Closed to outsiders until 1854, Japan was a focus of fascination for much of the Western world. The 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia gave Americans their first look at the Eastern nation’s artistic style. Shelves filled with Japanese pottery captivated attendees, who marveled at sophisticated finishes that created the illusion of cracks. The refreshing patterns and quality of craftsmanship were quickly adopted by decorative arts practitioners in America in several disciplines, but quilters transformed the aesthetic into a nationwide mania: the crazy quilt.
With a mishmash of fabric scraps sewn together in a seemingly random pattern, crazy quilts echoed the crackled finishes of Japanese porcelain that entranced Exposition attendees; most quilt historians believe that the crazy quilt was named after the “crazing” or “cracked ice” effect that appeared in Japanese porcelain. The East Asian influence also accounts for the appearance of fans within crazy quilt patterns, often the only identifiable image among the asymmetrical fabric scraps. By the end of the 1800s, the fad was so widespread that the quilts were simply referred to as “crazies.” Women’s magazines included instructions for their readers to make their own, and textile companies began offering prepackaged kits, providing the sewer with all the fabric scraps she would need.
While some historians claim that crazy quilts were a money-saving pastime, allowing makers to take a kitchen-sink approach by sewing excess fabric scraps into a quilt, the majority of Victorian-era crazy quilts were composed of fancy silks, velvets and valuable borders and threads. Crazies were carefully planned, each stitch sewn with premeditated intent. Rarely functional, these quilts were decorative pieces, hung on walls or draped across furniture.
The use of such luxurious materials goes against popular associations with patchwork, a technique that originated as a means of extending the lifespan of worn garments when money was tight. Yet American decorative arts reclaimed the look, popularizing it across even the wealthiest of homes. In contrast, Japan’s own patchwork-like needlecraft, known as boro, began as peasant clothing, worn by the lowest class of 17th-century Japan. Similar to the hodgepodge nature of crazy quilting, boro is scrap-upon-scrap, sewn together to create a rich layer of fabric. Today, boro is a highly valued folk art that continues to inspire Japanese fashion and textiles.
Ultimately, the national exchanges of the 1876 Centennial Exposition had effects no one could have anticipated. Porous national and cultural borders created an environment ripe for creative cross-pollination. Tracing the connections between these art forms deepens our appreciation of each, intertwining the histories of nations meeting for the first time.
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.