Crazy Quilts are one of the most iconic genres of quilts, although they do not meet the common definition of a quilt--3 layers of fabric, usually consisting of a fabric backing, wool or cotton batting for warmth, and fabric top that are held together by stitches that pierce all three layers. A Crazy Quilt is recognizable by its seemingly haphazard construction that joins multiple irregularly shaped fabric pieces to a a foundation fabric, which is then decorated with embroidery stitches along fabric edges and painted and embroidered flora and fauna. Crazy quilt layers are secured by fastening the layers together with knots, a technique called tying.[1] The crazy quilt phenomena went well beyond a trend. It was recognized as a 'mania' at its height, and the crazy patchwork technique was used on table mats, pillow covers, a women's robe and much more. An interesting article, published online by Gesche Westphal-Fitch and W. Tecumseh Fitch, statistically evaluated crazy quilts as a "class of potentially random aesthetic artifacts," something considered to be contrary to much human production, which tends toward ordered structures and symmetry. [2] While American cotton crazies have been found that date to the first half of the nineteenth century, the Victorian-era crazies with their sumptuous fabrics and elaborate embroidery represent the quilt style's heyday, which began in the mid-1870s, peaked in the mid-1880s, and faded by 1910. Most Victorian crazy quilts were show quilts that were meant to "demonstrate its maker's good taste and knowledge of the popular decorative trends."[3] Rev. Strachan's presentation quilt, which is dated 1900, was made towards the end of the Crazy quilt fad, and its style fits the changes exhibited by other late-trend crazies.


Author Cindy Brick's book Crazy Quilts: History, Techniques, Embroidery Motifs provides a very good history of crazy-style patchwork, which is traced back to the 12th century and the magical Harlequinn of the Venice carnival.[4] From the sixteenth century in Japan, a crazy-style patchwork kimono-styled outer garment pieced from "gold and silver silk brocades and damask" has survived.[5] Brick also describes an American cotton crazy that is believed to be pre-1840 that was acquired by the Maryland Historical Society in 1996. The Maryland quilt is nicknamed the Kaleidoscope quilt after a note written in 1913 by Lucy Tyson Fitzhugh of Baltimore County, Maryland who says that she was 5 years old when the top was pieced by her mother and older sisters. This crazy-patchwork quilt does not have a batting layer and the blocks were not constructed by applying the irregular pieces to a foundation, but rather they were sewn edge to edge. Brick also notes that a handful of other cotton crazies have been identified from the same era as the Maryland Kaleidoscope, as it is called. Another crazy style, known as the Contained Crazy, is also discussed. This style combines crazy-style blocks set together and separated from one another by sashing, from which the term contained originates. Contained crazies, according to Brick, were from Pennsylvania and the New York Valley region before 1850. Cotton crazies were never as common as other patchwork styles such as the Nine Patch and Irish Chain popular in the pre-Civil War period.

Scholars have determined that several important factors came together to set the stage for the Victorian-era crazy quilt fad to explode in the 1880s including Japanese design influences, the Aesthetic artistic movement, and silk manufacturing expansion. A perfect historic storm combined to push traditional pieced block quilts with their tradition and order out of fashion; they were replaced with a new format that "offered women so much opportunity for creativity and originality."[6] In 1876, the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia introduced the broad American public to the principles of the Aesthetic movement and Japanese design. Virginia Gunn carefully explores the relationship between Crazy quilts, Outline quilts and the Aesthetic Movement in an article published in Uncoverings in 1985.[7] According to Gunn, the Aesthetic Movement, which originated in England in the 1860s under the influence of leaders and artists such as John Ruskin and William Morris, profoundly influenced furnishings and decorations for the home.[8] Through art, creativity, and aesthetic, "A beautiful home would lift the morality and productivity of the people living in it." [9] The women involved in the Aesthetic Movement, joined social groups, such as Decorative Art Societies, rejected older models of expression such as calico patchwork, and took up new forms of expression, such as the crazy quilt and outline quilts. Embroidery was a central feature of the Decorative Art Societies, which also offered skills that could supplement household incomes. The exact Japanese influence is unknown but periodicals of the period, such as Harper's Bazar, and subsequent scholars have traced references to a Japanese screen design exhibited at the Exposition, the Japanese "cracked-ice" design, and a tesselated pavement pattern in a Japanese painting. [10] [11] Oriental imagery and design aesthetics had been a fascination of Americans since the Colonial period, but the Japanese exhibit at the 1876 Exposition was one of the first opportunities for Americans to see Japanese artifacts and art up close. In the 1880s, the term Japanese patch or patchwork was used to describe the piecing of irregular and mosaic like fabric bits. Authors often note that the availability and affordability of silk fabrics contributed to the crazy quilt frenzy of the late nineteenth century, but why this was so was not explained until Patricia Cox Crews took up the puzzle. According to Crews' research, what made the difference was that "American manufacturers mechanized silk production far sooner than manufacturers in China, Italy, France or England." [12] This made the American market less dependent on expensive imports and "brought a historically scarce luxury within the reach of middle class Americans."[13] Crews explains further that this manufacturing expansion was influenced by the high cost of labor in the U.S. compared to China and the labor intensity of silk processing. Moreover, citing Lillian Li's work on the China Silk Trade, Crews notes that Japan, prior to the opening of trade to the West, experienced a period of growth and innovation in sericulture, which allowed them to capitalize on the increased U.S. silk demand. A tariff on silk fabrics and not raw silk also supported the expansion of the domestic American silk manufacturing industry after the Civil War. The first crazy quilt article in The Art Amateur in October 1882, explained the new fad this way: "When the present favorite style of quilt was introduced it was called the Japanese, but the national sense of humor has been too keen, and the Japanese is now generally known at the 'crazy' quilt. There is method in its madness, however, and put together with a good understanding of color effects, the crazy quilt may prove an artistic piece of work."[14]

