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.

The Quilt as a Symbol in Fiction

Me and My Quilting Buddies

When I got my MA, I had to write a thesis.  The challenge was coming up with some area of literature to analyze that had not been done a million times already.  I love quilts and American lit., so I combined those to interests and somehow convinced my professors that enough short stories about quilts had been published in the 19th century to sustain my research.  I found and read as many 19th century short stories as I could that had a quilt in them or in someway focused on the world of quilting.  I then analyzed the quilt as a symbol in those stories.

It was actually pretty fascinating.

In most of the earlier quilt stories which were published in the 1840’s, quilts symbolized the domestic sphere and all acceptable womanly endeavors.  The quilts were cherished objects and the quilters were kind and loving, representing all that was wonderful about being a woman.

As the century wore on, this changed.  During the entire time period I studied, women had to sew, making all their family’s clothing and bedding.  I can’t even imagine what a chore that would be for someone who hated sewing.  Thus, by the end of the century, well known authors such as Louisa May Alcott and Mary Wilkins Freeman used the quilt to symbolize the stifling aspects of the Victorian era and the demands the “domestic sphere” placed on women.  In their fiction, they describe quilters as gossipy, small-minded women and quilting bees as a never-ending miserable chore.

I have never seen quilts or quilting in this light.  For me, a homemade quilt is an outlet for my own creativity.  It also symbolizes my love for my family and friends through the time and effort they take to create, despite the benefit of a sewing machine..  I love quilts.  I love that they symbolize my creativity, my hard work.  I love that I work on them with a group of my dearest quilting friends, and we celebrate our roles as mothers and wives as we quilt, our own little modern “domestic sphere.”  This view of quilts and quilting is much more similar to the earliest quilt fiction than to most of the stories published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A celebration of quilting - I made the center, and the women in the center pieced the borders in a round robin challenge.

In my current writing project, a quilt ties together the historical and contemporary threads of the story, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the historical significance of the quilt as a symbol of women’s lives and where my novel, which combines both worlds, fits.

I’m not sure if I can answer these questions, or if I even need to, but I’ve been wondering:  What does a quilt symbolize now for women in general?  Is it a symbol of creativity and choices in that women create them if they want to? Or for some women are they still symbols of stifled female ambitions as they were 100+ years ago?   How do I honor my predecessors in quilt fiction?  Does the quilt in my story even need to?  Or does it just need to honor this story?

I guess I’ll find out the answers when I finish, but if anyone has any thoughts, I’d be interested to hear them.

What the hell is a table runner for anyway?

Every quilter has made a table runner. I admit it. I have too. In fact, I’ll even admit I have no less than six that are done and just need binding. It is the ubiquitous quilting gift – fast, easy, good use for leftover blocks. But what is it? Have you ever heard somebody say, “All my table runners are worn out. I really need to get some new ones”? Have you ever even seen any body actually use a table runner for anything functional?

Me either.

I’ve never used one, other than to decorate at Christmas because I made myself one when I made a batch of them for Christmas gifts, but that’s not really using it. Is it? I started thinking about this because the last quilt I made came from a pattern book that actually had table runner patterns in it for leftover blocks which I found curious on a number of levels.

If you’re writing a quilt book and offering instruction on how to make a quilt, why would your patterns require so much extra fabric that you can make extra blocks? Or require cutting so much extra fabric that you ended up with enough random strips and triangles to make some ever useful table runners?

Table runners were invented because of guys like this.

Out of curiosity, I looked up the history of the table runner. Apparently, back in medieval times, people would wipe their faces on the table cloth. Eventually, thank God, this became unacceptable and somebody invented napkins, but people still ate like pigs and spilled their food and drinks all over the tablecloths which then had to be laundered, so some wise woman invented the table runner to protect the table cloth.

As I can imagine, doing laundry in the 15th century would be pure hell, especially a giant greasy, wine-stained piece of table linen. I’m not sure who invented the first table runner, but my guess is that it was the poor peasant woman who had to do the castle’s laundry.

I struggle to get the clothes out of the dryer and folded. Usually by the time a load has been folded, I’ve “reheated” it in the dryer 4-5 times to get out all the wrinkles because God forbid I might have to iron something. I can only imagine the hell of having to go the river to drag buckets of water back to the fire to heat in order to wash the table cloth and then burning your hands in some sort of soap that you had to make by hand the day before. And you still had to rinse the damn thing. The table runner was clearly invented out of necessity.

But I digress. In order to avoid having to repeatedly wash the entire table cloth, the table runner was invented. Apparently, they were easier to clean than an entire table cloth which actually makes sense. For some reason, they stuck around, and now we quilters can make them when we want an easy fast project.

Thankfully, we don’t require the use of them anymore. Quilted table runners are somewhat useless when it comes to protecting anything precious. If you’ve ever set a glass of wine on top of a quilted table runner, you know what I’m talking about. The sometimes poofy quilting can make the glasses a little bit tipsy (doesn’t have anything to do with drinking any of the wine) and causes them to tip right over, staining the table cloth and the table runner.

My table runner conclusion? In a functional sense, table runners are . . . completely dysfunctional. But when it comes to quilting, who really needs function?