Wednesday, January 01, 2020

In Progress: The Transformation of an Antique Crazy Quilt

 (Above:  Stitching in the living room.  Click on any image to enlarge.)

About a month ago, I purchased a stack of five vintage and antique quilts at Bill Mishoe's auction.  The lot set me back $20 plus 10% buyer's premium.  Two of the quilts were consigned back to the auction house along with a bunch of other "junk".  They recouped only about five dollars after the commission.  I didn't care.  Two of the other quilts have joined my enormous stash of used household textiles, but one of the quilts ... well ... I would have happily paid much more to own it.  I adore antique crazy quilts!  Who doesn't? !!!

 (Above:  The antique crazy quilt unfolded on my frame shop's dry mount machine.)

I'm no expert at dating vintage and antique quilts but I'm fairly sure this piece isn't a late 19th century work.  It probably was made in the 20s or 30s.  The construction is four blocks by four-and-a-half blocks.  Every block includes an embroidered name or initials.  The blocks were carefully attached onto a two-layered, bound blanket.

 (Detail of the crazy quilt.)

Most of the fabrics were in rather good condition.  All the elaborate stitching is in fine shape.

 (Detail of the crazy quilt.)

Like many antique crazy quilts, the silk fabric was frayed or completely gone, but I never saw this as any problem at all.  From the moment I spotted this crazy quilt at the auction house, I knew what I wanted to do.  I just wasn't sure which approach would work.  I considered using fabric stiffener to on the entire surface and collaging with acrylic medium, but ideally, I didn't want to change the original quilt that much.  Ideally, I wanted to hand stitch a new transformation.  There was only one way to see if that approach would work. 

 (Above:  The crazy quilt stretched and stapled to a heavy-duty stretcher bar.)

I pulled in every direction, measured several places, and finally settled on an outer dimension for a stretcher bar.  My husband Steve built it.  I took a deep breathe and started stapling.  Within a half hour, it was PERFECT, so perfect that it seemed like destiny or a Christmas miracle.

 (Above:  Anonymous photos.)

My next step was to select hundreds and hundreds of anonymous photos.  These images came from neglected family photo albums bought at auction or picked up in antique shops or thrift stores.  I've been collecting and using these pictures for years.  I can't help myself.  It feels like a rescue mission to save them for artwork.  Yet, it is difficult to stitch old photos.  They are, basically, paper. 

(Above:  Anonymous photos being tacked to Fusion 4000 and unbleached muslin in order to be fused together in a dry mount machine.)

Thankfully, I own a frame shop and know exactly how to fuse photos to fabric.  I've done this plenty of time before, especially when constructing my Grid of Photos.  Fusion 4000 is a custom picture framer's method of attaching fabric to a substrata ... like foam-centered board.  This is often done in order to stitch a christening gown to a background for a shadowbox presentation.  It works, however, between fabric (as in the unbleached muslin) and any paper (like the backside of any photograph).  After five minutes in my dry mount press (at 185 degrees and exactly 28 pounds-per-square-inch pressure), the photos are rather permanently attached to fabric.  After about a day of "fusing", I started to cut the photos to usable sizes.  This meant eliminating most of every picture, saving just the "person" or part of a group. 

 (Above:  Composing the anonymous images onto the crazy quilt.)

I used a tiny dab of hot glue to attach the images to the crazy quilt.  The images are not in a single orientation.  Like most crazy quilts, there isn't necessarily a "top" or a "bottom".  The signatures and initials on this crazy quilt went in every direction ... and thus, so did the pictures I added.

 (Above:  Working on the crazy quilt.)

