#MyrtleMondays: A Victorian Quilting Adventure

Last week I promised you more Myrtle-related Making posts in 2021. As Miss Judson would say, no time like the present!

Myrtle Hardcastle Mysteries #3, Cold-Blooded Myrtle, is coming your way October 5.  In that book, we learn more about Myrtle’s mum, including the fact that she (like your Learned Author) was a needlewoman. A crazy quilt she made when Myrtle was little becomes a key piece of evidence in cracking an old mystery:

I nudged Peony out of the way to free the coverlet. It was a crazy-patch quilt Mum had pieced from scraps of our old clothes. Here was a bit of striped silk from her wedding dress, there a snippet of Father’s robes from law school. I could find what I was looking for in the dark, but I pulled it closer to the window and the streetlight outside. In a lopsided trapezoid of dark velvet was an embroidered dove, and Mum’s initials: JBH. 

Cold-Blooded Myrtle

Crazy quilting had its heyday in the last quarter of the 19th century, thanks in part to the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Newly trading with the West, Japan sent art and artifacts to display at the Exposition, including pottery with traditional crackled (crazed) glazes.

Inside the Japanese Pavilion at the Centennial Exposition

Crazy quilting did not begin with the Expo, but the crazed glazes and beautiful textiles on display reignited the Victorian passion for imaginative shapes and exquisite ornamentation. Soon needlewomen in England, America and elsewhere were taking inspiration for their own work, reimagining the aesthetic and adding their own sensibilities to this celebration of asymmetrical design and embellishment. It became a truly Victorian artform that combined all the global influences of the day, and reflected the skills, artistry, and daily lives of the women who made them. Unlike traditional patchwork bed quilts, a utilitarian artform, these quilts were intended for display only—one might even remark, rather like the women themselves: accomplished and elegant, adorning the home with their grace and beauty. (Read more about middle class women and girls and their pursuits here.)

Crazy quilt on display at the Legler Barn Museum near Kansas City (I think that W in the center is actually an M)

Crazy quilts have been brewing in the back of my mind for some time.  When we were in college, Husband CJ (then Boyfriend CJ) worked as an intern at the Iowa State University Museums, including the Farmhouse Museum, ISU’s oldest building. The Farmhouse has several Victorian crazy quilts in its collection, including this exquisite 1882 piece by midwestern needlewoman Lydia Carver Stark:

Gift of Margaret Johnson. In the Farm House Museum Collection, Farm House Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.

More information about Stark’s quilt can be found here, along with a splendid essay by history professor Dr. Amy Bix on the history of crazy quilting.

CJ has been a fan of crazy quilts since his Farmhouse days and has been hinting at such a project for a very long time. But it does take a lifetime of sewing to build up enough scraps to produce one!

We saw this beautifully-preserved 1890 crazy quilt at the Kansas City Quilt Festival in 2019.

Well, those years, and the fabrics, have added up, and CJ and I are looking forward to celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary this fall. What better way to observe this milestone than to commemorate the last two-and-a-half decades of sewing (and life) with one epic work of textile art?

Like Myrtle, I know each of these scraps by heart. There’s my very first cloak fabric, a scrap from my Mary Poppins costume, dresses I made for my nieces, the doublet I made for my late FIL…

It’s taken me some time to find my groove with this project, experimenting with various piecing methods, threads, stitches, and equipment. (One thing to be said for being a lifelong needlewoman: I already have all the stuff!) But I’ve found my rhythm now, and having a splendid time sewing and embellishing. My blocks are a combination of traditional foundation piecing (the scraps are sewn to a flannel background) and “improv piecing” (not a Victorian term! LOL), scraps sewn together to create the random shapes. The foundation fabric helps stabilize the various weights of the fabrics and supports the embroidery.

Was there ever a year more fitting for a crazy quilt than 2020?

Many favorite Victorian symbols found their way into the embroidery, such as spiderwebs, gloves, and fans, along with more personal motifs and signatures. The International Quilt Museum has more information on the global influences on crazy quilting. It’s fascinating stuff!

My third block, pieced and stitched on New Year’s Day, 2021, features an anchor–a nod to the Farmhouse quilt that started it all. (On a technical note, after trying several other options, I’ve found this inexpensive plastic embroidery hoop to be ideal for holding this project just tight enough to stitch on without crushing the fabrics or embroidery. The 8″ working area is easy to handle and plenty roomy for covering the seams.)

I’m really having fun seeing this piece evolve. I’ll be sure to keep you updated here periodically, and follow me on Instagram for more regular updates.

Stitch on! You’ll see more of Myrtle’s mum’s crazy quilt in Cold-Blooded Myrtle, October 5!