A study conducted by Kathy M. Jung and Jo B. Paoletti sought to understand how the "crazy quilts from the early years of their popularity differed from those produced later in the nineteenth century" through an analysis of 37 dated Victorian Crazy quilts.[15] They found that quilts during the height of the fashion incorporated more embroidered and painted motifs, including the most popular image of the fan. Earlier quilts were exclusively silk, while later quilts incorporated silk, wool, and/or cotton. Later quilts in the crazy style employed larger pieces and the variety of embroidery stitches decreased. According to Jung and Paoletti, this decrease was also "associated with a decline in the number of extant quilts--from 21 examples in the period 1882-1886 to 16 quilts from the years 1887-1910."[16] The authors discuss the potential limitations of their study, which notes that dated crazy quilts were rare, fancier versions may have been more highly valued and thus preserved, and also fancier versions may have been more likely to include dates.

The quilt that is the subject of this wiki site falls into the category of Victorian-era crazies that exploded in popularity in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. It is made up of 16 blocks of various irregular shaped fabrics pieced onto a foundation fabric. Like most crazy quilts, Rev. Strachan's quilt is smaller than a traditional bed covering. The seam edges have also been embroidered and initials of the quilters, who we believed stitched the blocks, are included on each block. The fabrics used in the quilt vary but include silk velvets and other fancy fabrics. Some of the quilters were also identified as dressmakers, which would support the availability of the varied fabrics found in the quilt. The blocks are set side by side, therefore it is not a contained crazy. The quilt is framed with a single border, a red velvet, which is typical of the style. The quilt does not exhibit the elaborate embroidery and painting of the fanciest crazy quilts but it is also a quilt made by multiple individuals as a presentation gift for a student pastor; therefore, the amount of time available to complete the quilt would have been limited and could explain the limited amount of surface embellishment other than seam embroidery, initials and limited painted and embroidered motifs.


Blaire O. Gagnon

Last Updated:

December 2, 2015


California Heritage Quilt Project

Records are housed at LACMA
If time allows it would be fabulous to review this project to see if any of the quilters we've identified had quilts documented during this project.
Books related to the California project include:
1990 Ho For California!: Pioneer Women and Their Quilts by Jean Ray Laury and CHQP.

Repiecers: Southern California Quilt Study Group

Reference Page for Crazy Cloth Quilts: 1900-1930

Crazy Quilt Exhibitions:

American Crazy Quilts
Baltimore Museum of Art, June 3-November 29, 2015

A Fairyland of Fabrics: The Victorian Crazy Quilt
International Quilt Study Center and Museum, July 24-October 25, 2009
While the brick and mortar exhibition is long over, the web presence of this exhibit is a treasure.

Caring for Crazy Quilts:

Care of Victorian Silk Quilts and Slumber Throws
Encyclopedia Smithsonian


Crazy Quilt Poems
  1. ^ Patsy and Myron Orlofsky, Quilts in America (New York: Abberville Press, 1974), 334.
  2. ^ Gesche Westphal-Fitch and W. Tecumseh Fitch, "Spatial Analysis of 'Crazy Quilts', a Class of Potentially Random Aesthetic Artefacts," PLOS ONE 8 (2013): 1-11.
  3. ^ Elizabeth V. Warren and Sharon L. Eisenstat, Glorious American Quilts: The Quilt Collection of the Museum of American Folk Art (New York: Penguin Studio, 1996), 72.
  4. ^ Cindy Brick, Crazy Quilts: History, Techniques, Embroidery Motifs (Minneapolis: Voyageur Press, 2008), 13-81.
  5. ^ Brick, Crazy Quilts, 15.
  6. ^ Patricia Cox Crews, "Fueled by Silk: Victorian Crazy Quilt Mania," Textile Society of America Proceedings (Lincoln: TSA, 2010), 1.
  7. ^ Virginia Gunn, "Crazy Quilts and Outline Quilts: Popular Responses to the Decorative Art/Art Needlework Movement, 1876-1893," Uncoverings 5 (1985): 131-152.
  8. ^ Gunn, Crazy Quilts, 131.
  9. ^ Ibid.
  10. ^ Penny McMorris, Crazy Quilts (New York: E.P. Dutton, INC., 1984), 12-13.
  11. ^ Brick, Crazy Quilts, 13-81.
  12. ^ Crews, "Fueled by Silk," 5.
  13. ^ Ibid.
  14. ^ As quoted in Gunn, Crazy Quilt, 143.
  15. ^ Kathy M. Jung and Jo B. Paoletti, "Documentation and Analysis of Dated Victorian Crazy Quilts," Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 5 (1987): 18
  16. ^ Jung and Paoletti, "Documentation and Analysis," 23.