A number of women have been in touch with me since the podcast, Canada’s Forgotten Quilts aired, telling me they remember their mother/aunt/grandmother mentioning being involved in the making of wartime ‘comforts’, as adult women and also as children. If these women are alive, we need to record their stories while we still can, as soon as possible. An audio recording is especially helpful; this is easy to do with an app on your phone. You may find it helpful to open an old photo album in front of them while you ask questions, or to give them a piece of fabric or a quilt to hold, or even an old knitting instruction pamphlet. Tactile and visual artifacts can prompt memories and conversation, without leading the story. Phyllis was prompted when I showed her a photo of a ‘pajama quilt’ to tell me that the local pajama factory had provided off-cuts to their sewing group in the war. Up until then, I had thought Red Cross ‘pajama quilts’ were made of old pajamas that were discarded. In the future, I hope to research the factories in or near Trenton, Ontario, for records of their contributions to the war effort.
If the women you know are no longer with us, it would still be so helpful to write down what you remember them relaying to you – anything at all. The more stories we assemble, the more pieces of this forgotten history we can put together. There may be some good clues in stories, that lead us to more information than we know right now.
Here are the questions (in bold) I would ask my grandmother, Ruth Boyd, if she were still with me:
What type of war work did you do? Women knit socks and other items for soldiers, sewed sheets and supplies for hospitals, sewed clothes for refugees, sewed quilts, made jam, to name a few.
Did you do this at home at home or with other women? So far we know women were working in homes, churches, libraries, Red Cross work rooms, Women’s Institutes, schools – any other places we don’t know of yet?
What do you remember about this time of war? Did they live in the country or the city, were their husbands or sons or fathers at war? Was there a general feeling of anxiety or was life pretty normal?
What do remember about the work you were doing? Anything here would help – there is so much we don’t know about how the making was done – individually or in groups etc. Storage, assembly, packing, stitching on labels. Did knitters sometimes quilt, and did quilters sometimes knit?
How did you feel about the work you were doing? Did you like it or hate it? Was it just something you did, something everybody did? Did you look forward to it or dread it? Was it just a normal part of life? Did you hate knitting or quilting forever after, or did you continue to make after the war?
Why do you think women kept doing this work and making so much for six years of war? By this point in your interview, there may just be some spontaneous reflections. Sometimes when we get ‘inside’ of a certain time period, we begin to feel and remember what we felt then, particularly if there is visual or tactile stimuli to help.
Also record the year they were born, where they lived at the time, and how old they might have been when they were doing this work – so children, young women, older women? How many children did they have at this time? Where were the men of the family?
And of course, any other information that surfaces. I would be happy to receive any of these records in any form. If for privacy reasons you don’t wish to share names, at least knowing what year they were born and where they lived will provide us with needed information that will help the research.
If you are not in Canada, I would encourage you to have these conversations with your women relatives anyway. Who knows what they were involved in as younger women, what they did for charity, for war, for tragedy, what they did in their communities, particularly what they made with hands? We may never know if we don’t ask. Since I started this research, my British mother-in-law has shared that as a child in England during the war, knitting socks was just something that she and her sister and her mom did for the war effort. She did not enjoy it at the time, but knew it was something they could all do to help. As a family, we didn’t know this about her early years.
I don’t know for sure that my grandmother, Ruth Boyd, made quilts for the war effort between 1939 and 1945, but I know she was a quiltmaker all her life, and she was a member of the Women’s Institute at or near Long’s Creek, New Brunswick during the war. I hope someday I will find a record, perhaps in a Women’s Institute scrapbook, that she participated in this work as well. But there may be some other women who are still alive, particularly who may have participated as children in school or in the Junior Red Cross or Girl Guides, who may have stories to share with us to help us better know our own history.
Ruth and Nancy Boyd, Long’s Creek, New Brunswick c.1940