Crazy Quilts = Crazy Women?

Crazy quilts don’t equate with crazy women now, but the fiction of the late 1800’s tells a different story.   Crazy quilts were all the rage during the mid-1870’s but began to drop from favor during the mid-1890’s.   An article in Dorcas magazine explained the then current fad, ‘Of all the ‘crazes’ which have swept over and fairly engulfed us, there is none which has taken a deeper hold upon the fair women of our land that this one of the crazy patchwork . . . Many a woman with strong artistic taste finds no other outlet for it than in work such as this’” (Jenkins, The American Quilt Story, 73).

Crazy quilts are made of bits of silk and velvet pieced together in a seemingly haphazard, or crazy, manner.  They are then heavily embroidered with fancy stitches and figures.  The designs do not follow a strict block format, as do traditional quilt tops, which allows for artistic license in terms of the patterns, colors, fabrics, textures, stitches, and even threads.  This creative freedom is a far cry from the oft hated “stints” of needlework the young women throughout the 19th Century were required to complete.  Nineteenth century crazy quilts were some of the first art quilts to appear in the quilting world, but perhaps they were viewed as a little bit too crazy.

The main characters in the short stories that focused on crazy quilts during the latter years of the 19th Century are all young women who are desperately conniving and manipulative in their attempts to catch a husband, and the authors tie the young women’s “crazy” behavior to the influence of the “crazy” quilts upon which they work.  Thus, the symbolic use of the quilt is negative in these texts in that the crazy quilts do not allow their makers entry into the traditional community of married women, or the women’s sphere.  Only one story I found offers a positive view of the crazy quilt, but even the main character in this piece serves as a one-dimensional figure in her complete goodness and self-sacrifice.

“The Career of a Crazy Quilt,” published in 1884 in Godey’s Lady’s Book, highlights the difficulties in both making a crazy quilt and achieving life’s most important goal for a young woman, marriage.  The young women in the story lie and cheat to complete their crazy quilts, but they only achieve marriage, and a subsequent welcome into the woman’s sphere, when they set those quilts aside.  The two young friends, Heloise and Marie, decide to make crazy quilts, and they resort to almost anything to get free samples of silk for their quilts.  Marie’s fiancé, Dory, warns her of the dangers of crazy quilting and begs her not to beg for scraps.  Marie, of course, becomes indignant at the suggestion that she might stoop so low, only to do so later in the story and lose her fiancé.  Heloise goes so far as to break the law and petition a fabric company for a packet of samples under a fictitious corporate name as the fabric companies will no longer send free silk samples to women.  She, of course, gets caught but ends up marrying the representative from the fabric company who catches her.  While these young women will stoop to any means to create their quilts, their behavior is redeemed as their future husbands forgive their behavior and save their reputations.  The young women renounce their foolish ways, negate their creative ambitions, and enter the domestic sphere through their marriages.   The quilts, of course, are completed in time for the double wedding ceremony.

A second story, “The Story of a Crazy Quilt” (1885) by L.E. Chittendon, also focuses on a young woman’s ambitions for marriage, and she too ultimately catches her man but only after putting aside her crazy quilting for a full year.  In the fiction of the time, crazy quilting was perhaps a bit too crazy, bringing about impulsive behavior in otherwise well-mannered young women, behavior which did not suitably reflect the ideology of the home.  Interestingly, crazy quilting died out as a fad fairly quickly.

Another 1885 story titled “A Crazy Quilt” was published about two young women who also strove to get married.  Unfortunately for them, they were vacationing at a “regular death-in-life sort of place” without enough social interaction to suit them.  Because they have nothing else to do, the girls gossip and work on their crazy quilt, but these girls do not end up marrying.  Instead, one of the girls shows the quilt to a group of young men and realizes that “we’re ‘lowed to chuse some bits of our livin’, and to make what we please out of ‘em” (607) which her Granny translates into scripture, declaring, “Our heavenly Father in His word tells us that belong to Him to ‘work out our own salvation with fear and tremblin’.’ So we go at it.  We take our caty-cornered pieces, our zig-zag and criss-cross pieces, an’ put our lives together, black, blue, an’ white, all a-slant an’a-skew.  Then ‘long He comes an’ in drops the gold an’ silver stitches, and on this or that dark or crooked place falls lilies of the valley and roses of Sharon.  Don’t you see?” Though they don’t all understand or accept the lesson, it is clear to the reader, and this lesson, too, inhibits female creativity.

In 1885, women could try to create with their fabric, but in the end, only God could make it beautiful.  The message is clearly that whatever these women do to their quilt, they won’t ever be able to achieve true beauty, despite the artistic license they are taking with the crazy quilt.

The only story I found in which a crazy quilt serves as a positive force is one in which the young quilter is injured and essentially destined for spinsterhood.  In this story by Sidney Dayre, “Ruth’s Crazy Quilt,” (1886) young Ruth dreams of becoming a teacher and helping her mother with their household expenses, but alas, Ruth falls and becomes unable to walk.  As she languishes in bed, depressed that she can no longer help her mother, she begins to embroider her brother’s socks and to stitch a quilt. Ruth ultimately sells her crazy quilt for $300 and regains the use of her leg.  As Ruth’s aims were of the most angelic sort, her crazy quilt saves her mother from a life of drudgery.  She did not make the quilt to participate in the current “rage” of crazy quilting but did it out of the kindness of her heart.

