Canadian Quilter Article – A WWII Quilt Comes Home

by | Jun 13, 2022 | Article

This article is published and beautifully illustrated in Canadian Quilter – Summer 2022 edition

When I stitch by hand, whether quilting, embroidering or crocheting, I often listen to ‘Haptic and Hue’, a podcast about the history of cloth and textiles and the people who make them.  The broadcaster, Josephine Andrews, is a hand weaver, and shares detailed and provocative research about textiles from around the world.  Midway through Season 3, I emailed Jo because she offers a ‘giveaway’ with each podcast to the first person to respond. I included my mailing address with my response, as well as my usual signature under my full name “Researching Canadian Red Cross Quilts”.

Alas, I was not the first to respond, so didn’t win the small gift of fabric, but the gift that came to me instead has been priceless. Here, in part, is how Jo responded:

“Your e-mail took my breath away.   In the early 1990s, my mother and I ran a morning collection point collecting blankets for Kurdish refugees who were fleeing into the hills of Kurdistan, in bitter weather away from the death squads of Saddam Hussein’s army. These blankets were to be piled onto a big container truck and driven out to eastern Turkey where it was hoped they might provide some comfort. Unseen by us, someone handed in a patchwork quilt. As strongly as I felt about the Kurds, I also felt that, in return for a donation, the quilt should be saved. We fished it out of the pile and have held onto it every since. We know nothing about it, who it went to and who had it between 1943 and 1992, and we know nothing about who made it. I attach a picture of the label that is on it, and some pictures of the quilt. I think it might interest you. Let me know what you think! Warm Wishes, Jo Andrews”

What did I think? What did I think???? Well, for several years, I have been researching WWII quilts made by the women of Canada as charitable contributions to the war effort.  I discovered this topic when I was enrolled as a Master’s student in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.  There has been little research into the variety and vast number of items handmade by women through voluntary production sustained over the six years of the Second World War.  Though it has been referenced briefly in some modern popular quilt history books, it has not been fully researched and documented, regarding the types of items made, the quantity made, where and how they were made, how they were requested, organized, gathered, shipped and distributed in Britain and Europe.  I have been seeking to assemble this information from primary sources – that is, in the newspapers, periodicals and documents of that time period – in scrapbooks and records of Women’s Institutes, in the archives of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire, in 1940’s newsreels of the National Film Board of Canada, and many others.  Some of the clues I have gathered have been short phrases, tiny articles in the Society pages of newspapers, headlines that lead to other sources, and so on. The Canadian Red Cross was involved in this making, gathering and distribution, but their national archives were pieced out to individual communities just before I started this research. So what is known and documented about the quilts and other items women made is strewn all across the country, buried in microfilm, in little notations, in old files and file boxes, lost or waiting to be gathered together.  That is the puzzle I am working on.

The Winona Circle Quilt from Grace United Church, Gananoque

Because you see, besides making bandages and sheets and pajamas and slippers for hospitals, and knitting socks and sweaters and vests and balaclavas, plus sewing clothing for British civilians, Canadian women sewed quilts. From the research I have done so far, I know that they made over 400,000 quilts, but it is likely closer to 500,000 and possible more.  Of these quilts, 250-300 surviving quilts have been documented in Britain, the Netherlands and Germany by the Canadian Red Cross Quilt (CRCQ) Research Group in England. In Britain and Europe, these quilts are sought out, collected and treasured in both public and private collections. 

These quilts are not like most quilts in public and private collections. They are not the most striking or most cleverly designed, the piecing isn’t particularly precise, and the hand quilting is rarely neat and tiny.  The fabrics in the pieced blocks are rarely interesting; sometimes they are simply humble shirting fabrics or cotton flannels. The backing is often a striped flannel, and the batting is often bunched from use and age and washing many times in the last eighty  years. There are certainly few of these quilts in good condition. They are most often faded, sometimes torn and mended.  So it is not surprising that they received little notice until the late 1990’s.  What is particularly interesting and identifiable about these quilts is a tiny printed or woven label, usually sewn on by hand to a corner on the back. The label most often reads ‘Gift of the Canadian Red Cross Society’. Sometimes the label says ‘Canadian Red Cross – Kitchener Branch’ or ‘Moose Jaw Branch’, referring to the community in which the quilt was made. 

