Why Crazy Quilts?

Why Crazy Quilts?

Often I have been asked mainly by non- quilters why I make crazy quilts. Some see them as over embellished ugly Victorian monstrosities.

I never tire of looking at them. They were made to display expert skill in needlework. Embroidery stitches such as herringbone and feather stitching are often found but some crazy quilts are like huge samplers making them an encyclopaedia of embroidery stitches. I am always fascinated when I encounter objects that store information in a manner that is counter to print. This is particularly the case if it is women’s history. Samplers too act as a method of storing information about stitches. Kept in a sewing box, information retrieval consisted of simply reaching for the sampler and examining it. I have a crazy quilt like this that I finished a year or so ago. I often examine it to prompt my memory of a particular stitch. Instead of living a sewing box it hangs on the wall for easy access. My daughter (in her early 20’s) also uses the quilt in the same way, except for her it is to learn a stitch. Even though we have dozens of books in the house about stitching she examines the quilt and asks “How do I do that one?”

An embroiderer’s skill with a needle is not my only interest in a crazy quilt. Balancing the texture of lace, braid, buttons and beads against all those irregularly shaped pieces of different weights textures and tone is a challenge that I have not yet tired of. Unlike other quilting traditions apart from the general style there are no rules as such with crazy quilting. I think this is because the variety of materials and memorabilia found in crazy quilts is so wide. As objects they always balance on the edge of ugly and when making them keeping them on that line is also a challenge. In other words they head off into the area of kitsch. The issue of good and bad taste in a society is always about holding a particular value system in place. For me anything that pokes a dominant value system particularly a dominant value system of aesthetics is interesting if not fun.

As historical objects I find crazy quilts fascinating. Usually they are a mix of fabrics often collected over a period of years sometimes a life time. I made a quilt that contains the fabric from clothing of 4 generations of women. Also included on their surface decoration are braids and lace often from scraps from items of special clothing such as bridal dresses. Contained within these objects are narratives not of just the immediate family, but since women hand on scraps of fabric to each other, the stories of the lives of friends as well. This is where the stories associated with a quilt are so interesting. They are objects that provoke the narration of oral histories. The history is not the necessarily the mainstream tale of great public achievement but a history of the domestic and how major cultural events affected a person on the local level. For instance not being able to afford a particular thread or fabric during the depression.

The National Quilt Register attempts to record these stories. It is supported by major museums and heritage organisations, women’s groups and individuals across Australia. On their site they state that the register is “Women joining with other women to record our history through quilts”. All quilts and their stories are equally significant, no matter the technical ability of the quilter. On the register you will find all sorts of quilts from the finely stitched to the humble and functional and some are not even finished which is a relief as I know I always have a project somewhere that needs to be finished off! The National Quilt Register believes that a museum is more than a collection of objects. It is the stories behind the objects that the register actively collects. You do have the option of using a search engine or you can browse by stories which are grouped under subject lists. You can also browse by quilting style (such as crazy quilting) in the quilt tree. Many of the quilts have at least one image associated with them some have more. It’s the sort of resource site you find yourself lost in for hours. Enjoy.

One comment

  1. My problem is once I understand how a particular stitch or pattern is done in tatting I get bored. As a result I have plenty of unfinished projects and tiny pieces of tatted, knitted and crocheted lace. I used to throw them or give them away every time my husband was transferred. Your quilt makes me regret it because some of the pieces were really beautiful. Now I know what to do with all those bits and pieces. Thanks Sharon.


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