The sentimentality and moralizing in these stories is somewhat galling to our contemporary sentiments as they completely espouse a domestic world as a higher aim for young girls, but we must not apply our modern sentiments to the meaning behind these stories.  Women must make the most of a bad situation, work hard to create a loving home despite any setbacks, and always take the moral high road as did Ruth.

Thankfully, women can now be as crazy as they want with their fabric creations, and their creative endeavors will not reflect at all upon their aspirations (or lack thereof) of becoming a wife.

Tree Trash

My Daughter’s “Trashless” Dream Tree

Despite the fact that my fourteen year old daughter never stepped a foot out of the truck to participate in our annual tree hunt this year as it was “way too cold,” she still managed to give us quite a few instructions on the size and shape of the tree we should get.  It needed to be tall and narrow, not “bushy.”  Living in Northern Nevada, we get pinion pines and finding a tall narrow one can be harder said than done, but we managed.  She approved of our find and then asked if she could please be in charge of the Christmas decorations this year. “Really,” I said.  “Why?”

“Because last year it looked like Santa puked Christmas all over the house, and this year, I want it to look pretty,” she replied.  Hmmm, Santa puke? She followed this with, “Why can’t we have a pretty tree with ornaments that match? Do you have to cover it with all your ‘tree trash’?”

Yep, tree trash.  That’s what my kids call the treasured ornaments and decorations that they spent countless hours creating.  The tongue depressor reindeer, the glitter and glue angels, the red and green chains to count down the days until Christmas, it has all been reduced to “tree trash,” and much to their dismay, I saved it all. Every single bit of it. They’re my favorite decorations, but apparently their dad and I are the only ones in this family who consider them decorations and not . . . trash.

Which begs the question, what is a holiday decoration? A box of fancy matchy bulbs from a store or a pile of faded construction paper, glitter and glue? My teenagers would choose the former; I’ll take the latter every time, but what are they decorating for?  I would say that at fourteen and sixteen, they’re still overly concerned with appearances, and they don’t really want all their friends to see the lovely ornaments they made in preschool despite the fact that most of their friends made the same exact things they did.  They’ll figure it out someday.

We spent one evening this week dragging out all the holiday decorations, but a full two-thirds of them went back into the garage as I decided to go ahead and let my daughter be in charge of the decorating.  I’ve always thought of myself as something of a minimalist in that I don’t like clutter, but when it came to decorating this season, she put me to shame.

She surveyed every decoration and decided what could come out and what had to stay put.  I did insist on most of the handmade ornaments for the tree, but none of the handmade pictures, cards, or large creations made the cut unless they went in my bedroom.  She informed me I could decorate my bedroom however I wanted it, and since my husband and I are the only people who like all that stuff anyway we could put it in there with us.  “That’s awfully generous of you,” I said.  She didn’t answer.  Sadly, her brother agreed with her.

I have to say that she did an impressive job, and now I know I have prepared her to handle the Christmas decorating responsibilities as an adult.  It was also a good compromise.  I have enough tree trash to make me happy, and she doesn’t feel like Santa puked on us . . .  though I do miss the reindeer one of them made out of a hanger and pantyhose that I usually hang on the door to the office.  I might just have to sneak that one in.

What is your paradigm?

Have you ever been asked that question?  It’s an odd question but one that high school debaters regularly ask their judges before a debate round.  The first time a competitor asked me about my paradigm before a round, I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about.  “My paradigm?  Uhhh . . . ”  Apparently, that response gave them all the information they needed because they said, “never mind” and continued with the debate.

Now that I have coached Speech and Debate for several years and even attended “debate camp,” I know my paradigm.  It is this:  “One, be respectful of one another, two, speak so that I can understand what you are saying, and three make solid, clear arguments.”  In other words, if you are a condescending ass to your opponent, if you talk so fast that I can’t understand a word you are saying, or if your argumentation lacks any semblance of logic, you will lose points.  This is not unlike what I teach my own children, be nice and communicate clearly. I suppose it’s a “mom paradigm.”

After trying to judge rounds with kids attempting to speak like this student, I think my paradigm makes perfect sense.

I try to teach and coach my students that public speaking is all about clear communication.  Does your audience understand what you are saying? Are you persuading them effectively? Can they clearly follow your arguments? Is your logic sound? Is your presentation and delivery solid or do you speak too quickly or softly?  I want my students to learn to communicate with confidence and poise, to respect their audience even if that audience is an opponent in a debate round, to craft a message that others can understand, think about, and maybe even learn from.

Today, I am taking some students to Utah to compete against top debaters from all over the country.

In order for my students to compete, I have to judge rounds, and I also had to post my paradigm on a judging website, so top high school debaters could evaluate me as a judge.  After reading through some of the judges’ paradigms, one of my students was concerned with what I might post.  “Mrs. Isaman,” he said in all seriousness, “you cannot put ‘talk slow and be nice’ as your paradigm.”  He then proceeded to read from the site.  One judge listed his “Official Paradigm” as: “Phenomenology-influenced aesthetically-interpreting post-structural theorist with an applied transformative epistemological orientation.” Huh? Is this guy serious? Apparently he is.

At first I laughed, but my next response? Oh shit. I have to judge the kids that this guy coaches?!

My students spent an hour or two writing my judging paradigm to make it sound slightly more sophisticated than “be nice and talk slow.”  Hopefully the post-structuralist theorist coach read it, understood I value presentation as well as argumentation, and scratched me from his students’ judging pool.

If not, I hope these kids can either adapt their debate style for my “mom” paradigm or deal with a judge who has an anxiety attack in the middle of a round.  In any case, it should be an interesting few days.