COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Allen and Patty Brown are crazy about crazy quilts.
The Colorado Springs couple read about them, attend classes on them, display them in their home and in museum shows, and occasionally travel thousands of miles to find them or make heart-stopping bids online for those they covet most.
The “crazies,” as they are nicknamed, are bedcovers made of many random fabric shapes and sizes sewn in a seemingly haphazard fashion
“I fell in love with them immediately,” Patty recalls. “The colors, the lushness. I thought they were spectacular and was enthralled.”
Allen recalls being smitten by a crazy quilt when he was just a kid.
“I lived in Leadville and we visited the Healy House Museum,“ he said. “There was one on display and it was so colorful that I just stood and stared at it every time we were there. A few years ago it was still on display and I took a photo of it.”
The unusual quilt style had its first heyday from 1876 to 1886. More muted interest continued through the early 1920s. The Victorian quilts are now enjoying another renaissance among collectors and modern quilters who have the tenacity to make them.
The Browns have a couple of dozen in their collection and, yes, have even started to design and sew one.
Creating just one is a major undertaking, trying a quilter’s patience. The most elaborate can take more than a decade to complete, especially if it is sewn by hand, Patty says. Many are only tops and have not been stuffed and quilted. Some women never had the time or inclination to finish the projects or the money to buy large backing pieces.
Some historians have theorized that the quilt style got its name because residents in mental institutions who had only small pieces of fabric available created utilitarian versions during craft sessions. But most experts believe they are called crazy because of the wild designs, Allen says.
Every single seam is embroidered, and so are many of the adornments. The quilts are covered with beads, mementoes, trinkets, commemorative ribbons, handmade flowers, tiny gems, photos, old love letters and even collars from mourning dresses. Fabrics tended toward brocades, satins, velvets and silks.
The older quilts are easy to date, underlining the culture at the time. For example, the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, which featured Japanese arts, inspired crazy quilt motifs such as fans, cranes and kimonos. In lectures on aesthetics, playwright Oscar Wilde would hold up sunflowers as the epitome of aesthetic beauty, and so many appeared on crazy quilts. Jumbo, a famous Ringling Brothers circus elephant, figures from author Kate Greenaway’s children’s books and political ribbons were also popular subjects.
Patty explains that magazines such as Godey’s, Ladies Home Journal and Peterson’s promoted the trend by printing embroidery patterns. Tobacco companies lured new and repeat customers by including pretty ribbons in the packages, which women used in their quilts.
But those same magazines eventually gave thumbs down to the style, saying the time it took to make them was “too awful for words,” as one quilt history book said.
In 1983, Allen and Patty traveled back east on vacation, hoping to find their first crazy quilt to purchase.
It’s estimated that 250,000 crazy quilts were made in the 1800s, but few have survived, says Patty. Many deteriorated, especially those made with silk. Apparently Colorado ladies didn’t have the time: Few were made here.
Museum quality quilts have been appraised for tens of thousands of dollars. Others cost anywhere from $300 to $7,500 or more, depending on their condition and rarity.
“We didn’t find anything,” Patty said. “But when we got back home, we were visiting in Leadville and found one in an antique store.” The antique dealer had found it at an estate sale at the First Congregational Church in Denver.
Since then, they have collected more than two dozen, including one from a fortune teller’s estate.
‘Bells and whistles’
One of their favorite quilts is named after Ohio quilter Sarah Robinson, who made it in the 1880s. They obtained it from the granddaughter of Robinson, who was living in Denver. Robinson was very inventive and had a great eye for color.
“We call it the bells and whistles quilt because it includes about everything,” Patty says, including ribbons, chenille work, beautiful embroidery, beads, brass sequins and typical motifs, such as “Baptist fans,” so called because they were used during church services.
The Browns research the quilts they buy, even checking genealogy websites and history books to find out about the women who sewed the quilts they have collected.
“It’s frustrating because here are all these beautiful quilts and for the most part, the women did not sign them. I never figured out why they did so much embroidery and work and didn’t put their names on it,” Patty says. The ones they can trace have often been handed down through generations of families.
Sometimes it’s sheer luck that a quilt survived.
One of the Browns’ quilts is called their rescue quilt. It was once owned by a Florida woman. When she died, the new owner of the woman’s house threw everything away, including the quilt. It was retrieved by a neighbor.
One quilt they bought at auction they call the aubergine quilt because of its unusual dark colors. It has been featured in several quilt books.
Another favorite is their Dupont quilt, named for the family that passed it down. (They weren’t related to the famous Duponts as far as the Browns know.) The quilter’s son was a botanist, and so it features incredibly detailed silk and wool flowers done in crewel.
But the quilt that amazes them most is one the Browns call the double-sided quilt, called that because it is pieced on both sides, which is unusual in a crazy quilt. But what struck them most is that the buttonhole stitching handwork has 32 stitches per inch.
“I took a photo of it and blew it up so we could count. It is amazing,” Allen says.
The Browns come from a long line of seamstresses. Their mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers sewed clothes, quilted and embroidered. Allen’s mother created a utilitarian crazy corduroy quilt in the 1970s.
Patty has made several traditional quilts, including “Our Gift of Love,” which was done for her parents, and which was chosen to hang in the Colorado Quilt Council’s Capitol Show. It was on display above the doorway to the state Senate.
The Browns are in the midst of completing their first crazy quilt. They have completed 12 blocks.
“It’s a team effort,” Patty says. Allen has the vision, picks out the color palette and does some traditional Russian punch needle embroidery. Patty does the sewing, mostly done by hand except for the piecing.
The blocks, which have not been sewn together yet, have been appraised at $400 each. They include such mementoes as opals and garnets given by friends and family members, and jet black Victorian glass beads from her great aunt.
They cannot dilly dally around, either. The Browns have to have it done by April 2015, because the last step, the final quilting, will be done by a well-known Colorado quilt artist, Valerie Campbell.
“She is retiring and we had to get our name on a list,” Patty says.
That’s not much time, considering it takes more than a month to do a single block. They need 12 more blocks, plus the triangles for the borders.
“We are excited to finish it,” Patty says.
Collector Patty Brown says her No. 1 tip for those looking for crazy quilts online is: “If it looks homely on the Internet, it will be even homelier when you get it.”
Some other suggestions:
-- Do not store quilts in a cedar chest because the acids in the wood will deteriorate the quilt. They can be stored in PVC-free plastic tubs. But acid-free cardboard cartons only stay acid free for three years.
-- Use genealogical websites such as ancestry.com to research the creators.
-- Decide the maximum you will pay for a crazy quilt and do not go over it during the bidding at online sites such as eBay. “If you don’t get it, it wasn’t meant to be,” Allen Brown says.
-- It is OK if a crazy quilt has some fraying or even a spot of two. But just know that it can detract from the price and that spots don’t come out.
-- If you hang them, make sure they are well supported so they don’t stretch.
-- Don’t buy a crazy quilt just because you find one. Buy what appeals to you.