Crazy Quilting

I met some interesting people when I took the bus for vacation. Sheila sat down next to me at the Fargo station to watch me stitch on a Hardanger piece. She lives in Canada now; but was born in India. Sheila talked about how the young girls in India would harvest spider silk which was used then for stitching. This sounded fascinating because it has to be incredibly difficult to do. What I knew about processing the silk from the silkworm cocoon seemed hard enough. As I worked on this newsletter, I thought about our conversation. I found quite a bit about spider silk, but not a lot on how it was harvested. Let me share some of the fascinating things about spiders and their silk.

It’s hard to imagine, but National Geographic reports there are over 37,000 species of spiders with new species still being discovered. I am sure that is really exciting for those of us who don’t like them. However, spiders really do have a purpose on earth…they are great insect controllers. One article I read suggested they were equivalent to a cat controlling mice and they actually had several "house spiders" on purpose. I am not going there. I find a spider, it gets to go outside. Anyway, to get back on track.

The silk is actually called gossamer, which is a protein fiber. It is incredibly strong, up to five times stronger than high-grade steel, lightweight, very elastic, and can hold its strength to -40 degrees Fahrenheit. Spiders produce different types of silk for different jobs, like web construction, protective egg sacs, and wrapping prey. Humans have been trying to use it for centuries. Ancient Greeks found it helpful to stop bleeding. Aborigines and Indian fishermen used it for nets. Prior to World War II the silk was used as crosshairs in telescopes and microscopes.

There have been a few references to using it for clothing. One of the most interesting experiments was done by Burt Wilder, who was a Civil War surgeon. He created a device to hold the spider while he harvested the silk. What information I could find said he was able to get 150 yards from one spider. That sounds like a lot until he did the math and found he would need to harvest that much silk from 5,000 spiders to make one dress! The time and cost was prohibitive. However, because of the versatility of this silk, many research facilities are looking at ways to create the silk synthetically. I don’t quite understand how it works, but one method that seems to be working is through goat’s milk.

Photo of spiderweb taken by Roz.

Many people detest spiders, yet we are often drawn to the beauty of their creations. Roz photographed several gorgeous webs just last month while out at the shack. We want to share this exquisite picture. To learn more about spiders and their silk, here are some websites to visit (reference link) (reference link)

If you want more academic information, here is a wonderful research paper.

Okay, so what does all of that have to do with today’s newsletter? What possible subject could I come up with that contains silk, spider webs, and stitching…..

Crazy Quilting

Crazy quilting began in America in the late 19th century due largely to the1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. The Victorian ladies wanted to create colorful and asymmetrical designs as shown in the textiles and pottery in the Japanese pavilion. What they created was like the scrapbook pages of the past, decorative rather than utilitarian. They offered glimpses into special events such as weddings, births, and family trees. The fabric often came from clothing or fabric remnants and could be almost anything: silks, satin, velvet, cotton in prints and solids. Even companies began to produce advertising especially for this quilt craze such as silk ribbons with tobacco or alcohol names. People used award and political ribbons also. The stitchers worked up beautiful designs and motifs using silk thread and ribbons along with cotton threads in various sizes. Embellishments were added when available including beads, buttons, charms, and lace.

Good luck spider postcard.

Spiders and their webs have been a popular motif for crazy quilts. But I wanted to know why we would dedicate time and materials to adding a creature that makes us shudder. Turns out there is a lot of folklore surrounding the spider. They are thought to bring good luck to weavers and spinners. Housewives often took great care to move a spider outside rather than kill it. If they killed it superstition said their house would never be clean. Spiders are thought to bring wealth to a family, perhaps thinking good fortune would become entangled in the web. Spider-Woman is a major goddess of the Pueblo Indians while Arachne existed in Greco-roman myth. She was a beautiful woman who wove flawless fabric over which there was a confrontation with the Goddess Athene. A religious legend is that a small spider spun a web over the cave entrance where baby Jesus was hiding to keep him from Herod’s troops. Even postcards from the Victorian era reflected the theme of spiders bringing good luck.

On to the stitching…..

Crazy quilting is an excellent way to use up some of your stash. If you are like me, you keep it all, big and small pieces of fabric, long and short fibers, beads, buttons, lace…..I could go on and on and on but you get the idea. Here is your opportunity to try some new things while recycling and reducing! If you like things neatly laid out and exactly charted, then crazy quilting will require you to step out of your comfort zone. The hardest part will be making your first stitch. Once you have accomplished that, then it might be hard to stop! The best thing about crazy quilting is there aren’t any rules. No one can point at your project and say you missed a thread or did a stitch wrong!!!

The fabric….

Traditionally most of the blocks are done on a base fabric like muslin. The individual pieces can be applied by applique or foundation patchwork. In applique, the pieces are cut out with an additional one-quarter inch seam allowance which is pressed under. The entire piece must be stitched down around the edges.

One of the popular methods for creating your fabric block is called foundation piecing, or sew and flip. You sew one side of the fabric piece directly onto a foundation fabric or paper pattern, face down, then flip it over. The next piece is placed face down on the previous piece and sewn along one edge, then flipped over, trimmed, and pressed down. It is much harder to explain than it is to do, so here is a wonderful website on foundation piecing (reference link). Judith Baker Montano uses a centerpiece method where the center block is placed and then additional fabric is added working out from that center. Check out Judith’s Crazy Quilt Stitch Tool.

