Object Description

The description of the crazy quilt follows the object analysis methodology outlined previously. While informed by others’ work, particularly E. McClung Fleming and Charles F. Montgomery, it largely draws upon Jules David Prown’s three step process. The first step, Description, consists of substantial analysis, content analysis, formal analysis, and consideration of provenance. The second step, Deduction, explores sensory engagement, intellectual engagement, and emotional response. The first step is less obviously subjective. Taken together, they provide a sketch of what the object is and how humans interact with it.

The quilt is “bed-sized” (in the neighborhood of 5 feet square) and may have been used as a bed covering. The backing and border are machine-quilted silk. The top consists of sixteen blocks constructed from apparel fabric, extensively embroidered. Many of the fabrics are solid colors, but there are also stripes, plaids, and patterns. The blocks and their component fabrics are joined with elaborate stitches. Based upon tactile examination by museum staff, there is no batting. Some basting stitches are visible. The quilt is in excellent condition.

The pieces are joined with fancy stitchwork, executed in a range of colors and styles. Some of the stitches are reminiscent of vines, leaves, wheels, and arrows. The work is largely ornamental, far beyond what is necessary to hold two pieces of fabric together.

Two decorative motifs recur throughout the quilt. A Japanese motif is evident in the four corner blocks; their inner corners are dominated by a fan. (The fans are the only instances of representational piecework, as well as the only symmetrical elements.) One silver-gray piece of fabric is embroidered with a design of a figure holding a fan, wearing a kimono and clogs. The entire asymmetrical design of the quilt evokes the Japonism popular during the period. A floral motif appears in the form of embroidery; blossoms are stitched onto every block. Roses, daisies, pansies, tulips, sunflowers, and other varieties are represented. Isolated, whimsical designs are also utilized, including a three-dimensional cattail, a star, and a horseshoe. A stylized “L” and the year “1887” anchor the quilt socially and temporally.

The fabric colors are vibrant and varied, reflecting fabric options newly available to customers. Though a number of the fabrics are patterned, for the most part the quilter selected solids and used her own skill to embellish them. Bright yellows, oranges, and blues “pop” the most (although the sheer number of pieces, the repeating colors, and the busy nature of the embroidery actual mitigate this effect), but there are a number of softer or more restrained colors: pale pinks, grays, and creams, and more stolid blacks, browns, olives, and burgundy.*

Many of the fabrics, including the silk border, have a sheen. Reflected light emphasizes the three-dimensionality of the quilt: component pieces have miniature hills and valleys, dictated by the manner in which the fabrics were joined or the angle at which the quilt is held. This effect is obvious in the photographs, taken under indoor lighting with a flash directed at the object. A surface such as the quilt’s provides tactile interest: slick silks, interrupted by a plateau of embroidered flowers or a bumpy line of fancy stitches, giving way to the velvety floral design native to another piece of fabric or the soft, rounded head of a cattail.

The initial “L” presumably represents the maker of the quilt or perhaps its recipient. 1887 may be the date of completion, a significant occasion, or (less likely, given changing tastes) the date the project commenced. Per Collection records, the quilt entered the repository in 1962, courtesy of a donor residing in New York City. At the same time, the donor provided a Parisian handbag and a fan “in Oriental case.” The handbag was valued at $10, the fan $100, and the quilt $15. The low relative value of the quilt may reflect the unpopularity or unmarketability of a quilt executed in this style; it certainly reflects indifference toward the amount of labor involved in its creation. (And labor was almost certainly the most expensive aspect of the quilt; with the exception of the backing and border silks, the quilt is constructed of very small pieces of fabric. If recycled from clothing, they would require no additional cash outlay; even if purchased specifically for this project, the quilter might simply have sought out scraps, as she did not use even a full yard of any given fabric.) The donor’s first name “Louise,” paired with the embroidered “L,” is suggestive of a connection to the woman who made the quilt, perhaps a relative. Despite living in New York, the donor chose a repository in Philadelphia. While this may simply have been due to the Collection’s reputation or collection policies, it may also reveal a connection between Philadelphia and the donor (and perhaps the quilt specifically). Genealogical research may provide additional details.

The overall appearance is madcap and asymmetrical, numerous design elements blurring into a single multi-colored whole. The quilter had obviously embraced the “crazy quilt” aesthetics and techniques popularized in a variety of magazines, and the quilt would have been identified as representative of that style. A closer examination would reveal the skill and effort involved in the actual construction and ornamentation of the quilt. Intimates of the quilter might have a general appreciation for the work; other quilters would be able to judge the craftsmanship on a technical level. The quilt could encode numerous meanings. It is possible that some of the incorporated fabrics had sentimental appeal derived from the owner or an occasion when they were worn (though this is not immediately obvious). Some of the idiosyncratic motifs (such as the horseshoe) may have conveyed a specific meaning, either symbolic or a reference to a particular event. The “L” and “1887” are surely significant.

The quilt is primarily a decorative piece, not a functional object intended to provide warmth. The design is influenced by the widespread popularity of Japanese design elements, most obviously reflected by the asymmetrical construction of the quilt top and the incorporation of the fan motif. Despite the quilter’s enthusiasm for “crazy” asymmetry, in their placement the fans also introduce a degree of symmetry, anchoring the corner blocks. One wonders if they were conceived as an early element, consistent with designs already familiar to the quilter, upon which she felt less reliance as the project continued; if they were inserted at the end, in an effort to bring order to the project; or if the quilter consciously chose a hybrid design for its aesthetic appeal.

The quilt is rather overwhelming upon initial viewing. When describing its color, the most truthful answer feels like “all of them.” The sheer amount of embroidery initially detracts from the skill on display. A careful examination of smaller portions of the quilt—individual blocks or pieces—allows for a greater appreciation of the craftsmanship involved. Depending upon one’s literal perspective, the quilt changes: an exuberant splash of colors when viewed from a distance of several feet (if hung or spread upon a piece of furniture) becomes an intricately detailed display of embroidery skill at a distance of inches.

* Unfortunately, I can’t post pictures of the quilt. (Mine are hardly professional anyway; hopefully more accomplished shots will appear online in conjunction with the exhibit coming up next year. And if you’re local to Philadelphia, you can make arrangements to see the quilt in real life.) But to provide an idea of some of the colors on display, I sampled some of my pictures and came up with a list of hex codes. Plug them in at Colorlayout.com or equivalent site: #931111 (cranberry), #eed229 (bright yellow), #f03143 (bright pink), #b7ab93 (silver gray), #1191c2 (bright blue), #56130d (brown), #111111 (black), #566a2d (moss green), #edd6a0 (cream), #db5814 (orange).


One thought on “Object Description

  1. Pingback: Delightfully repurposed fabric | Owls all the way

Comments are closed.