“The Crazy Quilt”: A Poem

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Crazy quilt, 1886, Elizabeth Fachmann (American, about 1862–1946), silk and velvet, pieced and embroidered. Indianapolis Museum of Art, Gift of Miss Edith Fachmann, 73.78

An exhibition I co-curated at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Crazy Quilts: Stitching Memories, finally opens in just a few weeks! And in honor of this fun, bright show, a look back at some of the archival research that influenced it.

Newspapers were filled with references to crazy quilts—a fad that lasted only about two decades beginning around 1880. Frequently such references were jokes at the expense of women, whose husbands, it was often proclaimed, suffered as their wives whiled their days cutting, piecing, sewing, and embroidering decorative patchwork quilts made of fabric scraps and elaborate stitches for their parlors. Poetry was one manner by which these jokes appeared; and though we would consider many of them offensive today (in their overtly patriarchal nature, among other reasons), it is worthwhile to revisit them to better understand the cultural mindset of the time. And if comedy is any indication of cultural mindset, then we know from these jokes and poems that crazy quilts were, at least for a moment, all the rage—despite any husband’s objections.

“The Crazy Quilt”
Originally printed as “Victim” in New York Graphic; reprinted in Michigan Farmer, April 14, 1885

I.
My darling wife, pray tell me
Why not in time for your cup of tea?
And the lady told me pensively;
Sew, sisters, sew; sew with care;
Sew on the work of the 10-inch square.
A blue silk bit for the upper side,
And a pink silk bit not quite so wide;
A bit of plush of an olive green.
And a smaller piece of velveteen;
A scarlet piece for the corner there,
And a scrap of white, and here’s your square.

II.
My darling wife, pray, promise me
To be in time for our cup of tea.
And the lady answered pensively:
Sew, sisters, sew; sew with care;
Put in your time on a 10-inch square.
Send by the post and go by the car,
And bore your friends both near and far;
The attic search, and search the chest,
For grandma’s dress and grandpa’s vest,
Cut, sisters, cut; cut with care,
Straight or zigzag, round or square.

III.
But, darling wife, do promise me
To be in time for our cup of tea,
And still she answered pensively:
Stitch, sisters, stitch; stitch with care;
Stitch on the work of the 10-inch square.
A bonnet crown’s a very good thing,
And a splendid ‘find’ is a bonnet string.
Most anything is sure to fit,
For it’s hit and miss, and miss and hit;
The feather stitch or the herring-bone,
Or ‘get up’ a stitch that’s all your own;
The trident stitch or the button-hole,
Cut, sisters, cut; sew with care,
Stitch ahead on the 10-inch square.
A yellow patch with a bit of blue,
A pumpkin brown with an old gold hue,
And a lemon-orange-reddish glare,
You’re sure to have to your 10-inch square!

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