Crazy quilts in the Victorian era in America were popular for home furnishings in the United States from the 1870’s through the early 1900’s. The American desire for bright, bold asymmetrical designs in silk and velvet drew from English Victorian styles, and from Japanese styles and goods that were increasingly imported to England and the United States after the 1850s. In fact, crazy quilts were often called Japanese quilts during the 19th century.
AHS has a lovely collection of several crazy quilts that as bright and beautiful as they are fragile and hard to preserve. As with many silk items, the use of metallic salts in the manufacturing of the fabrics has made them fragile, with areas of silk splitting, fraying, and shattering.
In this era, sewing machines, ready-made clothing, bedding, and machine-made lace and trim were becoming available in stores. Wealthy women could afford to purchase ready-made items, or buy sewing machines to speed up their work. For many, this allowed for time to spend on lavish home décor, such as crazy quilts. Like the silk hexagon quilt, crazy quilts were often made for decorating a formal parlor to receive guests. Since they were not for functional use as blankets, the maker could incorporate the most lavish and delicate materials, and make the quilt in any size or shape she desired.
<harper’s 1884 advertisements>
Link to http://hearth.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=hearth;idno=4732809_1452_002
As with many patchwork quilts, fabrics were both repurposed, saved as scraps, and purchased new for quilting, depending on the resources available to the maker. As crazy quilts grew in popularity, silk and velvet scrap bags became available for purchase through magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar. Embroidery, in the lavish Victorian style, often covered every seam in a crazy quilt to adorn the quilt with flowers, birds, bees, and other motifs.
<internet archive language of flowers illo’d by kate greenaway>
Despite their fragility, many fabrics are still bright and beautiful, showing the artistry and fine skills of their makers. This particular crazy quilt was made by Arlingtonian Julia Fillebrown around 1870, and donated to AHS by her sister Mary J. Pollard in 1923. Victorian style is described as rich, dark, lush and luxurious, with adornment, frills, and accessories on everything, which perfectly describes the Fillebrown-Pollard quilt. Decoration with flowers was a particular obsession, known as floriography, or the language of flowers. The Fillebrown-Pollard cat has several flowers, and one perfectly centered red patch with cats in the center. Cutting fabric to show specific patterns is called ‘fussy cutting’, and Julia Fillebrown was a master at this process.
The crazy quilts of the AHS perfectly capture this era of increasing availability of materials, machinery, and stylish decor to a growing society of wealthy consumers. The women Robbins, Winn, and Wyman families, among others in Arlington were participating in these styles and trends as they swept through the Victorian age. Documenting these fragile objects, where the weighted silk is rapidly deteriorating, is a big concern for museums and collectors. With careful storage, we hope the AHS collection of crazy quilts can be preserved, studied, and enjoyed for as long as possible.
Four centuries of quilts : the Colonial Williamsburg collection Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Williamsburg, Virginia : The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2014.
“Language of Flowers : Greenaway, Kate, 1846-1901.” Internet Archive. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 June 2015.
Brackman, Barbara. Clues in the Calico: A Guide to Identifying and Dating Antique Quilts. McLean, VA: EPM Publications, 1989. Print.
“Crazy Quilting.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 09 June 2015.
“Advertisements.” Harper’s Bazaar: Volume XVII, Number 2 12 Jan. 1884: 81. Home Economics Archive: Research, Tradition and History (HEARTH) of the Albert R. Mann Library, Cornell University. Web. 21 May 2015.