Traditional Crazy Quilts
Crazy quilts are thought to have originated in the United States in the 1860’s. They were unlike typical piecework quilts in that one began with a basic square of calico or muslin and attached irregularly shaped pieces of silk or velvet to this foundation with invisible stitches. At a minimum, each seam was then covered with embroidery; additional embellishment was frequently added. Sometimes the surface was almost covered with stitches and embroidered flowers.
By the end of the century, rural women were using wool or other readily available fabric instead of silk and velvet for their quilts, but the embellishment remained lavish. Harper’s Bazaar estimated that an elaborate quilt might require 1,500 hours of work.
Crazy, Baby! Quilt designs
Even though a traditional crazy quilt might have taken 1,500 hours to complete, I had no such ambition when I decided to make a crazy quilt for my granddaughter for Christmas of 2008. I was pretty sure I didn’t have the patience to do the tiny stitches required for traditional quilting, but since I enjoy embroidery, crazy quilting was a natural choice for me.
In addition to studying books with traditional crazy quilts, I had also recently visited a show including works by Henri Matisse in Washington, DC.
The Dessert was a particular favorite; it had a rich visual texture that was intoxicating to me.
His work tends to make the subject matter into flat patterns rather than suggesting depth; this, along with the repetitive patterns he uses suggested fabric collages to me.
Another artist whose work influenced me was Gustav Klimt. He, too, used areas of flat patterns that created visual textures. His subjects also become flat patterns that float in space rather than suggesting three-dimensionality. There may be a strong contrast between very sharp details and soft, ethereal areas that ease the tension of the painting.
There are also frequently very large patterns contrasted with tiny, intricate designs.
The richness of the gold in his work also suggested that I might use embellishment such as beads, buttons and ribbons to enrich the texture of the quilt, rather than sticking to simple embroidery.
A third design influence was medieval Persian manuscript painting. Here again, I found visual texture created by repetitive patterns.
In the Persian works, there is frequently a contrast between sharp, intricate patterns in the paintings themselves and softer, more cloud-like designs with very little color contrast in the borders of the paintings.
In these works, there is also a certain flatness, but this has more to do with drawing conventions of the time than with a modern artist’s desire to play games with the eye. The palette is more akin to that of Matisse, with an exuberance of color not commonly seen in Western depictions of today’s world.
In the works of Matisse and Klimt, the contrast tends to be between large flat areas of color and areas with smaller repetitive details. The Persian works tend to be more uniformly covered with pattern, with variation between the type (geometric vs organic) and scale of pattern.
There is also a similar richness of palette among the three groups of works, with jewel tones predominating, although Klimt tends to limit the palette within each painting.
I found much to inspire me in this collection of works, and a visit to my local quilting store left me agape with all the possibilities available. After cruising the entire store, I found myself making nearly all of my choices from the batik section, where there was still an overabundance of choices. Fortunately the staff was experienced and helpful in narrowing the selection.
The first crazy quilt I made incorporated fabrics from a variety of sources, in the best tradition of crazy quilts. The only requirement was that the quilt be washable. I prewashed all sorts of fabrics, including several that were not originally designed to be washable, in the name of investigation. This became Kylee’s Quilt.
A friend of mine enjoyed watching the design and construction of the quilt, and, when she found that she was to become a grandmother this summer, asked if she could commission a quilt for her granddaughter-to-be. This became Donna’s Quilt.
Since this new quilt was for an infant, I used all quilting cotton to make it light weight and easily washable, because, really—a quilt for an infant is going to need lots of washing. For safety, all buttons or beads are attached with ribbons.
A mutual friend then wanted a quilt for her grand-niece, so I made a third quilt, (Katie’s Quilt) and I realized I enjoyed the creation of these quilts enough to continue. Thus, Crazy, Baby! Quilts was born.