- August 11, 2016
The Crazy Quilt Comes to Life
In a blaze of kaleidoscopic color, the late 1870s saw a fad rush in that took the United States by storm. In a few short years, the crazy quilt was born, reached its zenith, and began a slow descent towards obscurity. But within those years, the crazy quilt was king. Magazines raved and shared tips and patterns for quilting. Companies sold templates for embroidery, appliqués aimed directly at crazy quilters, and even grab bags of crazy quilt fabric.
Most crazy quilts share several characteristics. First, they are not really quilts at all. There is no “quilting,” that is to say, no stitching of a top fabric to a bottom fabric through a layer of batting. Crazy quilts typically had no batting, often were never finished, and where finished had a silk or cotton backing that only loosely connected to the top. Crazy quilts also typically featured silks and velvets, unlike most patchwork quilts, and elaborate embroidery stitching covered seams within blocks as well as between them. Many quilts incorporated lace, appliqués, ribbons, hand-painted fabrics, and even beads and mirrors. They provided women the opportunity to share their needlework skills in a context far more elaborate (dare we say flashy?) than a patchwork quilt or even a sampler.
The Centennial Exposition: Cultural Influences
Though precedents do predate the 1870s, the cultural phenomenon of the crazy quilt emerged directly from the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876. This World Fair had a great influence on American culture, with millions visiting the fair and even more exposed to the exhibits through magazine articles. Among other new trends, the Fair coincided with the first mass-marketing of Japanese culture outside of Japan. This can be seen in the emphasis on printed fabrics, vibrant and exuberant color, and the many fan motifs incorporated into the quilts.
This exhibit brings together six crazy quilts from the Neill-Cochran House Museum’s permanent collection. All of the quilts share characteristics, most notably an emphasis on velvet and silk fabrics and embroidered seams. However, there are notable differences between the different quilts as well. Some are backed, while others appear unfinished. One quilt incorporates small mirrors, another pipe cleaners, and several are hand-painted. All of the quilts reward close inspection and speak across the 100+ years since their creation to share the stories of their makers.
The preservation of some elements of our quilt collection is funded in part by a grant from the Quilter’s Guild of Dallas, Helena Hibbs Endowment Fund.