These mazes of (mostly) precious fabrics - silk, velvet, brocade, woven ribbon, satin, and lace - patched together in asymmetrical designs can shimmer like stained glass when artfully made.
"Crazy" quilts come in all sizes and fit all sorts of creative personalities. Check out the textile collections of many large museums (the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Denver Art Museum, the J.B. Speed Art Museum in Louisville), and you will find numbers of these luxurious quilts carefully preserved.
"They were a fashion, a look for the interiors of homes," says Amelia Peck, curator of textiles at the Met. "They were made at a period when women had a little more leisure time and more money to buy the fabrics. They were affluent objects. Most are made out of silk, which goes along with the rise of the silk manufacturing trade in America."
Ms. Peck points out that most of the quilts are smaller than bed-size. The quilt had gone from utilitarian object to a decorative object. "They were made to make the room look pretty," Peck says, "because beautiful objects around the home were thought to be ennobling ... they would help [family members] learn to appreciate beauty."
There are various explanations for the appearance of the quilts and their distinctive designs, which were all the rage in the 1880s. The Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia (1876) introduced a broad spectrum of the American public to Japanese arts and crafts.
Some Japanese screens at the exhibition were covered with textured gilt paper, probably decorated with various materials. They may have been a source of inspiration for crazy quilts. Other experts speculate that the "crazy" design may have been taken from the "crackled" surface of some porcelains or of dyed "crackled" Japanese fabric, or even the "tessellated pavement" (made of mismatched stone fragments) figured in a painting.
"They appear to be a random piecing of fabric that looks haphazard," says Denver Art Museum textile curator Alice Zrebiec, "but a lot of planning can go into these things. There are good crazy quilts and bad ones."
She says that the beginnings of this quilt type are also often linked to the aesthetic period of the 1880s and the desire of needle workers to do more than produce utilitarian objects, but to make quilts an artistic expression.
The craze for crazy quilts probably peaked toward the end of the Victorian era, but they are still popular. Every good museum quilt collection includes them. Some of the quilts are exquisitely beautiful, others as ordinary as romance classics. The best of them speak of the creative spirit alive and well and living at home - until they grace art-museum walls, that is.
Take the Denver Art Museum's wonderful current exhibition, "Crazy Quilts and Other Curiosities." What instantly strikes the eye is how modern they can look, with their bold colors, fragmented forms organized on large grids, with details of pure sentiment, and gorgeous references to personal or family history imbedded in the embroidery.
Sometimes, women made them together. One quilt was made by six sisters who contributed individual blocks to the whole, forming a tactile statement of family solidarity.
In another piece, the ladies of a church group created a powerful design using bold color and diamond shapes in red wool and other mundane fabrics. It was a gift to a pastor's wife who was moving with her husband to Denver. The women embroidered the date (1920), their names, and signs of their religion and purpose into the quilt. It's a record of a life together, complete with mysteries and remembrances.
Ms. Zrebiec points to one lovely quilt and notes that fabric from the dresses of three different governors' wives is thought to have been included in its making. "Sometimes they have histories that can be verified," she says, "and others are only hearsay - 'according to the donor,' That is always the problem with oral history."
*'Crazy Quilts and Other Curiosities' is on exhibition at the Denver Art Museum through April 7.