You can use a variety of fabrics such as velvet, wool, cotton, linen, moire, or satin. Some stitchers used only one type of fabric in a piece, such as velvets. Other quilts might contain fabrics from grandpa’s shirts, pants, and neckties. It doesn’t matter if the fabric is patterned or plain. When working with patterns, the stitcher might embellish a flower or backstitch along the printed design. Using a variety of colors, patterns, and textures add to the overall look of your quilt. With today’s technology you can even transfer photographs onto fabric for family quilts.

The supplies…

You probably have enough in your stash to get started. The basic supplies you will need are:

A variety of needles to handle different jobs such as beading, crewel, milliner, and tapestry. Click here to see our entire selection of needles.

This is a wonderful way to use up leftover threads. Try experimenting with any of these threads and fibers:

It is best to work with a hoop to keep your tension even and your stitches straight.

A good thimble might be useful in pushing your needle through the layers.

A sewing machine, straight pins, rulers, and sewing scissors will all make your experience more enjoyable.

The stitches…

Now you have your fabric block stitched, it is time to decide on stitches. Carole Samples wrote a wonderful resource book Treasury of Crazy Quilt Stitches. In that book, she listed nine functions for stitches. Some stitches can be listed in multiple categories.

  • To outline shapes and pictures which may be filled in later with other stitches.
  • To decorate seams.
  • To decorate inside the fabric patch.
  • To fill in an area or complete a design.
  • To do the applique work.
  • To couch down lengthy stitches, ribbons or trims.
  • To tie the quilt whenever additional support is needed.
  • To finish the edges, although Carole has only seen one quilt done this way.
  • To pad a stitch or motif.

In 1949 Mariska Karasz outlined a classification of hand embroidery stitches in her book Adventures in Stitching. There are literally thousands of stitches and combinations. Stitchers kept journals and doodle clothes with various stitches. It would have been impossible to locate a stitch example if there wasn’t a way to "sort" them. Here are the six categories types and some examples of stitches in each category:

  • Straight thread stitch designs: arrow, fan, triangle, herringbone, geometric, cross-stitch, Holbein, fern and stem stitches.
  • Blanket and feather stitch designs: open and closed blanket stitch, feather stitches, and open and closed Cretan stitches.
  • Tied stitch and linked stitch designs: chain stitch, regular and scalloping fly-stitch.
  • Knotted and coiled stitch: colonial knots and bullion designs.
  • Combination techniques: two or more stitches are used to form a new stitch or a thread is wrapped around a group of identifiable stitches. Fro example you may use a fern stitch with individual chain stitches to create a branch of flowers. To create a butterfly, you have several horizontal stitches for the wings and then a sheaf stitch drawing the wings together where the wrapping becomes the body. Add a colonial knot and two pistil stitches for the head and antennae and it becomes a butterfly.
  • Laced/threaded and woven stitches: These are combination stitches that use two rows of backstitching with a design woven back and forth between them. This stitch is useful to secure a ribbon between the backstitched rows.

A category I would add would be one devoted to motifs. Many of the quilters today have elaborate thread painted designs. A wonderful book is Crazy-Quilted Memories.

Perhaps you want to carry on the tradition of adding a web. Not only for luck, but the spider and web motifs serve several functions: hiding seams, filling patches, and couching down long threads. The stitch combinations can be as basic or as complex as you desire. HGTV has a wonderful series on line about crazy quilting and lesson 6 gives some pointers on making a web and spider. Here is the link for the entire series. Scroll down to lesson 6 if you just want to learn more about the spider.


Don’t stop now! I’m sure in your stash you have extra beads, buttons, bells, lace, charms, and ribbons. Embellishments are the icing on the cake, so to speak. There is no right or wrong way to use them. You can use them as subtle additions or make them the focal point of the quilt.

Mill Hill presents a variety of beads in different sizes and looks.
Bead Creative Like Crazy is an excellent resource for uses beads. Buttons, charms and Treasures all add to your project.

Give it a try…

Crazy Quilting is fun. It is a great way to use your stash. We had a crazy quilt class at our 2009 Stitcher’s Retreat. The stitchers had a blast…even including a web and dangling spider on the needle case.

Crazy quilt retreat project 2009.

To help you get started I designed a crazy quilt Christmas tree ornament. I gathered up a bunch of things from my stash that I think will work.

Debi's stash.

For this project, I am using all cotton fabrics.
Here is what the foundation block looked like.

Foundation block.

When I sat down to stitch, I had a general idea how I wanted the tree to look. I wanted to use stitches to illustrate the categories above. As I stitched, my plan changed and evolved. I decided against some fibers and ideas, and decided to try others. Here is what it looked like when I decided to stop stitching.

Finished crazy quilt tree.

One special note: I didn’t think a spider web would be appropriate for my tree. However, the star on the top of the tree is done with the spider web rose stitch. The red "ornament" on the lower right side is either a wrapped candy or a spider suspended by the thin gold line. You decide!

Click here for these free pattern diagrams!

There are many books and resources available to get you started.

We hope these "helpful hints" make your stitching easier and more enjoyable!

For those interested in using this article or others published by Nordic Needle, Inc., please use this copy when referencing the information:

“The following article was written by Debi Feyh of Nordic Needle and published in their weekly e-mail newsletter. Permission was granted by Nordic Needle to share this article in (name of your publication). For information on subscribing to their weekly e-mail newsletter, visit A free mail-order catalog is available to you upon request if you live in the USA or Canada.”

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