Quilted Compositions

Crazy quilts were a popular form of late-nineteenth century needlework. They showcased decorative handwork but could have been assembled by machine. The techniques were executed in a variety of fabrics, but silks and velvets were fashion favourites. The origin of this new “daring” patchwork was unknown and was debated as it gained popularity.[1] Early descriptions cast the techniques as “without any design at all” in stark contrast to traditional geometric quilts.[2] They were not at first labeled as “crazy.”[3] Harper’s Bazarcompared them to the “beauty and infinite variety of Oriental mosaics.”[4]

Many crazy quilts of the late 1870s and 1880s included eastern imagery. Japonisme may have contributed to the rise of their popularity.  At the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, the Japanese exhibit was one of the largest and best received.[5] It has also been considered significant to the spread of the Aesthetic Movement in America.[6] Western fascination with the Orient is apparent in the use of such motifs as the fan and the vogue for dressing gowns with eastern imagery.

The Aesthetic Movement valued hand skill and artistry in the face of industrial production and had an impact on interior design including the production of textiles.[7] Decorative arts and needlework societies, schools, and exchanges arose in the 1870s as a way for women to learn skills and make an income.[8] Whether a woman made a crazy quilt for show or sale, its creation presented an opportunity for personal expression and identification with a popular trend in needlework and decoration.

[1] Virginia Gunn, “Crazy Quilts and Outline Quilts: Popular Responses to the Decorative Art/ Art Needlework Movement, 1876-1893,” Uncoverings 5 (1984): 142-143.

[2] “Patchwork,” Harper’s Bazar XV, no. 37 (September 16, 1882): 583.

[3] Gunn, 142.

[4] “Patchwork,” 583.

[5] Gunn, 131; Cindy Brick, Crazy Quilts: History, Techniques, Embroidery Motifs (Minneapolis: Voyageur Press, 2008), 40-41.

[6] The Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Preface,” in In Pursuit of Beauty Americans and the Aesthetic Movement (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986), 19.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Gunn, 135-138.

Photograph by Anne Bissonnette©

Cite this page (bibliography):

Bissonnette, Anne, Larisa Cheladyn, Stephanie Huolt, Robyn Stobbs and Sarah Woodyard. “Quilted Compositions.” Stitched Narratives, Clothing and Textiles Collection Web site, Department of Human Ecology, University of Alberta, July 15, 2015. [INSERT URL].

This exhibition is part of the graduate course “Material Culture & Curatorship” (HECOL 668).

Sponsorship provided by The Kule Institute for Advanced Study and The Bohdan Medwidsky Ukrainian Folklore Archives.