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THE CRAZY QUILT

Stories, origins, and historical research

by Laura Lynn Reiss

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This crazy quilt was made by my great-great-grandmother, Nancy Chilton, during her lifetime, which spanned from 1864-1960. The quilt was likely completed between 1890-1930, based on the history of these quilts and the information known about her personal life. The details of its inception have been passed down five generations. The information I have gathered is from a mix of sources--scholarly articles, magazines, blogs, ancestry records, and through stories that have been collected from my grandmother, Laura Leslie, as she remembers.

 

The crazy quilt came to me via my grandmother, Laura Leslie. I remember opening up her "orange cabinet" as we affectionately call it, that was filled with sewing notions, scraps of lace, and tattered baby clothes, among other heirlooms and craft supplies. The majority of these pieces were handmade, things that she acquired from her grandmother and kept carefully placed inside the cabinet of treasures. On many occasions we would sit in her living room, unpacking the old boxes filled with bits and bobs, quilt pieces, wooden thread spools, and miscellaneous items. The crown jewel of its contents was the crazy quilt. We would unfold it and examine the beautiful embroidery and discuss how long it would take to hand sew and embroider a quilt like this, memorized by the skill, thinking of the hands that made it. As the story goes, some of the fabrics used were from men's shirts and I like to look at the fabric pieces, deciding which ones might have been on the back's of my ancestors. 

 

I inherited the old Sellers Hoosier cabinet and its contents in 2022, when my grandmother moved out of her home of 40+ years in Pontiac, Illinois. Her home, like her, was filled with stories and treasures. A place where I found comfort and intrigue. A place of connection; a window into the past.

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Laura Lynn Reiss, 2020, Pontiac, Illinois

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Crazy quilt, 2020, Pontiac, Illinois

Laura Leslie, 2020, Pontiac, Illinois

Family History

Nancy Chilton (Whitsel), was born in Ohio to Mary "Polly" Whitsel (Buck) and Daniel Whitsel. The family moved to Iowa when Nancy was a young baby. While I have not yet uncovered much about the Whitsels, I do know that Nancy married William Chilton, and they lived in Oskaloosa, Iowa before moving to East Des Moines sometime between 1896-1910. The exact whereabouts of the Chilton family farm are unknown, although we can assume it was nestled somewhere in the 60 miles between Des Moines and Oskaloosa. They were a humble family. William was a farmer and Nancy cared for the home and their five children. Miraculously, Nancy lived to be 96 years old and passed away in Givin, Iowa in 1960. As stated previously, the quilt was likely completed between 1890-1930, based on the history of these quilts and the information known about her personal life.

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A note written by Laura Leslie, describing the photo to the right

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William and Nancy Chilton, date and location unknown

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The Chilton family farm, date and location unknown

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Nancy Chilton, location unknown, between 1950-1960

Crazy Quilt History

In the late 1800s, Crazy Quilts grew in popularity and became the first needlework craze in America. Patterns, kits, and silk scraps were widely sold for women to create their own patchwork textiles. These quilts are known for their beautiful, yet irregular shaped pieces of fabric and embellished with embroidery to create one-of-a-kind luxurious quilts, lined with cotton or silk.  
 

It seems likely that western quilts derived from the Japanese patchwork style of yosegire, reusing precious fabrics in coats and kimonos. This is thought to be true because Japan began trading with the West in 1854. In 1876, a variety of textiles were displayed at the Japanese stand at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Of the 38 million people in the United States at that time, an estimated 10 million visitors experienced the exhibit. Several historians claim this exhibition and resulting popularity of Japanese craft was the inspiration behind American crazy patchwork (Westphal-Fitch and Fitch). The article, “Spatial Analysis of ‘Crazy Quilts’, a Class of Potentially Random Aesthetic Artefacts” written by Gesche Westphal-Fitch and W. Tecumseh Fitch, mainly focuses on the mathematics (and rarity) of humans creating truly random patterns. We will not focus on the mathematical aspect, and instead allow their research to inform us on the history of these unique quilts.  
 

You would often find these embellished treasures in parlors or delicately placed on piano benches. Mainly used for decoration, the Crazy Quilt sensation gave way to utilitarian quilts that became popular in the 20th century, which tells us that their popularity, and consequently, lifetime spanned just 50 years between the 1870s and 1920s. Although, crazy quilts were still occasionally being produced, and are still being made today by dedicated quilters. 

