CNE Canadian National Exhibition

World’s Largest Quilting Bee?

by | Aug 30, 2022 | Article, History, Research


In Canada, the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) in Toronto is our nation’s largest fair. It has been in operation since 1879 and has opened annually on the same site for several weeks each year, with just a few exceptions because of war, plagues and pandemics. ‘The Ex’ as it is affectionately known, is on now for a few more days (at the writing of the post), wrapping up just before school starts for the new academic year.

I have recently discovered a series of fabulous images in the CNE archives that I am excited to share. In my research, I had encountered several tiny newspaper references to a quilting bee held on the grounds of the CNE, but the articles didn’t portray the scope of this activity in the way that these images do. This summer I had the opportunity to investigate further, and I found evidence of this quilting bee in 1939, 1940 and 1941. It was also mentioned in several newspapers outside of Toronto. This was obviously a newsworthy event to be mentioned in newspapers as far away as Winnipeg. 

Quilting Bee at the Canadian National Exhibition – August 1939 – Courtesy of the Canadian National Exhibition Archives

Quilting in Canada appears to have fallen a little out of favour after the First World War, in favour of other types of embroidery and stitched handwork; it is not unusual for women’s stitching practices to come in and out of fashion. This is not to say that patchwork and quilting was not being done, especially in rural areas during the Depression, but there seems to have been a resurgence of interest in quilts in Canada in the late 1930’s. I suggest this may have been a result of the popularity of the The Sears National Quilt Contest at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair which received over 24,000 quilt submissions vying for the grand prize of $1000 (which would be around $22,000 in today’s dollars). The news of that quilt contest just south of our border would not have gone without notice, along with the syndicated mail order quilt patterns that began to appear in Canadian newspapers. In a 1936 newspaper article in ‘The Globe’, I discovered that the CNE expanded its display of quilts and coverlets because “visitors often ask if the Exhibition could not make room to show some of the richly fashioned and finely executed work of many years ago.” That same year the CNE invited a group of quilters from a Toronto church to complete six quilts by hand quilting around a quilt frame daily before live audiences. This idea of watching quilters at a fair around a quilt frame appears to have been a novelty at the time. That year the CNE also expanded its area in the Women’s Building for displaying quilts.  Excerpts from the article read this way:

“The East Wing of the building will be reserved for a display of old and new quilts. A loan exhibition of family treasures, some with historic significance, will be on display. Not only will visitors be shown family treasures, some brought along with the United Empire Loyalists, and quilts pieced by great-great-grandmothers by candlelight in a pioneer log home, but they will have an opportunity to see the modern housewife at the time-honored task. A modern quilting bee, such as one might see in one of Toronto’s social service centres of church parlors, will be in action.”

The Globe, April 9, 1936

The article continues:

“The extensive exhibit of quilts is the result of many offers coming from visitors to show their treasures. Many offers come to the Superintendent each year, and visitors often ask if the Exhibition could not make room to show some of the richly fashioned and finely executed work of many years ago. Up to the present the display of quilts has been limited owing to space restrictions, but this year it is planned to take the whole of the East Wing of the building for the display of quilts alone. They will be spread out upon the walls, covering the space from floor to ceiling. Five pillars in the room will be used to display quilts, where they will be hung from branching arms clear of the pillars. Cellophane coverings have been ordered to protect the quilts. The extremely valuable antique exhibits will be place in cases, labelled with their history and owners’ names and the names of their makers, when known. It is expected that there will be a British section, one for quilts brought into Canada in the early days from the United States, and one for early Canadian samples.”

The Globe, April 9, 1936

(Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could find images or lists of the quilts that were on display in 1936? I’m on it!)

I am guessing these exhibits were well received because by 1939, The Kingston Whig-Standard reported that ‘Six hundred patchers” …in… “more than seventy teams, with six to eight women on each team, will compete in a mass quilting bee at the Canadian National Exhibition.” These amazing photographs illustrate the enormity of this event. Some fun observations: Why is there a policeman in the crowd?  Who was he protecting?  Why are there men in suits wandering around – were they looking for quilters misbehaving? What does one wear to an outdoor quilting bee contest – floral print dresses and marvelous hats, of course!  Can you identify any of the quilting patterns? What other interesting details do you see?

Quilting Bee at the Canadian National Exhibition – August 1939 – Courtesy of the Canadian National Exhibition Archives

This quilting contest and the subsequent publicity in regional and national newspapers, along with the request from the Canadian Red Cross for quilts and blankets for Britain, appears to have stimulated the national revival in quilting. By June 1940, The Globe and Mail reports:

“Quilting Contest at C.N.E. Gets Fresh Impetus by War – With thousands of Canadian blankets destined for war service, in providing warmth for refugees and wounded soldiers, interest in home-made quilts has taken a sharp upturn, Exhibition officials state. Enquiries about the annual quilting contest at the C.N.E. are away ahead of last year. Hundreds of Canadian quilts have come out of the mothballs in recent weeks, following the Red Cross appeal for blankets, and hundreds of women are turning their hands to the trick of patching together bits of dress-goods leftovers into practical use as quilts. The Exhibition’s quilting contest, inaugurated a year ago, will probably far surpass the initial efforts.”

The Globe and Mail, June 26, 1940

By the following year, the same national newspaper observed that:

“A tremendous revival in home industries has taken place during the past year…. Housewives all over the country have taken to saving patches and turning them into quilts such as their grandmothers used to make.  In fact, we shipped 27,000 quilts in 1940… and in January, February and March of this year we have sent overseas 30,000.”

The Globe and Mail, April 25, 1941

Update (Nov2022) — 1939 quilting winners found!

I found the following article in the Women’s Institute newsletter ‘Home and Country’, Fall 1939. Remember, this first ‘bee’ was held just before war was declared, so the groups were making more intricate and artful quilts most likely to sell or raffle within their own guilds and groups. I will be checking into digital archives to seek out photo or articles about these winning quilts in local newspapers of Mt. Dennis, Drayton and ‘Scarboro’, Ontario :

In my next post, I will share Part 2 – images of the winning quilt and quilters from the CNE in 1941.