Prior to 1900, many American women tended to salvage whatever materials they could from old clothing, curtains, bedding, cloth sacks, and whatever pieces they had left over from sewing projects. They handstitched these irregular shapes, uncoordinated colors, and discordant textures into no-nonsense quilt blankets that covered working-class beds.
Having little formal education, knowing nothing of mathematics or geometry, and often using the crudest of tools, these industrious souls created quilts with totally random designs. Their intent was bedding, not art. Still, many had a delightful feel for what they did. And what they did was create an entirely new and unexpected American art form we now call the crazy quilt.
Of course, they didn't use the term crazy quilt. That was left to women who liked what their earlier counterparts had done. A little surprisingly, these later sewers were sufficiently skilled with needle and thread that they sought out a vehicle with which they could show off their special talents. They practiced a tad or more of what today would be called one-upmanship. Their intent was to outdo a local rival. Self-proclaimed victories, however, soon proved hollow and frequently generated competing claims of superiority. This inevitably led some quilters to submit their creations to third parties for judging, initially at fairs.
Pictured above, right: Modern Crazy Quilt
by Luis Michel of Schofield, WI
In appealing to outside judging, quilters generated considerable community interest and, in turn, brought viewers out to admire the winning pieces. In effect, by taking an American tradition and intentionally using contrasting textures, shapes, and colors, these quilting enthusiasts gave crazy quilts an artistic place in the home. Decorative pieces graced beds and, for the first time, walls and furniture.
Somewhere in this process, an unknown designer or admirer coined the term crazy quilt. This served to distinguish this style of quilting from later, more defined creations that were gaining popularity.
A growing body of evidence now suggests that the crazy quilt, for all its humble beginnings, was, in fact, the world's first true quilt, at least in the form we recognize today.