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The following is an excerpt from the book Crazy Quilts: History • Techniques • Embroidery Motifs

By: Cindy Brick; foreword by: Nancy Kirk, Crazy Quilt Society founder.

Published by Voyageur Press, an imprint of MBI Publishing Company; February 2008; $29.95 US; $32.95 CAN; £18.99; 978-0-7603-3237-5

Copyright © 2008 by Cindy Brick

Book available at bookstores and online booksellers everywhere or from www.voyageurpress.com




In the 1880s, a new form of needlework flashed across American books, magazines, and advertising. Within a few short years, this concoction filled parlors and bed-sitting rooms across the country, from the lambrequins that framed the windows to the picture frames and mantelpiece covers-yes, beds and couches, too.

That style was the Crazy quilt. Embroidered on every seam (and more), filled with vivid, random shapes and intriguing images, the Crazy became the epitome of elegance. Webster's New World Dictionary defines a "crazy quilt" as "a quilt made of pieces of cloth of various colors and irregular shapes and sizes." Other forms of patchwork rely on tidy patches marching across the quilt, evenly spaced and neatly matched. But the Crazy revels in irregular bits and pieces strewn in seemingly disorganized fashion. The fabrics can be silks, wools, cottons, artificial fibers, or even a mix. These fabrics are pieced, appliquéd, and otherwise fitted on a fabric background for the most popular method. But Crazies can also be pieced in other ways, including no fabric foundation at all!

The oldest Crazies were generally pieced and embellished by hand, though machines contributed their share of beautiful work, both for home techniques and commercial embellishments. Today's Crazies may be completely stitched by hand, completely by machine, or both. But whatever its makeup, construction, or style, the Crazy is a perfect starting point for exploration and creation. One 1884 book, Crazy Patchwork, announced, "No species of fancy-work yet invented, has ever given more scope for the exercise of artistic ability and real originality; hence, the secret of its wonderful popularity. It is probable that it will exercise its fascinations for years to come."

All gushing aside, that prediction has come true. Of all the varied styles that patchwork boasts over the centuries, the Crazy quilt is one of the most unusual. Its very name, Crazy, could mean insane-or clever. Some critics say that Crazies are not a true patchwork style. Rose Wilder Lane, in her 1963 classic Woman's Day Book of American Needlework, snorted, "I wouldn't throw one away, but I would not call it patchwork. True patchwork is designed; it has meaning in every line."

Crazy patches are stitched in place just as neatly as their more controlled siblings, but their seam lines are often knowingly splashed with lavish threads and glistening beads. Ribbons, cigarette and tobacco silks ( silk-screened images of every sort of theme and motif imaginable, tucked in packages of cigarettes and cigars), photo transfers, even images of pretty girls, printed on hat linings that were frugally cut out and recycled, are nudged into place on the surface. Painted and embroidered flowers, pictures of children, odd little figures, letters, dates, and even musical scores fill each open spot. Traditional quilts sometimes follow the pristine "less is more" philosophy. But for Crazies, more is never enough.

Today, many Crazy quilts, like their Victorian era ancestors, are stitched from mostly fancy fabrics: velvets, satins, brocades, and such. Silk is most popular on the fiber list; wool and synthetics are next, but cottons, especially textures and batiks, are in favor, as well. Sometimes the patchwork squares, strips, triangles, or rectangles may be sashed, or put together in long vertical or horizontal strips. More often they're simply joined to make a larger top that acts visually as one piece. Borders and binding-sometimes embroidered and trimmed, sometimes not-often complete the quilt. In Victorian times, it was popular to edge the finished quilt with a heavy cording, also known as gimp, or with wide borders of handmade lace.


The earliest so-called Crazy quilt may not have been meant for a bed at all, but made as a garment. Venice's carnival, said to have originated in 1162, and its commedia dell'arte includes Harlequin, a magical character dressed in a "particolored," or colorful, patched costume; the patches could be remnants of other, richer costumes. Sometimes the colors on Harlequin's clothes are evenly divided-an arm of one color, a leg of another- but on other occasions he appears in a suit of basted-together patches that look much like Crazy patchwork. Quilt historian Camille Cognac cites the Harlequin's costume as one of the earliest appearances of the Crazy patchwork style. (Today, we usually see him in a tight-fitting leotard of large-scale triangles, sometimes with jingling cap.)


