One Piece at a Time
My grandmother and several friends got together weekly, when their busy lives allowed, to piece and stitch, and to trade fabrics, stories, and political views. Their output was about two and-a-half quilts a year, so each woman brought home a finished quilt about every two years. Grandma, whose father was a farm labourer, had grown up in a large family and survived the Great Depression of the 1930s. She would fold each finished quilt lovingly and put it in her linen storage as a buttress against need at some later, unspecified date. When she died in 1962, I inherited a stack of beautifully handstitched quilts in brand new condition. I would never need another quilt in my life, or so I thought. As the year 2000 approached, I found myself working in a fabric shop that catered to quilters, in Nelson, British Columbia. Surrounded by women who were excited by quilt designs, patterns and colour, I was soon hooked.
Curious, I did a bit of research and discovered that Egyptian tombs give clear evidence that patchwork has been used decoratively for millennia, although evidence of quilting doesn’t appear in western Europe until the Middle Ages.
By the mid-fourteenth century, much of western Europe was deeply involved in the Crusades in the Middle East. Soldiers, to protect themselves from the sun as well as from the shock of blows, wore gambesons: shirts or jackets, made from two layers of heavy, canvas-weight linen, with thick fleece sandwiched between the layers and stitched in channels that held the fleece in place. These were frequently the only protection that most soldiers could afford, as they were able to make them for themselves.
Quilting, I learned, has been used in clothing manufacture in China, Japan, Mongolia, and high cold Himalayan nations. In the early fourteenth century, northern and western Europe underwent a Little Ice Age; the Thames, Rhine and Rhone rivers froze over and crops failed. Quilted clothing and bed coverings came into common use for their warmth. As the low temperatures slowly rose many years later, quilts took on a life of their own, becoming luxuriously embroidered and appliquéd, and often made from silk. The oldest quilted bed coverings extant are a pair of whole cloth (not pieced) quilts of Sicilian origin, made in the fifteenth century.
Throughout Europe, books of quilt patterns were frequently published at that time. Many of these pattern books made their way across the Atlantic during the early period of North American colonization. The harsher climate of the north slowed the spread of colonists into Canada, where evidence of early quilting shows up mainly in the Maritimes. In New France, the jupon, a quilted underskirt worn by many French women, appears to have been popular. In some surviving examples, it can be seen that jupons were taken apart when no longer wearable and split into two pieces, which were then stitched together to make bed coverings. As with most other early quilts, their makers are unknown.
With the arrival of the United Empire Loyalists in the late 1700s, quilting became extremely popular in Canada. Whether Acadians, United Empire Loyalists or settlers heading west in Red River carts, the majority of early Canadian women were poor and living far from supply centres. They were forced to turn their hands to whatever job needed doing. Frugality was a given, fabrics and fillers for quilts had to be supplied by a woman’s own labour. Even to trade for materials at the nearest trading post, she was required to offer something of equal value.
A piece of fabric, whether purchased or homespun, would be likely to go through several incarnations, the first being as a dress or shirt, curtains or a tablecloth. Then, cut up and worn to tatters in further use as dish cloths, towels and handkerchiefs, the smallest scraps- -still useable–would be stitched together as a quilt for one of the children’s beds. By 1867 less than 15 percent of Canada’s population lived in urban centres. As industrialization made machine-fabricated bed covers readily available, many quilts were put away. However, colonists were busy moving to the less developed parts of the country, where pioneer women were still “making do” and re-using fabrics. They continued to quilt, of necessity.
During the First World War, fabric manufacturers reduced their production of domestic goods to become major suppliers for the war. Fabric became hard to obtain and, in any case, few families could afford to buy it. As cotton sackcloth became widely used as packaging for household goods, this coarse material also became a readily available, cheap source of strong fabric.
The T. Eaton Company mail-order catalogue offered everything from pastry flour to coal in cloth bags and the Hudson’s Bay Company sold many of their products in similar sacks, to settlers in western Canada. Canadian and American manufacturers, quick to recognize this marketing opportunity, began to print their “feedsacks” with inks removable by washing (special instructions were included!) or they used rough cotton bags printed with designs aimed specifically at homemakers. Meanwhile, newspapers across the country printed clothing and quilt-patch patterns in their Women’s Pages, to be traced when homemakers recycled their feedsacks.
When the “Great War” ended, 60,000 young men did not return to Canada. This created a higher number of single Canadian women than ever before and, having to work hard to survive, they had little time for producing handmade quilts and other personal and household goods. With the Great Depression of the 1930s, quilting became an economic necessity again as every scrap had to be reused, used up, and worn out. Newspapers and magazines added quilt kits to their Women’s Sections and Eaton’s and Simpson’s catalogues offered bundles of fabric scraps to quilters.
During the Second World War, large numbers of women filled positions that had traditionally been reserved for men. Others, among them masses of rural women, working often in Red Cross and Women’s Institute groups, produced quilts for bombing victims and various relief agencies abroad as well as more elaborate and patriotic quilts for auctions and raffles at home, to raise funds for war bonds.
When World War II ended, many women had to remain in the workforce and full-time mothering became somewhat of a luxury. There was little time to teach their daughters “needle arts.” Although quilting did not disappear entirely, it was no longer seen as a necessity and the number of quilters in Canada dwindled. In the early 1950s, Thor Hansen, artist and designer, encouraged a Canadian Arts and Crafts movement and was one of the first artists in Canada to recognize quilting as an art medium. This marked the beginning of the rise of quilting from a “cottage craft,” or perceived women’s work, to an art form.
In 1971 a completely new movement was sparked with an exhibit: “Abstract Design in American Quilts” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York City, in which vintage quilts, many of them made by Amish women, were displayed like modern art. “Art Quilts” became part of the quilter’s vocabulary, and, for the first time, a medium in which almost the entire output had been the work of women, was elevated to the status of fine art. At work in that fabric shop in Nelson, BC, it took me only a matter of weeks to realize that quilting in the twenty-first century no longer has much to do with simply needing a quilt. It is, like all artistic media, something that takes over the hands and brain and raises the heart and soul to the level of artistry.
Sandi Wingrove is a writer and retired Architectural Technologist, who finds any kind of designing and drawing to be fun and satisfying, hence the fascination with quilt tops. Quilting is also a natural extension of sewing, which she has enjoyed since childhood.
Red Cross quilts were made to
aid victims of the war in Britain
(1939 – 1945) and distributed
by the Red Cross to help families
dislocated by the destruction.
Purchased by the Royal Alberta
Museum for the Western