 

Unlike the traditional crazy quilts, my great-great-grandmother's quilt was clearly used. It's been mended. Fabrics have deteriorated, stitches have come undone, and in general, it shows signs of wear. To this day, in 2024, it is, after all, between 94 and 134 years old.  

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The back of the crazy quilt, showing patches

The Method

Crazy Quilts are typically created from blocks using the foundation method. These blocks are made from odd-shaped fabric pieces, often utilizing scraps. Silks and satins were regularly used, elevating the overall quilt feel and appearance. Each piece of fabric is hand-stitched on to a backing piece of fabric, often cotton or muslin, one at a time. After the first piece of fabric is stitched to the backing fabric, the second piece is placed, right sides together, and one edge is stitched down overlapping (and ultimately hiding) the seam of the first piece. It is then ironed flat, and the same method is repeated until the block is complete. These quilts are meticulously embellished with cotton or silk embroidery thread, using a variety of stitches. The blocks are sewn together to finish the quilt top, and more embroidery is added to these seams before the backing is added. There is no such thing as “over embellished” when it comes to crazy quilts. The possibilities for these stunning quilts are endless, and there is no question why they spiked in popularity.

I recreated a small section of a different crazy quilt, which gave me a much better insight into the construction of these quilts and how much time was spent embroidering them. This can be viewed here

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The Iconography & Stitches

Flowers, feathers, birds, and insects were popular motifs. Oriental motifs appear as well, especially the fan, whether embroidered or created by piecing silks together. The feather, herringbone, Cretan, satin, and stem stitch, as well as French knots are used throughout my great-great-grandmother's quilt, among others. The motifs mainly include flowers and geometric shapes, but you can also spot a couple of fans, and a fish.  

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Conclusion & Acknowledgements

It has been a pleasure to learn about this family heirloom. I believe that a significant amount of research can still be done, focusing on the fabrics and studying the stitches of my great-great-grandmother, Nancy Chilton's quilt. I consider this project ongoing, and will continue working on it as time allows. This research is a living document and will be updated periodically. 

I will forever be grateful to my mother, Laura, who named me after my grandmother, just as she was named after hers. Not everyone gets the privilege of knowing their grandparents, and I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to get to know my sweet grandmother, and learn about our family history through her. When I examine textiles and other artifacts that came from the "orange cabinet", I feel connected to the family members before me. I suppose at this point, I have taken on the role of family archivist, and it is one I am proud to have. Both my grandmother and mother are inspirations to me and have supported me along my creative and educational path.

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The three reigning Lauras, Laura Lynn Reiss, Laura Leslie, and Laura K. Reiss

Notes

While researching this topic, as with most fiber arts, I found the words “crazy quilt” to be used as a metaphor for a variety of topics, none of which having to do with the actual history or construction of a physical crazy quilt. Instead, “crazy quilt” is used to illustrate a point: combining a variety of things together and embellishing them until it feels cohesive, makes things make sense. Through researching this and other fiber arts, I've learned that textiles serve as metaphors for much of human experience. They're a common thread.

Bibliography

“Crazy Quilt Embroidery - Set Your Creativity Free.” Needlework Tips and Techniques, www.needlework-tips-and-techniques.com/crazy-quilt-embroidery.html. Accessed 11 Mar. 2024.
 

“History of the Crazy Quilt.” AllPeopleQuilt.com, www.allpeoplequilt.com/quilt-patterns/history-of-the-crazy-quilt.
 

“Home | World Quilts: The Crazy Quilt Story.” Worldquilts.quiltstudy.org, worldquilts.quiltstudy.org/crazyquiltstory/. Accessed 11 Mar. 2024.
 

“Stitches for a Crazy Quilt.” PieceWork, pieceworkmagazine.com/stitches-for-a-crazy-quilt/. Accessed 21 Feb. 2024.
 

Westphal-Fitch, Gesche, and W. Tecumseh Fitch. “Spatial Analysis of ‘Crazy Quilts’, a Class of Potentially Random Aesthetic Artefacts.” PLoS ONE, edited by Luis M. Martinez, vol. 8, no. 9, Sept. 2013, p. e74055, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0074055. Accessed 8 Dec. 2021.

Images obtained through Laura Leslie's collection, as well as my own. 

Updated 3/12/23

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