Discover Vintage America - APRIL 2016

America went crazy for Crazy Quilts!

From references in ladies' magazines in the 1880s, to The Patchwork Girl of Oz in 1913, to Batman's colorful nemesis "Crazy Quilt" in 1946, and almost every news story about the diversity of America, the Crazy Quilt has captured our national imagination for more than 130 years. The most recognizable version is the fancy Victorian silk, satin, and velvet style quilt, popular at the end of the 19th century. Crazy quilt is also a pieced block pattern similar to Rocky Road to Kansas or an X block and first published in 1895 by Ladies Art Company.

Dated 1885 Crazy Quilt, 68" x 88", Starley Collection

Crazy quilts are characterized by their random or irregular pieced fabrics, joined and embellished with decorative stitching along the seams and inside the pieces too. They are generally sewn on fabric foundations and often made in blocks though some are puzzle pieced on large foundations.

The fad for crazies appears to be related to the interest in Japanese culture sparked by displays in the 1876 Centennial exhibition, which were viewed by millions of people, but may have earlier origins. Quilt historian Penny McMorris noted, "Never has there been such intense interest in a particular quilt style as there was in the crazy quilt during the period 1876-1900." And a century later, these treasured quilts appear at state quilt documentation projects in record numbers.

Crazy Quilt, 2009, original design by Sandra Starley, 16" x 16" (hot pink and black)

Home magazines, fabric manufacturers and pattern designers quickly began promoting fancy quilting and selling specialty products in the early 1880s. Appliqué and embroidery motifs such as fans, cats, flowers, and good luck charms were quite popular. The designs were available in magazines to trace on blocks or preprinted or even already painted or stitched. Embroidered motifs were also offered as iron-on patches. Many of the marketing techniques and quick sewing methods used today were pioneered during the "craze" which captivated many quilters. In 1890, Good Housekeeping bemoaned this quilting obsession:

"But make it she must, She will do it or bust,
Beg, swap, and buy pieces or get them on trust,
Oh, the Crazy-quilt mania, may it soon cease to rave
In the land of the free and the home of the brave."

Crazy piecing continued into the 20th century but the fabrics used became simpler, either wool or cotton and the embellishments decreased with embroidered seams but no extra block decorations.
In 2009, the Alliance for American Quilts held a Crazy Quilt challenge and the 85 entries are shown on their site. for Quilts/gallery/.

The "crazy quilts" range from very traditional versions, to a James Brown portrait, and everything in between. You can join in the 21st century craze and use digital patterns to make a Crazy entirely by machine. Or take an on-line class and make an embellished quilt all by hand. You won't have any trouble finding someone to help you "go crazy." But you've been warned; it is very addictive.

Detail of cotton crazy quilt top, c.1890, 80"x 80", Sandra Starley Collection.


Collecting note:

There are a lot of crazy quilts available in the marketplace in a wide variety of sizes and styles ranging from highly decorated fancy silk and satin crazies to simpler wool and cotton versions. You can find them in all price points too.

When purchasing crazy quilts pay close attention to condition. The silk fabrics used in the 1880s and '90s were often sold by the pound and weighted with corrosive metal which caused many to shred or shatter. It is difficult to find quilts that don't have at least moderate deterioration. You can cover the damaged areas with colored tulle netting for a cleaner look and to lessen future damage.

Sandra Starley is nationally certified quilt appraiser, quilt historian, and avid antique quilt collector. She travels throughout the U.S. presenting talks on antique quilt history, fabric dating classes and trunk shows as well as quilting classes. Learn more at Send your comments and quilt questions to

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