Looking at Crazy Quilts

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Everyone has a slightly different perception of a crazy quilt but usually we think of such quilts as being very colourful, heavily embellished with applique, embroidery and other stitching all on top of a fabric base.

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Tea Cosy, circa 1900, The Quilters’ Guild Museum Collection.

The definition of a crazy quilt is ‘a patchwork quilt made from assorted pieces of fabric of irregular size, shape, colour, and made with little regard to pattern’.

If we analyse this statement we see that such quilts are rarely quilted although they are often embellished so strictly they are only patchwork rather than quilts. Fabric is often variable and silk, satin, velvet, ribbons and other expensive and glamorous fabrics are often used. Size, shape and colour are part of our vision of traditional pieces but if one looks at a tradition of necessity of sewing together parts of old clothes to make a blanket this could also be regarded as a crazy quilt. The Australian tradition of wagga wagga could be regarded as a crazy quilt.

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North Country crazy quilt, circa 1890. The Quilters’ Guild Museum Collection.

However our conception of crazy quilts generally relate to Victorian highly decorated pieces often heavily embroidered, beaded and embellished which were often created as part of the leisure activity of that period. Heavy as bed covers crazy patchwork was often used for smaller decorative objects, such as table or piano covers or framed as pictures. They contributed towards the ideal decoration in a Victorian middle and upper class home.

Names or initials were sometimes included, as were embroidered depictions of everyday objects and even biblical quotes or phrases giving a charming insight into the life of the maker.

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Sevenoaks Coverlet, early C20th. The Quilters’ Guild Museum Collection.

However crazy quilts were made beyond the Victorian period. The Quilters’ Guild Museum Collection includes a number of Canadian Red Cross pieces and a several of them are crazy patchwork. Crazy patchwork was also one of the more popular designs in Canadian Red cross quilts in general, as they were quick to make and could use up any shape of fabric scraps which was ideal in times of shortage. Below is an image of a Red Cross Canadian quilt from The Collection made during World War II. Modern crazy quilts follow the basic concept of the Victorian cover but often with more organised colours, They are however often used a background for embellishment and there is a fine dividing line between a patchwork or an embroidery in these modern interpretations.

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V for Victory Red Cross Quilt, made in Canada in the 1940s. The Quilters’ Guild Museum Collection.

Crazy pieces were often made by taking a piece of sheeting or backing fabric, laying the collection of scraps on and then stitching and embroidering each piece to the backing to cover the sheet. Some pieces have each shape tacked onto a backing fabric and then the raw edges are sewn together. Today’s computerised sewing machines have decorative feather and herringbone stitches which have replaced the need for hand embroidered decorative stitches, thus making an easy task of the stitching that Victorian ladies spent hours perfecting.

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Leslie Morgan. Quilters’ Guild Museum Collection: 90’s collection. 

Love them or dislike them – and crazy quilts are not to every one’s taste – their maker’s history and their association with the social history of the period contributes to their interest.

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Crazy quilt made by Barbara Bailey in 1980. The Quilters’ Guild Museum Collection.

If you ask yourself such questions when looking at a historic patchwork piece, then you might be interested in The British Quilt Study Group. We are a specialist group within The Quilters’ Guild whose members delve into the history of quilts and quilting trends, social history, textile history, migration, and family history.

Find out more about this group and its support for those interested in asking questions about a quilt’s history on our website.

Rachel Nichols

British Quilt Study Group

If you’re fascinated by crazy quilting and would like to give it a try, why not have a go with our wonderful new Pattern Box Crazy Quilt Cushion Pattern? Designed by Carolyn Forster and inspired by the Canadian Red Cross Crazy Quilt from The Guild’s Museum Collection, it is available in QShop for only £8 now!

Brown cushion on blue armchair in green living room interior wit

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Canadian Red Cross Quilt, circa 1940. The Quilters’ Guild Museum Collection.

 

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