Children, War Depression and Patchwork

by | Apr 10, 2023 | Children

An article last week by Helen Surgenor of CBC Radio headlined: “Young people are starting to knit and crochet for mental health.” The article echoes a similar theme to a wartime article from The Winnipeg Tribune on August 3, 1942, that makes suggestions for helping children through ‘war depression’ by providing them with activities in fiber such as patchwork and weaving.

“The children who suffer the most from war depression are those old enough to worry but not old enough to look outside of the home for useful occupation. They must be kept busy….Boys and girls can sew on patchwork quilts.”

“War depression” I believe, was a term that was referring to children’s mental health. Though the world has changed greatly over the last 80 years since WWII, the recommendations for helping young people through challenging times may not be so different after all.

Replace the word ‘war’ with ‘pandemic’ and this 1942 article resonates with life in Canada (and many other countries) in the last three years:

“Slowly the war creeps into our homes.  Our outside activities have been reduced considerably. We stay home more and life centres in the family circle more than it has since pioneer days. But our homes do not offer the work those old homes knew so abundantly, and we are hard pressed to find useful, interesting work for the children.

The children who suffer most from the war depression are those old enough to worry but not old enough to look outside of home for useful occupation.  They must be kept busy. Reading is not just what is needed. They hold the book but worry slips in between the lines and no good comes of it. They need something to do with their hands.

Boys and girls can sew on patchwork quilts. There are some beautiful examples of old quilts to be seen in the museums and in local shows. Perhaps there is a family heirloom that can be copied. Making a quilt like those of pioneer days is an interesting occupation.”

The image at the top of this post is from the Alberta South Peace Archives. It is in the ‘Peggy Mair Fonds’, described as “records donated to the Grande Prairie Regional Archives by Peggy Mair in 2004”.  The description provided for this photo says “Peggy Mair’s class create a quilt to raffle for the war effort in 1943.”  The archives describe further that the Fonds “series consists of autobiographical stories based on Peggy’s life as a child and youth growing up in Grande Prairie and later as a teacher in the areas’ schools.” 

This is a photo of eleven schoolgirls, probably between the ages of eight to twelve, holding a quilt in front of the school they attended in the small Polish community called Torun in Webster, Alberta.  I also found a photo of the school, which was a log cabin with very few windows.  The girls are dressed lightly, so I am hoping this means they were able to do some of the sewing work out of doors, since the lighting in the schoolhouse would be poor, even if there was electricity (which there may not have been).  It is possible that Peggy Mair, the teacher, formed a Junior Red Cross group in her school to promote activities that children could participate in to help with the war effort.  This quilt was likely not one sent to civilians in Britain because the description says it is for a ‘fundraiser’.  Often quilts were made and auctioned or raffled in the community to raise money for the Red Cross or for knitting and sewing supplies. Making a quilt would have been a challenging project for these girls. Patchwork and quilting require planning, organization, precision and fine motor skills. I think Miss Mair was clever to engage the children in a creative project that would teach them new skills as well as provide an opportunity to contribute to the war effort and focus their activities away from anxiety they might have experienced because of the war. 

This was the first photo I found of children involved in this quilt-making, and it has led me to even more written references of children’s involvement in knitting and sewing for the war, as well as collecting metal salvage, refurbishing old toys for children in Britain and fundraising. These girls look so proud of their quilt. I would love to put names to these girls if anyone has done more in-depth research of the Torun community of Polish immigrants to northern Alberta. Some of them may still be with us, around the age of ninety years old.

Across the country, children were making quilts. The following image from the Desbrisay Museum archives in Nova Scotia is of the Bridgewater Girl Guides in 1942, holding a quilt they made for the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire (IODE) for fundraising.

26th Division Company Rangers with quilt presented to LaHave Chapter I.O.D.E. Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, Bridgewater.  Left to right: Norma McLean, Edna Gillingham, Marjorie Sillic, Margaret MacPherson, Barbara Shaw, Marjory Egner, Jo Robertson.

This next article is from The Windsor Star, December 18, 1941, with an image showing boys and girls were involved in quilt-making for the war effort. Though the headline indicates that the teachers made the quilts, the article credits the children for designing and making 400 quilt blocks which the teachers then assembled into quilts. It sounds like an amazing project!

I have found evidence that children contributed greatly to the war effort through the Junior Red Cross, the C.G.I.T. and the Girl Guides, and that they were knitting and sewing in school, from a young age right through high school.  Last year I had the opportunity to interview a woman, at 89 years old, who explained to me the method of making ‘crazy patchwork’ quilt blocks, which she did in a one-room schoolhouse in Elgin, Ontario at the age of nine or ten years old.  She said that children would baste fabric scraps from Eaton’s department store onto paper foundations at school and then take them home to their mothers to sew on the machine to form the quilt blocks. 

If you recall any personal histories yourself or from someone you know who participated in the knitting and sewing as a child in Canada during the Second World War, I would be pleased to add more stories to the record. 

To close, here is a quilt at the Museum of Lennox and Addington in Napanee, Ontario, attributed to children of the community during the Second World War. In each petal is a name of a community member who paid 10 cents to contribute to the war effort. The high-school aged children of Tamworth Continuation School embroidered the names and the petals, and the women of the Tamworth Red Cross assembled the blocks and the quilt. To read more about the industrious Red Cross women of Tamworth, Ontario, check out my previous blog post entitled ‘Shoulder-to-the-Wheel’ from May 2022.