A Fairyland of Fabrics

A Fairyland of Fabrics

A Fairyland of Fabrics

Head-on collisions of imagination and luxurious materials are credited for the creation of quilts in the exhibition "A Fairyland of Fabrics: The Victorian Crazy Quilt". This exhibition of lavish, over-the-top textiles and home interiors reflected a time when "more was more." Nineteen one-of-a-kind Victorian-era quilts from the center's collection were featured.

Beverly Gordon, professor of textile and apparel design at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, curated the exhibition following her fellowship at the IQSCM where she studied dozens of examples of Crazy quilts from the late 1800s and early 1900s. "Crazies" are made of irregular shapes of many varieties of material and have a seemingly random quality which often masks skillful planning and compositional treatment. Gordon notes, "The 'crazy' look was seen as the epitome of urbane, sophisticated taste. Asymmetrical, irregular geometric pattern and crazed lines (the term came from ceramics) were associated with the Japanese style, which had taken the public by storm at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.”

These quilts are "veritable showpieces, and true labors of love", according to Gordon. She cataloged images depicting fauna and flora, buildings, children, politicians, even a celestial comet spotted in the 1890s. Visitors will see quilts constructed from cigar ribbons, wool suiting, calico, silk taffetas and satins, and embellished with lace, embroidery, paint, ribbons, beading, sequins, and shells. Gordon explains, "What really mattered on a Crazy quilt was a feeling-an evocation of a happy, dreamy place-an enchanted "fairyland" or Never-Never-land that existed far-away, apart from any painful realities or practicalities." Making a Crazy quilt was one way women could temporarily escape for the unsettling, rapid change that accompanied industrialization, urbanization, and immigration at the end of the 19th century.

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Quilt, Maker unknown
Possibly made in Bucks County, Pennsylvania
80” x 79”
International Quilt Study Center, Ardis and Robert James Collection

The explosive, kaleidoscopic look of the crazy quilt was made possible by industrialization and technological advances. Late 19th century textile manufacturers offered an astonishing assortment of sophisticated fabrics with a wide range of color and technical effects. The public loved these, and crazy quilt makers often worked hundreds of different fabrics into a single textile. The most sought-after pieces were silks and velvets, which implied luxury but were produced at this time at relatively low cost in American factories.  The visual impact of the quilts was heightened by the way the fabrics reflected and played with light, resulting in an always-changing surface. Cloth textures were also dizzyingly complex. Many of the novelty fabrics were three dimensional; plushes and velvets, especially, might have different pile heights, cut-away areas, or additional layers of pattern. There were also dimensional corduroys, damasks, and boucles; textured ribbons; fabrics with variegated, iridescent, shaded (“ombre”) and “watercolor” effects; and “fool-the-eye” designs.  The exuberant stitches that typically covered the fabric joins were themselves worked in a range of colors and variegated yarns.

The new abundance of manufactured goods in the late 19th century –the sheer amount of available “stuff”—was also reflected in a new preoccupation with collecting. Crazy quilts functioned as textile scrapbooks, collections of appealing materials and of color, pattern, texture, imagery, stitches, and ornament. Some quilts were like autograph albums, featuring scraps with initials or signatures, either of friends and family, or of celebrities. Others were made from fabrics that had been part of someone’s clothing, and functioned as souvenir albums of their lives.

Crib or Doll Quilt, made by or for Mattie Linville 
54” x 55”
International Quilt Study Center, Ardis and Robert James Collection

The many initials in this piece indicate that it was probably made as a friendship quilt for Mattie Linville; many individuals seem to have contributed. 

In addition to the myriad fabrics that were pieced together in a seemingly “crazy” fashion, crazy quilt makers added a wide array of surface treatments: a variety of outline stitches over the fabric joins, as well as other embroidery techniques such as French knots and arasanè (highly dimensional chenille work); the addition of metallic threads; ribbon or felt appliqué; and the application of beads, spangles, shells, printed or pre-embroidered commercial decals, and tassels. Quilt makers also painted on ground fabric, or added photo transfers. The range of creative possibility seemed almost endless. Harper’s Bazar estimated in 1884 that a full size crazy quilt might take 1500 hours to complete.

Advances in printing and photo transfer technology resulted in fabric patches with a surprising array of words and images.  Victorians delighted in printing silk “badges” for events ranging from lodge meetings and political campaigns to private parties and wedding dinners, and printed ribbons also served as festive seasonal greetings. These small fabrics were subsequently collected, both as souvenirs of the events they came from and as further examples of novel fabrics. Many crazy quilts incorporated and pointedly highlighted these badges, to the extent that when we look at the quilts, we can piece together stories of the lives of the makers and their families.

Quilt, Maker Unknown
Possibly made in Pennsylvania,
68” x 65”
International Quilt Study Center, Jonathan Holstein Collection

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Event Date
Friday, July 24, 2009 to Sunday, October 25, 2009