Harlequin has plenty of company in the traditional fool or jester of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, whose costume was much the same. These individuals (who sometimes had mental and/or physical handicaps) wore costumes featuring bits and pieces of various fabrics, often accented by bells and "asses' ears." Fools were fixtures of royal and aristocratic households, amusing and shocking the audiences by their droll words and odd ways. Perhaps the fool's Crazy-style outfit was a reflection of his supposedly "crazy" manner. In the sixteenth century, another, much more sophisticated group would don Crazy- patched clothing on occasion: Japanese nobility. Their choice of clothing- kimonos of silk and wool that were often hand painted and embroidered- communicated not only their political and family ties, but also their taste in flora and fauna. At least one sixteenth-century kimono-style outer garment, still existing today, includes uneven, Crazy-style patchwork joined together in long strips. Pieced from gold and silver silk brocades and damask, it was used by Uesugi Kenshin about 1560.


Some suggest that what we know today as the Crazy-patched style was really a method of necessity. For thousands of years, only those well-off could afford to buy fabric ready-made; others wove their own fabric or went without. It would make no sense for someone to go to the trouble of weaving yardage, then cut it up for no other reason than decoration. It would make sense, though, to patch-and continue patching-an item of clothing to keep it in gainful use. Eventually, multi-patched clothing and bed coverings would come to resemble Crazy patchwork. These pieces would probably be mostly wool. Although linen was probably used as well, it would have most likely been reserved for larger patches. (Stitchers who work with linen know that it tends to fray, especially when used in smaller patches.) Early quilts tended to be one large piece, or whole cloth calimancos (from the Persian word for "calico"). They were generally made with imported wool on top, home- woven wool or linen as the backing, and wool batting in between. They were heavily quilted in a variety of designs to help hold the batting in place. Any holes or rips in that expansive surface would need a patch, then another, and so on.

In Romance of the Patchwork Quilt, a comprehensive book of more than one thousand patterns, Carrie A. Hall awards pride of place to a square with uneven patches sewn sparingly across it. Her description of it says, "This is a sample of original American patchwork as conceived by our early Colonial mothers. With the frugality necessary in the early days of our country, they cut from worn and discarded woolen clothing the patches of material yet intact and considered useful, and sewed them together `crazy fashion' and with a back and padding or interlining . . . this is an all-over pattern." Averil Colby, another well-respected quilt historian, does not mention Crazy patchwork specifically in her book Patchwork Quilts, but she wryly mentions that "[a] characteristic of English traditional patchwork during its best period from about 1780 until 1830-discounting the excellence of pattern and colour-was the economy in materials, time and work given to it."


According to quilt historians of the early twentieth century, Crazy quilts made a very early appearance in the American colonies, possibly sometime in the seventeenth century. Penny McMorris, author of Crazy Quilts, the first modern reference book devoted entirely to the Crazy style, says, "The crazy quilt has become known as the oldest American quilt pattern." She credits Ruth Finley, one of quilting's earliest historians, with the theory that Crazies originated in colonial America. Finley's 1929 book, Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them, says, "In Colonial days, when every finger's wrapping of cloth was brought from Europe in sailing vessels at almost prohibitive cost, each scrap left from the cutting of clothing was worth as much as its equivalent in the garment itself. Thus the `Crazy Patch,' fitted irregularly together so that not a thread of the valuable material was wasted, came into being."

Copyright © 2008 by Cindy Brick

Reprinted from Crazy Quilts: History - Techniques - Embroidery Motifs. Copyright by MBI Publishing Company

( www.mbipublishing.com ). Used by permission. All rights reserved.


Cindy Brick is an editor, designer, and writer who travels the world teaching about quilting and quilt history. A former editor for Quilter's Newsletter, she is also an American Quilter's Society certified textiles appraiser and professional quilt restorer. She has written more than 100 magazine articles and five books, including Hanky- Panky Crazy Quilts, The Stitcher's Language of Flowers, and the Fabric Dating Kit. She is the "Old Things Considered" columnist for McCall's Vintage Quilts and a frequent contributor to other magazines, newsletters, and online listservs. Please visit Cindy's website at: http://www.cindybrick.com

For more information, please visit www.voyageurpress.com

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