Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Victorian crazy quilts

This poem is reprinted from Good Housekeeping, October 25, 1890.
Excerpted from:
The Crazy Quilt
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.
Your breakfasts are spoiled,
And your dinners half-boiled,
And your efforts to get a square supper are foiled
By the crazy-quilt mania that fiendishly raves,
And to which all the women are absolute slaves.

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.

I'm awestruck over a fad that happened over a century ago. Victorian crazy quilting swept the nation in the late 19th century like scrapbooking has swept the nation today. Women were obsessed with making these quilts that it reached a pop culture status of its day. I read about an exhibit at the School of Human Ecology at the UW in the paper and went to see it today. I don't know what Human Ecology is but it has a building.

The quilts are indescribably elaborate with layers of embroidery, photo transfers, appliques, and a pattern that is reckless and orderly at once. There is an obsessiveness to the stitching that is positively manic. It was a fanatical pursuit, and women would scrounge for swatches of any interesting fabric they could get their hands on....even if it meant tearing it from another person's body. Women were known to rip apart men's hats for their silk linings and it wasn't clear that they always asked the men before doing so. The industrial revolution brought textiles to another level working with fabulous new textures and designs of fabrics, most of which don't even exist anymore. At the time, collecting fabric pieces was the rage and women went to all sorts of lengths to obtain swatches of fabrics to put in their quilts. Montgomery Ward finally got sick of it and made it plain in their advertisements that "swatches would be sent by request but not of any size usable for crazy quilting."

I still have a bin full of baby clothes because in my fantasies where I know how to do stuff without putting in the effort to learn it, I am going to make a quilt for each girl. It's like my fantasy about Pilates. I'm really quite good at it in my mind. My core is tight. Crazy quilting seems a possible pursuit for me as I do enjoy knitting and running the sewing machine occasionally, but then I remember I'm me....once someone walks into the room and turns on the TV or someone calls me to come over for a glass of wine, that project's going to get put down indefinitely. I have two good hours in me as craft projects go and then I need a long break...sometimes months.

I talked to the student working the exhibit desk as she sat sewing something in the color protective low light of the exhibit. Aaah, young people eyes. I remember them...I used to have them! Walking around the exhibit was like one of those learn about the human body experiences in a natural history museum...the amazing macular degeneration simulator.

I asked the student what she found most amazing about these quilts. She said she couldn't believe they were done by hand and that they took, in some instances, an unimaginable 1,500 hours to complete. She laughed and we agreed it was possible when I pointed out there were no TVs and computers and no jobs for women. It seemed far too possible that the over-obsessive nature of this quilting craze was perhaps a sign that women were restless for serious and heartfelt occupation beyond mothering and housework, an occupation that was creative, innovative and challenging. I like to think maybe Suffrage replaced the obsession of crazy quilting as the new passion of women of that era.

Will my great granddaughters go to a scrapbook exhibition in 2100? And will it be as remarkable?


  1. Around the same era, medicinal cocaine products, like "toothache pills," enjoyed a surge in popularity. The great doctor of the era claimed that when under the influence of the coca leaf, "...You perceive an increase of self-control and possess more vitality and capacity for work....Long intensive physical work is performed without any fatigue..."

    Crazy quilting? Indeed! Those sistuhs was high.

    Your great grands will assume your cohorts were on the glue they used. They will marvel at the primitive technology that moved scrapbooking into facebooking. They will die of embarrassment for how long and dextrous their ancestors' arms and fingers were, and how skinny people were a century ago. "I just can't imagine what it would be like to only use 10% of your brain," one will telepath. The other will thought-respond with, "I know. It's like. They were like. So. Wee-ard." And the first will snort sardonically and think, "No surprise they liked Facebook. Duh."

  2. Author note:
    To clarify, I'm quite in admiration of the women who were able to achieve such feats of artistic muscle. The words fanatical and manic within the context of this post are descriptive and not meant negatively or snarky--that was obvious to me, but maybe not to readers.

    I see women of that day as an oppressed group grappling with breaking free from the tedium of being stuck in a box. As I looked at those quilts, I could feel the claustrophobia of a society inhibiting a woman's ability to contribute intellectually and artistically. It certainly drove Edith Wharton and perhaps maybe others like Mary Cassatt, out of the country at the time. Don't some "fads" lead to important sociologic changes? Women's Baseball League started as a popular fad...did it lead to women's sports? Maybe. So while I applaud your funny take on my crazy quilters, I defend them as burgeoning feminists and bristle at the notion they were all crackheads.

  3. I didn't read any negativity or snarkiness in your post, just awe. I too was marveling, envious of the energy and dedication of the CQers. In these days of not going to the office, I am somehow hyper aware of just how short each day is. We recently went for two days with no running hot water...and it was exhausting just to make myself presentable in the morning. So I really don't know how they did it. There probably would have been more CQ-ing if they hadn't won the right to smoke in public.

  4. Do you think I could channel the spirit of a CQ-er to help me finish crochet-ing a baby blanket that's taken a ridiculous number of my evenings for something so small? I try not to think about the fact that I am essentially making a very pretty vomit landing patch.

  5. Just started doing CQ. I am really enjoying it. It is a nice way to be creative and use several different types of mediums. It was very interesting to read about the start of it. Thank you for the information. Vey interesting.

  6. Since I started quilting I have become obsessive with it--I just discovered CQ and I have started my first project -machine because I'm impatient to see the results but will add details by hand---I don't need drugs to do and think about this work every day--I can quite imagine how those Victorian ladies felt about their handiwork--creativity is a drug all its own---it keeps me sane. JP from NY