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.

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5 thoughts on “Crazy Quilts = Crazy Women?

    1. Thanks! This post was actually a segment of my master’s thesis that I re-worked. I’ve decided whenever I get blog block its because I’m focusing on me, ie. what is interesting about me to write about and I’m not always that interesting. I’ve decided to throw pieces like this one in. They generally get fewer hits than other posts, but they sort of get me focused again. I’m not sure why.

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  1. What an interesting post Amy. I have always admired these “crazy quilts” but had no idea of the history behind them. I so enjoyed learning of these telling stories about our female forebearers.

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    1. They are really interesting as is the fiction about them. I’d be interested to see what people in 120 years deduce about us from reading the popular fiction of today.

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