A Fairyland of Fabrics: Fairyland Idea

The Idea of Fairyland

“Nothing has taken a stronger hold on the women - Crazy quilts have engulfed us.”
- Dorcas magazine, 1884

In the late 1800s, Victorian popular culture embraced the idea of a “fairyland” - a romanticized, aesthetically rich feeling or quality present in contemporary fairy tales, “fairy paintings,” and theatrical “fairy spectacles.” The word ‘fairy’ was used to describe anything that was sensually charged, innocent, fanciful, or otherworldly. During this time, people were introduced to Peter Pan and Tinkerbell - characters who lived in “Never-Never Land” - as well as the munchkins, good and bad witches, and other fantastic characters from the “Land of Oz.” New technologies such as gas and lime light enabled wonderful visual effects such as the simulation of shimmering moonlight. Routinely, comments referring to fairyland qualities appeared in the press; for instance: “it looked as if a thousand fairies had been at work.”

Women found the fairyland ideal especially appealing, and often purposely brought its qualities into their lives. Crazy quilts, popular from about 1880-1910, were an important expression of this sensibility. They were lush and sensuous textiles, featuring explosions of saturated hue, texture, pattern, and imagery. They were described with fairyland language: a reporter describing an 1885 Crazy quilt exhibition exclaimed, “It looked as if somebody had shattered two-thousand rainbows and heaped the fragments into two thousand different mounds of rich and wonderful color.”

The explosive, kaleidoscopic look of the Crazy quilt is due, in part, to late 19th-century textile manufacturers who were able to offer an astonishing assortment of new fabrics with a wide range of color and technical effects. For example, plushes and velvets with varying pile heights, cut-away areas, or additional layers of pattern helped achieve a three-dimensional look that reflected and played with light, as did dimensional corduroys, damasks, and boucles. Fabrics with variegated, iridescent, shaded (“ombre”) and “watercolor” effects, as well as “fool-the-eye” designs, offered more color options than ever before. The most sought-after fabrics were silks and velvets, which implied luxury but were produced at this time at relatively low cost in American factories. The public loved the variety, and Crazy quilt makers often worked hundreds of different fabrics into a single textile. Further, the exuberant stitches that typically cover the fabric seams were themselves worked in a range of colors and variegated yarns.

Both in their own time and still today, Crazy quilts have an irresistible draw. Taking in the rich opulence of their color, texture, and pattern; their fanciful and idealized imagery; and their many layers of sensual elaboration, we find ourselves in the dream-like quality of the “fairyland” world - we feel an aesthetic charge and a sense of richness and romance in our own lives.

Oh, the Crazy-quilt mania triumphantly raves,
And maid, wife, and widow are bound as its slaves.

And where is the wife who so vauntingly swore
That nothing on earth her affections could smother?
She crept from your side at the chiming of four
And is down in the parlor at work on another.

And thus it has been since the panic began,
In many loved homes it has wrought desolation,
And cursed is the power by many a man,
That has brought him so close to the verge of starvation,
     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.

- Good Housekeeping, October 25, 1890

"Vernacular” Crazy Quilts

High-style Crazy quilts reached their peak in the mid- to late-1880s. Soon after, the Crazy quilt “craze” started to dissipate. Criticisms over the amount of time it took to complete a Crazy quilt and over the gaudiness of the saturated colors and asymmetrical patterns began to shift the fashionable woman’s gaze to other trends. One author wrote, “the time, patience, stitches and mistakes the Crazy quilt represents, are too awful for words.”

But in parts of the country that were less concerned with national fashions, such as in rural areas and small towns, the Crazy quilt continued to be a favored style. In these areas, however, whether by necessity, preference or sensibility, Crazy quilts were most often made from workaday fibers like wool, cotton, and wool/cotton mixes, rather than the luxurious silks of the high-style versions.

In these three “vernacular” -- or everyday -- quilts, fine silks, velvets, brocades, lavish embellishment, and smallish size have given way to cotton and wool of the type used for work and durable clothing. They also feature spare or no embellishment, and strength and size improved enough to be used regularly as warm bedcoverings. Far from sedate, the saturated hues of the wool fabrics and the soft luster of the cotton fabrics lend a pleasing richness and an air of simplicity.

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