In their late 1800s heyday, crazy quilts celebrated an age of progress. Today, such fancywork is coming back to life, thanks to a focus on personalization and embellishments.

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The word “crazy” conjures many meanings—erratic, jumbled, insane, bizarre—which at first makes sense when looking at the random patches of a late 1800s crazy quilt. Irregular shapes, haphazard fabrics, and meticulous embroidery compose these beautifully busy works.

In truth, crazy quilts are far from erratic. These one-of-a-kind treasures are intentional statements reflecting a turning point in American history. Historians are not sure of crazy quilts’ precise beginnings, but they do agree that their popularity soared in the last quarter of the 1800s, becoming icons of the Victorian era.

A Time for Fancywork

As men headed out to politics and business, women’s job was in the home, maintaining it as a place of peace and shelter. An elegant tasteful dwelling, they believed, was both visually and spiritually good for those who lived there. A growing number of magazines and books influenced elaborate home decorating trends, engaging women in what became known as “fancywork.” Women garnished almost every home accessory with beads, feathers, flowers, and lace that reflected their sense of beauty and artistry—and which naturally included their quilts.    

At the same time, industrialization spurred an onslaught of inventions—the steam engine, telephone, typewriter, and electricity—contributing to a growing textile industry. The mass production of sewing machines and manufacture of silk in America widened interest beyond cotton and wool. Women also were influenced by England’s Queen Victoria, who in mourning the death of her husband Prince Albert, perpetuated fashion trends in rich, dark colors and elaborate ornamentation.

Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exposition is also considered a dynamic influence in crazy-quilt design. At the entrance to the most popular Japanese Pavilion, the image of a priest on a paved road introduced the concept of asymmetry to more than ten million people who attended. A cracked-ice, mosaic pattern on the path as well as other unfamiliar art forms—with images of storks, owls, fans, and flowers—were exotic attractions for Americans. They had become enchanted with anything Oriental and were replicating the look in their art, including quilts, dinnerware, furniture, and other decorations.

Fad in Full Force

As random patchwork spread to both city and country folk, it became the first commercial needlework craze in America. By 1884, silk manufacturers sold kits of scrap silk. Cigar manufacturers wrapped silk ribbon around bundles of cigars, and cigarette paper manufacturers tucked silk premiums into their cigarette paper packages for men to give their wives. Women’s literature supported the rage by publishing crazy patchwork patterns that could be ironed on, traced, or transferred to fabric. Some magazines offered pattern incentives in exchange for enlisting new subscribers. Fabric manufacturers also joined the rush by printing whole cloth cotton imitating crazy patchwork. Crazy-quilt shows naturally followed, often attracting hundreds of entries that were judged for the oddest designs and materials, variety of stitches, and greatest number of pieces.

In the flurry, another sentiment emerged that would underscore crazy-quilts’ imminent decline. A reflection of women’s growing independence, some believed fancywork was unhealthy and unnecessary, suggesting time with books was more productive. Soon, lavish crazy quilts used for decoration gave way to 20th-century utilitarian quilts. Women continued to incorporate random patchwork into more traditional projects, but without defining ornamentation.

Today, thrilling new looks and textures in fabrics, threads, and embellishments are urging women to rediscover crazy quilting. Better dyes, longer-lasting fabrics, and an abundance of appealing decorative choices are continuously breathing life into crazy quilting. Though today’s crazy quilts may not reflect the same dramatic historical change, they are elevating the needlework as art to be valued.   

From Trendy to Timeless

Antique quilt historian Betsey Telford says, “Crazy quilts are not random. They are planned art.” Owner of Rocky Mountain Quilts in Maine, Betsey sells and restores quilts for private clients and museums. Using only original fabrics, she matches literally thousands of materials from her personal collection dating back to 1780. In 20 years of buying, selling, and restoring antique textiles, she’s seen hundreds of Victorian crazy quilts. Because each crazy quilt is unique in pattern and ornamentation, appraising the treasures is highly time-consuming.

“The mark of crazy-quilt excellence is the stitching,” Betsey explains. “When women of today would have been finished, Victorian-era women embellished the embellished.” They stitched most pieces using pure silk or cotton twist—some with a single strand of embroidery thread—and even wool in folk art examples.

“This was a woman’s art statement,” Betsey says. She values crazy quilts on a variety of criteria, examining style, color, fabric, threads, and pattern. “They’re art for walls to be enjoyed,” she says.

Caring for an Antique Crazy Quilt

  • Hang properly. Appliqué top and bottom casing pockets to the back of the piece. Insert a flat wooden dowel for hanging.
  • Allow air to circulate freely. Avoid storing or displaying a crazy quilt behind glass to prevent accumulation of humidity. Also avoid direct sunlight as fabric is subject to fading.
  • Never wash a crazy quilt. With outdated dyes and manufacturing methods, antique fabrics are especially vulnerable to bleeding and wear and tear. Treat your crazy quilt as a delicate piece of art.