Quilting on a Continuum

by | Jun 27, 2023 | Article, History, Research

One of my interests in considering Canadian women’s wartime charitable work in textiles, is the multigenerational practice of women sewing and knitting in wartime. In a recent display I did for Quilts Kingston 2023, I demonstrated briefly how three women in Kingston (Ontario) involved in the local 1970’s quilt revival had quilted during the Second World War and whose mothers or other female relatives had quilted and knit in the First World War. The activity of Canadian women in WWII was not a sudden or new interest – many of them had done this work just twenty-odd years earlier in WWI. The photographs I have found of Women’s Institutes quilters of WWII demonstrate the broad age groups of the quilters involved, from children to the very elderly.

Last year, I found this story of WWII quilters in the Winnipeg Tribune, dated March 25, 1944. What these women all had in common was that they had all lived in Gladstone, Manitoba, but now lived in Winnipeg. They decided that was enough commonality to form a group and meet together to sew and knit for the war effort. 

The Winnipeg Tribune – March 25, 1944

Then today, I found this second article, April 25, 1917, in a newspaper called the Free Press Prairie Farm News. Gladstone is mentioned again! Eighty-six year old Mrs. Murdin would have been born in 1831. She would have learned to knit as a young child and to sew everything by hand. She most likely didn’t see a sewing machine until she was about 40 years old. So her hands had been busy making textiles for her home and family and friends all her life, as a pioneer of the Canadian prairies.

Free Press Prairie Farmer (Winnipeg) – April 25, 1917

What also surprised me, which I really must get a greater understanding of, is that this group had produced, along with the knitting and a great deal of sewn garments and hospital supplies, 51 quilts in that year. Where were these quilts sent? Did the quilts go to Britain or were they used by military and hospitals in Canada? Last year I was given two red and white quilts, with no labels, but with a suggested provenance of being Canadian quilts that ended up in France and came back with a Canadian soldier at the end of WWII. They appear to be earlier than WWII quilts (based on design and fabric), so perhaps they are WWI quilts made by groups of women such as this Gladstone Red Cross group.  

This idea of sewing on a continuum has challenged me to consider the makers in my family, tracing backward through the family tree. Who were the makers in your family tree? Who taught the new generations? Are skills and interests in making by hand a genetic inheritance or a learned experience? How can we share our own skills and interests with future generations?

And many thanks to Verena Garroch of the Winnipeg Tribune in 1944 who wrote such lengthy and detailed articles. She, and several other women reporters of that period of the Tribune have provided invaluable information to aid in this research. And to the Winnipeg Tribune which made space for such articles about women’s charitable labour in this period of war.