Historic crazy quilts, embroidery tell a personal story from the past at Kings County museum

Kirk Starratt kstarratt@kingscountynews.ca
Published on July 24, 2016

Lisa Bower, assistant curator of the Nova Scotia Museum’s History Collection, with some of the embroidery samplers in the Prescott House Museum collection.

©Kirk Starratt

STARR'S POINT - Crazy quilts handed down through the generations often carry deep personal meaning and represent much more than scraps of old fabric sewn together.

Lisa Bower, assistant curator of the Nova Scotia Museum’s History Collection, said historical textiles is an area where she’s building an interest. She said she became intrigued by crazy quilts in particular after attending a conference at Queens University last year, a Canadian women’s artist history initiative.

“They really presented things like quilts and embroidery as a form of self portraiture for women,” Bower said. “I’m an embroiderer myself, so when I saw these fabulous crazy quilts with that connection it really resonated with me and I became more interested in them than I had before.”

Bower presented a brief history of crazy quilts and other embroidered treasures at Prescott House Museum, part of the Nova Scotia Museum network, in Starr’s Point July 24. She said it was a beautiful way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Bower said crazy quilts were intended as art pieces and the style is quite different from traditional quilts. Crazy quilts are very abstract and asymmetrical, influenced by design sensibilities from the mid to late 1800’s.

People used special, high-quality fabrics such as velvets and silks. They often took a long time collecting the fabric and were selective in what pieces they used. Bower said crazy quilts were meant for display, not to be slept under, because they couldn’t be laundered.

The pieces chosen often carried deep sentimental value, such as a favourite brother’s tie or the lining from a father’s top hat. Hand embroidered motifs and designs on top joined everything together.

“I see them as a type of fabric-based scrapbook because they were meaning-making and they were all about collecting memories and documenting memories,” she said.

Bower said the Nova Scotia Museum’s crazy quilt collection isn’t huge but there are a few samples at Prescott House and some in the main collection. They have some by prominent women, such as wives of historic political figures, and others that were produced by women who weren’t well known.

Bower said a lot of this information could be found in a Nova Scotia Museum publication called Old Nova Scotia Quilts by Sharon MacDonald and Scott Robson. They documented many quilts in the Nova Scotia museum collection and in private collections.

Bower said she likes working with her hands and enjoys the detailed work of embroidery, a skill she learned from her grandmother.

She said the popularity of embroidery has waxed and waned but, like other heritage skills, it seems to be making a comeback across Canada. It’s very popular in the United States, Great Britain and Australia.

Did you know?

If you enjoy quilting and embroidery, joining a guild can be a great way to become more involved.

Bower belongs to a Halifax-area guild, the Town Clock Stitchers. This is a chapter of the Embroiderers’ Association of Canada. There are many embroidery and quilting guilds across the province.

Bower said joining a guild is a great way to build up your skill level, learn from other people and learn new techniques. She also enjoys learning about history and working with historic textiles, so “it all just sort of comes together.”

For more information on the Embroiderers’ Association of Canada and member guilds, visit www.eac.ca. For more information on the Nova Scotia Museum, visit www.museum.novascotia.ca.