Object Analysis Method

Preliminary thoughts and assumptions

A crazy quilt differs from other objects which will be included in the exhibit. In Prown’s hierarchical functional classification, the quilt is arguably in category 1 (artwork) or 5 (applied artworks, including furnishings); most of the other objects in the exhibit will fall firmly into category 3 (adornments). Prown raises an important point about objects—such as artwork—which are intended to “speak”…and may therefore also speak less than truthfully. It is likely that the creator of the quilt did not simply wish to ward off a chill, but consciously devised the object and, in her non-utilitarian concerns, offers cultural insights encoded in the aesthetics. Prown’s hierarchy might privilege the cultural information encoded in the quilt (even while conceding it to be more problematic than the unselfconsciously transmitted meanings of utilitarian objects), but such an object lacks the “potency” of clothing.1 Montgomery’s method—openly privileging subjective, sensual reaction2—will be useful for an object that is more artistic than functional. Severa and Horswill’s methodology (specifically the social-psychological beginning)3 is less applicable in this case: a quilt is not a garment, and as the only quilt in the exhibit it cannot easily be directly compared to the other objects. However, the properties and operations matrix of Fleming4 (which is among the works informing Severa and Horswill)5 is well worth consideration. Steele’s point about the importance of turning questions into a research plan is well-taken.6 Any question marks which creep into my final analysis must be ruthlessly interrogated.

Based upon the description of the object—a “large crazy quilt made from apparel fabrics with hand embroidery throughout,” circa 1884—I am beginning the project with certain assumptions in mind. I assume that the quilt was the work of one woman; that it was intended for display rather than use; that it was constructed without batting; that the patchwork design is asymmetrical; that it is unquilted; that it may be constructed in blocks; that its creator was influenced by popular culture, particularly magazines; that she had sufficient leisure time to produce an object that was not strictly functional; that she displayed a certain personal creativity in her selection of fabrics and use of embroidery.7 I believe it is very important to keep these assumptions in mind as I move forward with the project. Each suggests potentially fruitful areas of research (Were the materials specially purchased, or cut from well-worn clothing? Does the design closely ape any particular published examples? Is the fabric faded, as from display in direct sunlight, or does it bear signs of sitting in an attic for a century?), but still needs to be examined. I don’t want to miss any details about the actual object based upon generalized trends.

Proposed methodology

My method of analysis will largely follow Prown’s three stage process: description, deduction, and speculation.8 I will be informed by Fleming’s matrix.9 History, material, construction, design, and function are certainly important properties of an object, and the operations of identification, evaluation, cultural analysis, and interpretation will be performed throughout (though I will be aiming to do identification as part of my first stage and hold off on the remaining three). I will also fold in Montgomery’s steps where appropriate. I do not expect to proceed in a straightforward manner. Deduction will bleed into description, for example; Prown acknowledges the effect10 and Montgomery, opening with an explicitly subjective sensual response,11 embraces it.

Generally speaking, the first stage will primarily be concerned with observations which are as objective as possible, including those which are quantifiable. I will also seek to incorporate all available provenance data. Completion of content analysis will require some background knowledge about period quilting practice, but the bulk of my research will be back-loaded. The description stage will also incorporate all available provenance data. Even if the Historic Costume Collection cannot precisely identify the creator and date of creation, details about the object’s life before it entered the collection may prove illuminating. (For that matter, its life after entering the collection may also be worthy of examination.) Was it a family heirloom? Was it purchased at a flea market? Was it publicly displayed at any point in the past? It is quite possible that the museum staff will not be able to answer these questions. But I’d feel rather foolish if I didn’t ask and otherwise take advantage of their expertise. The specificity of the answers to these questions will influence my research.


  • Substantial analysis: size, weight, materials, fabrication, form, function, condition
  • Content analysis: examination of decorative motifs, ornament, color, style, techniques, trade practices
  • Formal analysis: color, texture
  • Provenance: creator, ownership, history, date


  • Sensory engagement: appearance, perception of intended users
  • Intellectual engagement: representational aspects, design and functional performance
  • Emotional response: viewer reaction, evaluation12


  • Theories and hypotheses: developing questions (and potential answers) about the object and its role
  • Program of research: scholarly approach to filling in blanks (e.g. object history) and proving (or disproving) formulated theories

1 Jules David Prown, “Mind in Matter,” Winterthur Portfolio 17 (1982): 2-4, 13, 15.

2 Charles F. Montgomery, “The Connoisseurship of Artifacts,” in Thomas J. Schlereth, ed., Material Culture Studies in America (London: Altamira Press, 1999), 145.

3 Joan Severa and Merrill Horswill, “Costume as Material Culture,” in Dress 15 (1989): 54.

4 E. McClung Fleming, “Artifact Study: A Proposed Model,” Winterthur Portfolio 16 (1981): 156.

5 Severa and Horswill, 54.

6 Valerie Steele, “A Museum of Fashion is More Than a Clothes-Bag,” in Fashion Theory 2 (1998): 331.

7 Said assumptions are based on some extremely preliminary online research. Judy Anne Breneman, “Crazy Quilt History: A Victorian Craze,” Womenfolk.com, http://www.womenfolk.com/quilting_history/crazy.htm, accessed 8 September 2012; Judy Anne Breneman, “Victorian Era Quilts from Silk to Cotton,” Womenfolk.com, http://www.womenfolk.com/quilting_history/victorian.htm, accessed 8 September 2012; “Crazy quilting,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crazy_quilting, accessed 8 September 2012; Betty Pillsbury with Rita Vainius, “The History of Crazy Quilts: Part I,” The Caron Collection, http://www.caron-net.com/featurefiles/featmay.html, accessed 8 September 2012; Betty Pillsbury with Rita Vainius, “The History of Crazy Quilts: Part II,” The Caron Collection, http://www.caron-net.com/featurefiles/featmay2.html, accessed 8 September 2012; Kimberly Wulfert, “1887: Crazy blocks al dente,” New Pathways into Quilt History, http://www.antiquequiltdating.com/1887_Crazy_Blocks_al_dente.html, accessed 8 September 2012.

8 Prown, 7-10.

9 Fleming, 156.

10 Prown, 9.

11 Montgomery, 145.

12 Unlike in Montgomery, 52, a monetary appraisal of the object is irrelevant; the concern is its most interesting and informative place in the exhibit.

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