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Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Quilt, Crazy pattern

Elizabeth Hickok Keeler (1847–1926)
Ellie Keeler Gorham (1873–1965)
ca. 1883
Made in Ridgefield, Connecticut, United States
Silk, silk velvet, silk thread, metallic beads, and ink
74 3/4 x 68 1/4 in. (189.9 x 173.4 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of the Gorham and Nancarrow families, 1993
Accession Number:
Not on view
The Crazy quilt craze was so widespread in the 1880s and 1890s that it became the subject of comment in the press. The journalists of the trade paper "The Carpet Trade and Review" delighted in publishing anecdotes about men being accosted by young women anxious to snip the silk from the men's hat linings and neckties, to use in piecing their Crazy quilts. An explanation of the origin of Crazy quilts that appeared in the April 1885 stated that:
"‘Crazy’ patchwork originated in the following manner: A certain titled lady while learning embroidery in an English seminary lost her mind and it became necessary to confine her to a private madhouse. But she still retained her passion for needlework and spent most of her time in uniting pieces of material furnished her from the madhouse scrap-bag. Although unable to perform the difficult stitches of embroidery work, it was noticed that in joining the odds and ends of material given to her she invariably used contrasting or assimilating colors of thread or silk and that nearly every stitch was different from the others. Specimens of her work found their way outside of the asylum and since then millions of women, apparently sane, have found delight in imitating the handiwork of the crazy countess."
Whatever the origin of the use of the word "crazy" to describe this type of quilt, whether it refers to the cracked or "crazed" appearance of the blocks or to the possibility that a woman might go crazy piecing so many small bits of fabric together, by the mid-1880s, Crazy quilts were so popular that enterprising manufacturers offered them in ready-to-sew kits. The prospective quiltmaker could order complete kits in which there were precut pieces of silk that could be formed into blocks according to instructions explaining how to fit them together properly. Sometimes, the backing fabric was marked like the base of a jigsaw puzzle, showing where to place each piece of silk. Often the silk pieces themselves were stamped with a pattern, such as the outline of a flower, over which one embroidered. If quilt makers wanted to use their own silk and velvet scraps, they could still order appliqués, commonly machine embroidered, or at least sheets of perforated-paper patterns to use in tracing designs onto the patches. There were also iron-on transfer designs and even specially printed sheets of paper with oil-painted pictures that could be transferred onto fabric by pressing the paper backing with a hot iron. This explains the strangely uniform quality of many Crazy quilts, with their ubiquitous Japanese fans and Kate Greenaway figures. It also makes those Crazy quilts that are not as formulaic seem all the more extraordinary.
This quilt was a mother-daughter project. One of the donors, Dr. Grace V. Gorham (1902-1998), believed it to have been made by her mother, Ellie Keeler Gorham (1873-1965), and her grandmother Elizabeth Hickok Keeler (1847-1926). Among other charming fabrics, it includes an engraved patch of silk showing a fairy behind a wreath of flowers, on which is printed "343-Copyright by Robinson Engraving Co., Boston, 1883". Because it is one of the type of commercially available pieces made expressly for inclusion in Crazy quilts, it helps to date this one. This quilt, made when Ellie was about twelve, was probably an enjoyable project to work on with her mother—filled with brightly colored silks and many fancy embroidered patches, it must have been much more engaging for a young girl learning to sew than a regular cotton pieced quilt. Even its backing fabric is delightful—it is an extraordinary yellow-green printed silk with a repeating pattern showing rust-red crackles emanating from gray floral centers.
[Peck 2015; adapted from Amelia Peck, "American Quilts & Coverlets in the Metropolitan Museum of Art," 2007]
by descent, Gorham and Nancarrow families, until 1993.
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