Winona Circle Quilt
Cloth label on the back of the Winona Circle quilt

When Jo Andrews wrote to me, she shared a photo of the label on her quilt. It did not have the typical Red Cross label that I had seen on other quilts.  The label read, in neat and clear handwriting by pen on a piece of cotton sewn deftly to a back corner of the quilt:

“W.V.S, Winona Circle, Grace United Church, Gananoque, Ont, Canada”

This was interesting to me for two reasons. I don’t live in Gananoque, but because of the way our postal system works, Gananoque is my postal address. The second point that interested me was that the label indicated the church where it was made, and even what appeared to be the name of a group at the church. In my research thus far, I had not found this much detail on the label of one of these quilts, so this was exciting.

I headed into town to the small community library in Gananoque to see what I could find out.  I also emailed Grace United Church to ask if anyone could tell me about the ‘Winona Circle’ or if there was a way to reach out to members of the church to ask if anyone remembered a mother, or aunt or grandmother talking about quilting for the war.  Most of the historical records of the church had been lost in a fire in the 1970’s. At the library, the community newspaper, The Gananoque Reporter, in continuous print since 1860, is on microfilm.  Hours spent in microfilm research has taught me to scan quickly, and after looking at a number of editions, I soon learned where the church and society pages were, and what types of articles made the headlines.  By the end of the first day of scanning, and I had found reference to the ‘Winona Circle Women’s Auxiliary’ at Grace United Church, and I had found reference to a newspaper sponsored fundraiser and clothing drive call ‘CFB’ or ‘Clothing and Food for Britain’. Articles about the success of the drive, along with the names of the people who donated both financially and in clothing, quilts and blankets, was posted on the front page for many weeks. 

In the meantime, while I was at the library, my inquiry to the church was circulating among elders and senior members of the church.  Answers began to flow in.  An article from a church history book indicated that the Winona Circle was established around 1910, and was named after the then minister’s daughter, Winona Pitcher.  And then suddenly, after a few more emails were exchanged, one church member sent me this message:   “Somewhere, on my computer, I have a scan of a magazine page my Grandmother Scott saved, wherein Clementine Churchill thanked those in Canada who contributed [I believe] quilting to the war effort”.

The existence of copies of letters from Britain to a Gananoque quilter during the war was very exciting. One was indeed from Clementine Churchill, wife of then Prime Minister Winston Churchill, though that one appears to be more like a form letter. Others were from very grateful recipients of quilts, people in Britain who had taken the time to send a ‘thank you’ note to the woman who made their quilt and had pinned her name and address onto it. And finally, there was a lovely letter from the Women’s Voluntary Service, which appears to be a personal note offering many thanks.  ‘Grandmother Scott’ turned out to be ‘Mrs. George Scott’, or Annie Keating Scott. Though we don’t know if she was a member of the Winona Circle auxiliary, we do know she was a member of Grace United Church, and in my mind, that connected her to the quilt that Jo Andrews had found in Britain.

Letter from England to Annie Keating Scott

I sent all of this off to Jo – articles from the Gananoque Reporter and of course the letters Annie Scott had saved. Jo was as excited as I was!  She went to visit her mother who was the keeper of the Winona Circle quilt, and she and her mother made the generous decision to return the quilt to the community where it had been made. They carefully rolled and wrapped the quilt and sent it ‘home’. Jo asked me to be the custodian of the quilt until it found a permanent residence in the community of Gananoque. On November 11th, 2021, a few members of the community from the Municipal Offices, Library, Museum and Grace United Church, met at the library to receive the quilt on behalf of the community.  I reminded the group that though we do not have records of the members of Winona Circle of that time period, we can be certain they were grandmothers and mothers and aunts of many community members who still reside in Gananoque, a beautiful waterfront town of 5000 people on the St. Lawrence River.

To place the gift of this quilt in context, so far it is only the twelfth WWII quilt that I have found in Canada, repatriated to the country and community in which it was made, as a gift by a thoughtful recipient or collector in Britain who thought that it should come home. It was very poignant on Remembrance Day 2021 to welcome this quilt back to its home, on a day that we honour and remember the service of Canadian men and women in the Armed Forces, to also recognize and celebrate the dedication of Canadian women who worked steadily to organize, make and send over 55,000,000 items of ‘comfort’ during the Second World War to the people of Britain and Europe.

After sending the Winona Circle quilt back to Gananoque in November 2021, Jo Andrews created a lovely podcast episode, ‘Canada’s Forgotten Quilts’, in which she investigates this story further through interviews with a British researcher, a Canadian wartime quilt maker, and a recipient of one of the quilts during the war. I hope you have a listen:

Artifacts that help us investigate this massive quilting operation in Canada in WWII