a 19th century fad inspired by Japanese art and British embroidery
Written by tokyoclub on April 28, 2021
Crazy quilting is a particular style of quilting made popular in the second half of the 19th century in the United States. The term “crazy” refers to the irregular shape of the pieces of textile used and the variety of colors used. There was no established pattern nor established combination of colors; the design was always left to the imagination of the quilter. Sometimes the pieces would be joined together like a puzzle, and sometimes pieces would be assembled into blocks that were joined later.
The usage of different materials is also characteristic of this quilting style. Crazy quilts use a large variety of exotic materials such as velvet, silk, satin, and decorations like buttons, ribbons, or lace. The fabrics used to make crazy quilts were either new or salvaged from old clothes or furnishings. Embroidery stitches joined the fabric pieces and hid the rough edges. Although it doesn’t follow patterns and is unconstrained and creative, crazy quilting requires a great amount of work. According to an article in Harper’s Bazaar from 1884, completing a full-size crazy quilt could take about 1,500 hours.
Crazy quilting was initially popular among women from the upper classes living in cities because they could afford to buy the many different kinds and colors of fabric needed for the quilt. This style of quilting found its way into rural areas a bit later. Crazy quilts here used less expensive fabrics and ornate embroidery and embellishments were abandoned. As time passed, ribbons collected from sports teams, fairs, or political events were also used as fabric pieces for the quilts.
The quilts became extremely popular in the late 1870s and 1880s. The main event that initiated this trend in the United States was the Centennial International Exhibition, which was held in Philadelphia in 1876 where examples of English embroidery and Japanese art were on display. The exhibition was held to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and featured examples of Japanese decorative arts, especially cracked-glaze pottery. About 10 million people visited the exhibition. Inspired by British needlework and Japanese design, Americans started making crazy quilts. American women were encouraged to make them by women’s magazines at the time, as they were regarded as a sign of sophistication and taste. It was also seen as a way for women to express themselves and create something original.
By the 1880s, fabrics like silk became cheaper and made more widely available. The American silk industry grew after the Civil War and the country didn’t have to depend on imported silk anymore. Textile companies saw the potential in popularizing crazy quilting because they could sell silk leftovers to quilters. This allowed them to make a profit from items that were previously unusable and thrown away. Other companies profited immensely from selling threads or patterns.
Because of the fancy and fragile materials used in making them, crazy quilts weren’t meant for everyday use. They had more of a decorative role, covering furniture in Victorian parlors. Another problem was that it was very difficult to clean them.
The quilts were typically lavishly embroidered, and a variety of threads was used so the quilt would appear more elegant and intricate. A mixture of embroidered motifs can be found on the crazy quilts including animals, plants, significant dates for the family and sometimes even small pictures would be painted on the piece of fabric.
At the end of the 19th century, a more practical interest in crazy quilts emerged. The decorative quilts were still widely made but new, more useful crazy quilts appeared. The new ones were made of wool, in the size of a bed and used as bed covers.
After 1900, women started using cotton for the quilts. Decorative stitching wasn’t always used; pieces would sometimes just be joined together without decoration. By the early 1920s, interest in more traditional quilting was revived and the popularity of crazy quilts began to wane.
The late 1980s saw a rediscovered enthusiasm of the crazy quilting style. New books on the subject emerged and people were eager to buy them, wanting to learn the silk embroidery techniques. These days, crazy quilt enthusiasts can choose from a huge variety of fabrics and embellishments. There are patterns and books available for beginners and also for different techniques depending on if the quilter is using a machine or if the quilt is handmade.