By Starrla Cray
DELANO, MN In the late 1800s, women weren’t afraid to be bold with their hand-stitched quilts.
Known as “crazy quilts,” the pieces included a myriad of textures, shapes, and colors, embellished with Japanese-inspired embroidery.
The quilts were also of supreme quality, as Delano resident Norm Anderson can attest.
His grandmother, Anna Oleson Trydahl Kirkelie, created one of these masterpieces circa 1885-1894, and each stitch is still bright and beautiful.
“A nationally-known quilter came to look at it, and was blown away,” Anderson recalled.
Norway to Minnesota
The quilt’s story begins with Anderson’s great-grandparents, Osmund and Frank, who came to the US from Norway about 1852, and homesteaded in southeastern Minnesota’s Fillmore County.
Osmund served in the Union Army, and in December 1865 about a year after he returned home Anderson’s grandmother, Anna, was born.
Anna received her early education at a country schoolhouse, and later spent two years at Breckenridge Institute in Decorah, IA.
“It was kind of like a finishing school or a college prep school, but it wasn’t a university,” Anderson said.
By the time she was 20, Anna had completed her education and was serving as a teacher first in North Dakota, then near her hometown.
“For the next nine years, she taught school,” Anderson said.
A change in plans
Meanwhile, Anna’s older sister, Birgit, had married a man named Ed Kirkelie at age 16.
“They had seven children,” Anderson said. “There was one that died, so there would have been eight.”
Then, in 1894, Birgit died at age 32.
In addition to the pain of losing her sister, Anna was faced with the responsibility of raising the children, who ranged in age from 2 to 15.
At age 29, Anna married Birgit’s husband, and took on the role of wife and mother.
“It was to be a marriage of convenience,” Anderson said.
Twelve years later, Anderson’s mother, Helen Kirkelie, was born. Anna was 41 at the time, and hadn’t planned on having a child, according to Anderson.
Ed passed away in 1934, but Anna lived another 28 years, passing away at age 97.
Making the crazy quilt
Anderson estimates that Anna made the crazy quilt during her teaching years, between 1885 and 1894.
She embroidered the names and initials of family and friends on it, but none of the seven children are included. There is a patch with Ed’s name, but Anderson said it appears to have been added at a later date.
The crazy quilt fad was inspired by the Japanese Exhibit in the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, which featured asymmetrical art and splintered designs.
According to Womenfolk.com, crazy quilts became a popular subject in many women’s magazines until about 1910.
Throughout the late 1800s, women like Anna cut velvet, silk, wool, cotton, and other fabrics into interesting shapes before expertly stitching the pieces together.
Embellishments like the ones on Anna’s quilt were common. Flowers, birds, a tea cup, horseshoe, and fan are just a few of the intricate designs she included.
“She was an artist,” Anderson said.
He remembers using many of his grandmother’s hand-stitched quilts, mittens, sweaters, and rugs growing up, but he believes this was her only crazy quilt.
Colorful, unpredictable, and interlaced with history, Anna’s crazy quilt has become a one-of-a-kind treasure.