In 1876 the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition showed Japanese ‘crazed’ pottery (cracked glaze) and asymmetrical design to the United States. In addition, it demonstrated fine English Embroidery. Soon the Godey’s Lady’s Book and other periodicals were encouraging their readers to make crazy quilts. Most crazy quilts consist of irregular patches sewn onto a foundation (there is usually no batting, so, technically speaking, they are not a ‘quilt’). The crazy quilts from the Victorian era (late 1800s) were made from silk, velvet, satin and ribbons. They were embellished with paint, embroidery, beads and buttons. Many included ‘cigar silks’ ribbons included as a premium with cigars and souvenir ribbons (perhaps from the fair, or cities).
The above example has ribbons, embroidery motifs and a lacy edge. Most crazy quilts were never intended to be used on a bed, rather they were used as a decorative element in the living room. The presence of a crazy quilt showed off the household’s wealth–the maker did not have to do housework so she had time to do ‘fancy’ work and she had scraps of expensive materials, e.g. silks, velvet’s, and ribbons.
Most crazy quilt embroidery is on the seams utilizing combinations of stitches, such as herringbone and fly stitch. Motifs embroidered in the patches include flowers, birds, spider webs, and animals. Many crazy quilts have fan blocks or spider web blocks.
By the end of the 19th century, lady’s magazines were actively discouraging crazy quilts, decrying the waste of time involved in making them.
However, quilters continued making crazy quilts (albeit in smaller numbers). Many crazy quilts made around the turn of the century were made from wool and cotton.
Stitching became more utilitarian and the use of souvenir ribbons decreased. Generally speaking the individual pieces were larger (although there are exceptions, such as the quilt above, ca. 1910).
Crazy quilts from the 1930’s and 1940’s show off the pastel color palette of the new aniline dyes although the embroidery continued to simplify.
They were either constructed in blocks as above or sewn utilizing a sheet as the foundation. It is not unusual to see a crazy quilt with fabrics from a large range of time periods because most of them were made with scraps.
I have even seen crazy quilts made with polyester double knit fabrics from the 1960’s and 1970’s, such as this example:
Preserving crazy quilts from the 19th century can be difficult because many of the silks ‘shatter’ (disintegrate) over time due to the mordants (dye fixatives) used. Unfortunately, there is nothing that can be done to stop the process. Treat your crazy quilts gently, and shelter them from dust and light.