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~An informal history of Crazy Quilting~
(Part 1)Everyone knows that:
- Crazy Quilts are America's earliest quilt style.
- Crazies are only made from fancy fabrics, like silks and satins.
If you agreed with either of these statements, you're not alone. Many people have all sorts of misconceptions about the Crazy Quilt style, its age, and its origins. Let's explore this colorful but often-misunderstood style a little more.
How old are Crazy Quilts? We don't really know. Camille Cognac, a national expert on Crazy Quilts, including their restoration, has pointed out that the European harlequin - that multi-patched jester with bells on his pointed hat - wears a costume very similar to a Crazy Quilt. According to Cognac, textiles with a crazy-patched look have also been documented in Egyptian tombs.
Quilting-book authors earlier in this century, including Marie Webster and Averil Colby, asserted that Crazy Quilts were the American Colonies' first quilts, by necessity. Fabric was scarce and expensive; why not just patch threadbare quilts with irregular scraps, and keep out the cold one more winter?
Unfortunately, there are no existing Crazies from the colonial period to back these authors up. Until recently, the oldest documented Crazy Quilt was thought to be an 1865 version in the collection of the Shelburne Museum. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a Contained Crazy, made up of crazy-patched squares sashed in a striped fabric, with the following inscription in the middle of the top: "Made by Mrs. Nancy Doughty in the 82nd year of her age for her friend Miss Lizzie Cole, A.D. 1872." (The blocks, incidentally, are stitched to the sashing by sewing machine.) It wasn't until recently that a stunning Crazy surfaced from the Fitzhugh family estate, and was purchased by the Maryland Historical Society. It is dated 1839 - nearly three decades before its nearest cousin! (See this amazing quilt in the May 1998 issue of Quilter's Newsletter Magazine; its history was discussed in more detail in the Spring 1998 issue of the Crazy Quilt Society newsletter.)
How did the Crazy Quilt style begin? A pre-World War I catalog from Joseph Doyle & Co., in Newark, New Jersey, makes it easy for us: "It may interest many to know that the first 'crazy quilt' was made at Tewkesbury (Mass.) almshouse by a demented but gentle inmate, who delighted to sew together, in haphazard fashion, all the odd pieces given her. One day a lady visitor was shown the quilt as a sample of "poor Martha's crazy work." The conglomeration of color, light and dark, of every conceivable shape and size, caught the visitor's fancy, and within a week she, herself, was making a crazy quilt. And thence the furor spread...
Although thoughts of "poor Martha" are appealing, the Crazy Quilt really seems to have sprung from a combination of factors begun by the Industrial Revolution. By 1850, American companies were manufacturing good-quality fabrics that were colorfast more often than not. (Consistently colorfast fabrics were not available until later in the 19th century, when washday blues and Turkey reds appeared.) Fabric prices moderated. Thanks to higher-paying factory jobs, women could actually afford to buy cloth, instead of going to the trouble of weaving it. Also, sewing machines, which had been used by commercial sewers for years, became increasingly affordable for the average family, thanks to the advent of the "layaway plan." Family sewing was accomplished more quickly, giving the average woman time for more genteel pursuits, like embroidery and lace making.
The Civil War changed all that. Fabrics, if they were available at all, skyrocketed in price - especially for the South, which had few factories of any kind. Women's extra energy went toward their families, instead of fancywork. Exhibitions, called sanitary fairs, became a popular way of showing off one's skills, as well as collecting quilts, shirts and funds for soldiers. It is from this period, at a Sanitary Fair in Cleveland, Ohio, that the first published mention of Crazy Quilts appears. In February 1864, Mary Brayton wrote: "Above the grim surroundings of this busy corner hangs the 'crazy bed quilt', a grotesque piece of newspaper patchwork, which is sold by lot every day, with the express condition that the unlucky possessor is not obliged to keep it, but will be allowed to present it to the fair. A considerable sum of money and a great deal of fun are realized by this transaction which takes place every noon just as the clock strikes twelve."
Perhaps Mrs. Brayton's complaints were just sour grapes that she never won the bid! Only a year later, Peterson's Magazine was recommending "mosaic applique" and "oriental embroidery" for a look quite similar to todays "controlled" Crazy Quilts. By 1874, the "grotesque" Crazy had been renamed "ornamental fancy work" in the pages of Peterson's. The war was over; prosperity had begun. And everyone was thinking about stitching a Crazy Quilt.
(continued next week)