WW2 quilt labels

The Gift of the Label

by | Jul 12, 2022 | Article, History, Labels, Research

After my recent interview with Karen Brown of ‘Just Get it Done Quilts’ (on YouTube – June 27) one commenter said:

“It seems that current day charity groups could use the advice of your speaker with regard to the donations of quilts being made to Ukraine right now. Most charities are asking makers not to label them. Given this hindsight and the value the information could be to history perhaps there should be new thought on this. What do you think?”

The investigation of Canadian charity quilts of WWII started, from what I have found, because of the label sewn onto surviving quilts.  The label reads “The Gift of the Canadian Red Cross Society”.  Since that early investigation of a quilt found in Britain in the mid-1990’s, most surviving quilts have been recognized by that label, or by a similar label that tells us something about the group that made the quilt.  The label most often indicates the name of the organization that was responsible for shipping the quilt, and sometimes indicates the region in which the quilt was made.  It is regrettable that most of the labels are so vague.  In fact, the quilts are not the gift of a charitable society or organization, but rather gifts of hundreds of thousands of women and children of Canada.

I have heard anecdotally that the Canadian Red Cross asked or forbid women from labelling the quilts they made.  I have not found this instruction in my research so far, but considering how few quilts have names on them, I would not be surprised if this were true.  A few surviving Canadian WWII quilts are autograph or signature quilts, with names embroidered on them of people in a group or a community, but none of these have Red Cross labels as far as I have seen. 

Winona Circle quilt label

The ‘Winona Circle’ quilt has the most detailed label I have seen.  Not only does the label tell us that the quilt was made in Canada, but also the town, the church and even the group of women who met at that church to make quilts.  The label has provided invaluable information for researching not only this quilt, but also the prolific charitable efforts of the town of Gananoque during the war.  Then there is a tiny ‘WVS’ also written on the label, in a different hand.  Subsequent research led me to articles in ‘The Gananoque Reporter’ that indicate that some of the quilts made by the women of Grace United Church in Gananoque went to different organizations for shipment and some were sent privately.  The ‘WVS’ may indicate that this quilt was to go to the ‘Women’s Voluntary Service’ in Britain for distribution, rather than to a private address in the UK.

Letter to Mrs. Annie Scott in June 1942 and a photo of Annie Scott in 1952

The Winona Circle label also lead me to discover the letters to Mrs. George Scott – Annie Scott, a resident of Gananoque and a member of Grace United Church. The letters were from recipients of the quilts she made for the war effort, since, according to at least one recipient, she pinned her name and address onto the quilt.  I am guessing that if her quilt was sent through the Canadian Red Cross, her tiny paper label would have been removed before being sent.  Her collection of letters from recipients has provided new information about the work being done in Gananoque at the time, and also shows the gratitude of the recipients of the quilts to take the time to write in appreciation to this woman who had sent a gift to people she didn’t know. I would guess that the name of the maker pinned on the quilt gave greater joy to the recipient than just an anonymous quilt from the unknown ‘women of Canada’. 

Detail of the IODE Summerberry Quilt – from the collection of the Quilters Guild of the British Isles

I do know of one quilt with a woman’s name embroidered on it.  The label on the quilt is ‘I.O.D.E.’ for the ‘Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire’, another women’s organization that contributed greatly to the war effort.  Embroidered on one block is this: “MRS. J.A. McCOWAN, SUMMERBERRY. SASK.CAN.”  A letter from the owner of the quilt, the recipient of the quilt during the war, accompanied the quilt when it was donated to the Quilters Guild of the British Isles.  Her family had received it in 1944 after a bombing in their London neighbourhood. 

A researcher in Canada, Anita Fellows, decided to investigate Mrs. McCowan, the quilt maker.  Here is what Anita writes:

“Given that Summerberry was (and still is) a very small place it was easy enough to find the J. A. McCowan family. Mr. James Alexander McCowan was born in Liverpool (UK) in 1879.  His wife, was Jenny May Mills, born in Downie, Perth County, Ontario in 1881.  James and Jennie May McCowan had three children according to the 1916 Census and Summerberry cemetery records. Jennie May’s son James Gordon McCowan was a Leading Aircraftman in the Royal Canadian Airforce and was killed in 1944 at the age of 22 years. Given the quilt was sent to the UK about 1944, Jennie May was probably working on the quilt about the time of her son’s death or shortly thereafter.”

IODE Summerberry Quilt – Fan blocks – from the collection of the Quilters Guild of the British Isles

Because Mrs. McCowan embroidered her name on the quilt, we are able to consider who she was and what might have motivated her to make this quilt.  The quilt is made up of 34 fan blocks, each block consisting of five fan points, each of which were machine appliqued at their points.  This is significant because applique is detailed and time-consuming work, not typical of most of the quilts made for the war effort. There was an emphasis on high production, and efficiency seemed to have won out over design and detail on most of the surviving quilts.  Most designs are strips or bricks, nine-patch, four patch with sashing, or ‘crazy blocks’.  A fan with 170 appliqued points is not typical of the war quilts.  Did Jennie May decide to donate a quilt that she made and was planning to keep herself?  Or did she just decide to make a more challenging quilt with greater detail to commemorate her fallen son?  We will never know, for Jennie died in 1965.  What we do realize by the fact that she embroidered her name and place on it, is that Jennie wanted to be known and seen and heard, even in just a small way, for the contribution she made to the people of Britain.  I am grateful that the IODE did not unpick her stitches.

Post Office in Summerberry, Saskatchewan

I saw one comment that said, “My quilts aren’t art, so I don’t sign them.” I won’t go into a discussion here about quilts as art, but perhaps it would help if quilt labels can be considered like a signature on a card of good wishes. One wouldn’t send a card without signing it, and would rarely send a gift without identifying themselves, the giver of the gift.  Quilt labels are reminders to the recipient of the love and good will of the maker, and often of the time and place and occasion of the gift.  They record history.  Quilt labels leave clues for future generations to understand the significance of the quilt and the life of the quilt maker, and the place of quilting in the culture and communities in which it was made.  Surviving quilts from generations that have gone before us are testaments to the lives of women makers.  Few items women have made or done have survived their lives, besides the things they have stitched or embroidered.   

I, for one, am grateful to the 1940’s Winona Circle at Grace United Church in Gananoque, Mrs. Annie Scott, and Mrs. Jennie May McCowan, for taking the time to label their quilts.  They have greatly inspired the research, aided in the discovery of new elements in this quilt production, and challenged us to consider the circumstances, feelings and motivations of the makers of the quilts.  These Canadian wartime quilts have much to teach us, and the labels on them have aided us in recognizing and rescuing these humble textile remnants that shed light on the lives of Canadian women and children on the home front in WWII. 

Do you label your quilts?  Feel free to respectfully continue this conversation on my Instagram or Facebook Group pages – links below.