legends while others took on the look of nostalgic stitched scrapbooks filled with memorabilia commemorating events, story book characters, garden flowers, even family pets. Women often made them as gifts to a bride or to someone recovering from a severe illness. Others made them in memory of a loved one who had recently passed.

Scraps for these elaborate quilts often came from ball gowns, opera capes, or the parlor curtains. But women could also buy packages of scraps from the Montgomery Ward or Sears Roebuck catalogs. The Singer Sewing Machine Company used crazy quilts as a symbol on their trade cards. Women's magazines of the day offered directions for making crazy quilts as table covers along with patterns for decorating them. Silk manufacturers promoted the use of their scrap waste in making crazy quilts. Magazine publishers also offered booklets on making crazy quilts as premiums in exchange for  subscriptions to their periodicals.

The word crazy in this case actually means irregular, odd, bizarre, strange, or unusual, and perfectly describes these quilts. Some look like a haphazard collection of odd bits of cloth and memorabilia while others are more like abstract works of silk art in shimmering colors reflecting light.

Since crazy quilts are more often tufted rather than quilted, they should be called "throws." Victorian housewives often threw them over parlor tables and pianos, as well as sofas or beds. They were the perfect complement to the ornately carved overstuffed furniture and bric-a-brac of every sort adorning  table tops, etageres, and mantels in the Victorian parlor.

Some historians believe the Victorian crazy quilt may have originated as a result of the popularity of Japanese prints or screens after the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876. Others wonder if their fractured designs may have been taken from the pattern of an uneven pavement or cracked ice, a popular decorative border used from the late 1870s through the 1880s.

Likewise, women often copied the patterns painted and embroidered on crazy quilts from Japanese ones. Many crazy quilts display a cranes standing in pools of water, owls and peacocks perched on gnarled tree branches, kimono clad figures, butterflies and cherry blossoms, hanging lanterns and spider webs.

And since not every woman was artistically talented, makers of crazy quilts could purchase pre-stamped patches or would trace designs from magazines. The Ladies Home Journal offered as a premium to readers bringing in 16 new subscribers a “Crazy Patchwork Outfit,” consisting of 12 pre-stamped pieces of silk, one box of stamping powder, twelve skeins of embroidery silk, and a glittering array of two dozen spangles and two yards of tinsel cord.

Women's magazines also offered how-to instructions for the three basic embroidery stitches---the outline, Kensington, and plush. The outline stitch, also known as the stem stitch, formed a thread line as in a drawing. The Kensington stitch enabled crazy quilt makers to fill in their outlines using various colors. And the plush stitch produced areas of cut silk thread like a pile carpet.

Quilt makers used embroidery stitches not only along the edges of patches to decorate them and at the same time hold the edges under and in place but also to make designs. Those who lacked embroidery skills could purchase pre-embroidered appliques. Some crazy quilt makers further embellished their creations with painted designs on the fabric after they assembled their quilts. Sequins, beads, spangles, metallic braid, and ribbon were also popular forms of embellishment.

Crazy quilts are as durable as regular quilts. They won’t survive daily folding and shouldn’t be used as throws where they’ll be handled a lot. But they can be mounted on a frame or encased in plexiglass and hung on a wall. Both dry cleaning and wet cleaning damages them, so the only safe way of cleaning them is to use a low power vacuum held well away from the fabric which has been covered with some sort of mesh screening—an old window screen will do—to prevent the fabric from being sucked up and damaged.

Unlike regular quilts, women who made crazy quilts usually signed them. Many have been passed down through generations in a family.

Prices for crazy quilts range from $50 for an average small one to as much as $1000 for a large exceptionally stitched one. Because their prices are relatively low in comparison with fine 19th-century quilts, many most likely remain hidden away in attic trunks waiting to be discovered.

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