An influx of crazy quilts helped to keep Museum Textile Services warm over the recent holiday season. Crazy quilts consist of irregularly shaped patches of many different fibers and weave structures that are pieced together like a jig-saw puzzle. Many makers cut patches from worn out garments. The pieces ware frequently sewn together into squares before the completed sections were sewn together. Many crazy quilts have rich velvet boarders and printed cotton backing fabric. They came to fashion during the aesthetic period of the late 19th-century and continued into the early 20th century.
After working on so many crazy quilts, we have become curious about the individuals who made them. The Dudley Farm crazy quilt, now housed in Guilford, Connecticut, is predominantly wool patches including numerous plaids. At least three women contributed to its construction. Like many of their contemporaries, the makers included dated ribbons, or embroidering names and dates on blocks. One square has patches that read, “Anna,” “Waterbury,” “February 20,” “1893,” and “Blizzard.” Another block is signed "Wolcott Feb. 13 1893." A third reads “Fair Haven Feb. 25 Leila Wade.” How did these three women know each other? We concocted a romantic story of three friends or cousins stitching the quilt during the hard winter of 1892 to 1893.
MTS conservators also had the opportunity to treat a pair of crazy quilts brought to us by a private collector. The two quilts were likely made around the same time and perhaps by the same woman or group of women. Although the same finished size, one quilt consists of just twelve blocks of the same vintage as the other, plus eight blocks made at a later date or by a less skilled quilter. Both quilts had some identical patches, including miniature silk appliqué American flags, printed cigarette silks, and memorandum ribbons commemorating the death of Ulysses S. Grant on July 23, 1885. The maker or makers of these quilts was an accomplished embroider and painter on fabric.
Crazy quilts often are brought to us for conservation in very bad condition due to the interaction of the varied fibers and weave structures, the presence of weighted silks, and the practice of re-purposing fabrics that were already worn. The three crazy quilts mentioned in this blog were all stabilized to prevent additional loss of textile fragments and allow safe display. The Dudley Farm quilt was completely encapsulated in sheer nylon net in order to protect the deteriorating fabrics on both the front and back. The private collector chose a different approach for her two quilts. Instead of a full nylon net overlay, we covered only the most deteriorated patches with different shades of sheer nylon net. The pair of quilts will be display in the future, so we also installed twill-tape sleeves to accommodate a magnetic hanging system.
During a recent search through Director Camille Myers Breeze's family textiles, we came across the identical American flag ribbon found in one of the recently-conserved crazy quilts. The label accompanying the ribbon tells us that they were worn by Camille's grandmother and great aunt on "Decoration Day," more commonly known now as Memorial Day. Another way to see crazy quilts, therefore, is as fabric scrap books containing memories of clothing worn, and historical and personal events.