By Christmas, the crazy quilt was installed in the living room.  It is held in place by four workhorses and rotated as I finish an area.  Due to the size, I cannot reach the center.  I knew this even before I stretched the piece but I also knew that stitching flat and stretched was the best approach with the least amount of handling to the surface.  My stitching is naturally rather tight.  Even quarter sized pictures have about twenty+ stitches.  It just looks right to me.  As a result, I had to learn rather quickly how to stitch with a thimble.  I generally don't like thimbles, but there's a constant pressure to pierce the photo, the muslin, and the layers of the crazy quilt.  It's also rather difficult to stitch the photos at the very edge.  They are directly above the stretcher bars ... but I am determined and the process is going very, very well.  Frankly, I'm madly in love with this piece already.    

 (Above:  Detail of the upper left corner.)

Although the images have no fixed orientation, I decided which corner will include my signature.  It will be in the traditional, lower right corner.  The final piece will be hung as a vertical, and the row of  "half blocks" will be at the top.  After I finish stitching around all the photos I can reach, I will add buttons, charms, clock gears, keys, and other relatively flat embellishments.  In order to cement this plan (because I wasn't totally sure whether "more" would be better), I added some of these things to the upper left corner.  I like it.  For me, "more is always more" ... which probably accounts for my admiration for minimalism!  I also like what I can't do!  So ... more will be added after the photos. 

(Above:  Detail of stitching.)

When everything except the center is complete, I will remove the piece from the stretcher bars and support the surface on two, large tables.  The tables will be carefully pulled apart enough for me to "get to the center".  I will stitch the center (which is less than a full block in width ... I have long arms!)  Then, I will mount acid free boards to the face of the stretcher bars and re-staple the quilt.  Finally, I'll stitch along the perimeter of the block ... straight through the quilt and the acid free boards.  This will prevent the top of the quilt from having to support all of the weight.

I've got a long way to go but am loving every minute of this adventure.  While stitching, I am trying to decide a title for this transformed crazy quilt.  Conceptually, I am determined to allow the antique piece to still exist ... so far, so good.  I am also determined to transform the piece to speak to the 21st century.  I want the work to remind viewers that the original makers are as unknown as those faces from the past that I've attached.  This is about the "anonymous" nature of most household textiles and thousands of neglected family photos.  This is about the way the digital age has changed our relationship to nostalgia, snapshots, family heirlooms, and home decor.  So far, I've been wrestling with word and potential titles.  The best to date is Crazy in the Millennial Age.  I'd love to hear other ideas!   


Terry Whyte said...

“Still Crazy after all these Years”. I have followed your blog almost from the beginning and am in awe of your creativity and the amount of work that you do. Love everything you do but this really speaks to me.

Sharon Morton said...

I absolutely love this piece! I really like your work that uses old vintage items. Thank you for sharing!

pam said...

Absolutely astounding! I was wondering what you did on the satin pieces that were degrading. Did you applique a new piece over those portions?

Ann Scott said...

This is an incredible project and I enjoyed reading your process, which is hard for me to fathom! I have no title ideas. It seems to me one would have to handle this piece to come up with the most suitable name. It is beautiful even now!

Shasta Matova said...

So beautiful! I was thinking Crazy For You due to the anonymous people.

Dawn said...

I thouroughly enjoyed reading about your process as well as seeing your finished photo. You have definitely made a work of art.

Jennifer said...

Absolutely amazing concept and working to fruition. So inspiring. Charge $15,000 and market to the Quilt Museums or collectors. Still underpriced but perhaps more realistic in the Man's / Non artist world. This work has tremendous value ... those collectors out there will realize that.

I'm keeping your posts as I may try something similar on a mini scale. Using personal family photos, watch parts, keys, memorabilia .... such a legacy to share. My 95 year old mother is currently in hospital, Comfort Care only, an artist similar to yourself as she collected and treasured anything and everything that could be used for art making.

Thanks for posting such detailed and well explained process notes.

Good luck with your "releasing" of this art piece to the world. I imagine it will travel far and wide, with you accompanying and offering explanation and perspective. Love it to bits.

Susan Lenz said...

Thank all of you for leaving such nice comments. In this day and age of social media where most just look at the pictures, it truly means the world to be that some are still reading! I love to write! To Jennifer ... blessing for your mother!