At the height of the Victorian era, when leisure time was growing and passions were high for all things ornamental and oriental, crazy quilt design took the American domestic art world by storm. Virtual explosions in textile of color and texture, the crazy quilt style showcases an abundant variety of fabrics, lavish needlework, and inspiration from the east. While the rage during the Victorian era was short-lived, the style never completely dropped out of favor and has seen a resurgence of interest over the last few decades. Fiber artists and collectors continue to be drawn to the seemingly limitless possibilities it inspires and the almost sensuous opulence in color and design. Whether elaborate showpieces or simple bedcovers, crazy quilts and crazy quilt-inspired design are here to stay.
More accurately described as crazy patchwork or crazy-patched parlor throws, Victorian era crazy quilts were intended as a decorative display of fancywork rather than utilitarian bedding and were typically not quilted. Originally made to demonstrate needlework skills and serve as symbols of status, crazy quilts were mainly created by women who had the leisure time available to devote to the creation of complicated and purely ornamental pieces of textile art. The crazy quilt donated to The Morrison County Historical Society in 1975 by members of the A. A. Methner family of Little Falls, Minnesota, is an excellent example. Made in 1893, the quilt is constructed of a variety of irregularly shaped pieces of fabric that are combined to create a patchwork of sixty-four squares surrounded by a border of red velvet embroidered with gold thread. The rich fabrics that are used, which include silk, velvet, satin and taffeta in a riot of colors and textures, reflect the common desire during the Victorian era to use the most opulent fabrics available. Two of the squares incorporate Japanese-inspired fan motifs. The 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia had introduced crazed ceramics and antique Japanese porcelain to the American public, helping to spur the rage for crazy patchwork design.
The large number of embroidered motifs on the Methner quilt are mainly of flowers created using various combinations of chain, satin, running, cross, herringbone, feather, fishbone, fly, back and roumanian stitch. Embroidery covering the fabric seams is also done in a variety of colors and techniques. Other embroidered motifs include the name “Louis”, which is embroidered in yellow on red fabric, and the initials “R.P.”, which are embroidered in blue on blue. A red commemorative ribbon for the Annual Session of the Grand Lodge Grand Encampment and State Assembly in North Dakota is incorporated in the patchwork design near the middle. Mementoes such as commemorative or campaign ribbons and embroidered or printed poems, significant phrases, dates or initials are common features of crazy quilts. These often detail important events and people in the creator’s life and help to make each piece unique.
Victorian era crazy quilts were made during an age of rapid transformation. The nation had survived a brutal Civil War and successive financial panics, and was experiencing both the growing pains and benefits of the Industrial Revolution. Innovations in the textile industry made a variety of fabrics in a wide range of colors and textures affordable to the general public. Textile mills in the United States were at their peak production and consumers benefited from the greater variety of goods at lower costs. With the Industrial Revolution, new markets were eagerly sought as more products could be made than were required by consumers. According to the International Quilt Study Center & Museum at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, manufacturers gladly catered to crazy quilt makers, supplying heat transfer patterns, embroidery decals, lithographed patches, pre-printed cloth and three-dimensional embellishments such as tassels, spangles, beads and shells (“What Makes a Crazy Quilt?” University of Nebraska-Lincoln. n.d. Web. 21 Dec. 2013).
As the Victorian rage for making lavishly decorative crazy patchwork throws dissipated, crazy quilts became more utilitarian, often utilizing old clothes and remnants of fabric with a sense of thrift that today is praised for reuse and sustainability. Fabrics used in later crazy quilts include sturdy wool and cotton materials and, more recently, newer textiles such as polyester, rayon and latex. Beautiful works of art that also serve a useful purpose, the later quilts are typically filled with batting and are quilted unlike the earlier show pieces. Society is once again in an age of rapid transformation and swiftly changing technology is helping to connect the world in ways unimaginable to Victorian era society. As the world shifts and cultures adapt, the flexible creativeness and rich essence of crazy quilt or crazy patchwork design will continue to capture our imaginations in its rich and ever-changing patchwork of color and visual texture.
By Ann Marie Johnson
Copyright 2013, Morrison County Historical Society
This article first appeared in the Morrison County Historical Society newsletter, Volume 26, Number 4, 2013.