Traditions and Origins are seen in Settlers’ Quilts
Women often sewed their quilts at quilting bees where a number of them gathered to work, exchange new quilting patterns, and share the latest news. The materials used clearly demonstrate their domestic situations and their traditions that over time were influenced by proximity to the United States quilters.
In New France, the affluent seigneurs purchased imported silks and cottons, but the average person stitched pieces of worn-out clothing into Patchwork quilts filled with feathers or cattail down. Later, homespun wool and linen from home-grown flax were used to cover uncarded wool. Dyemaking skills taught by the Native people helped brighten the materials.
English women in Newfoundland, whose fishermen husbands were absent most of the time, filled many lonely hours by creating clothing and Strippy quilts in which two main colours were sewn together lengthwise.
The Scottish colonists of Prince Edward Island were extremely thrifty people whose quilts were simply functional with plaid or checkered designs. Realizing the need to conserve materials, they too cut down worn clothing for patchwork.
Constant upheavals were the cause of extreme poverty among the Acadians of the Maritime areas. Parts of worn-out, woven bedcoverings and clothing were often reused until they disappeared. Records show that their home-made quilts were traded for goods at the local store and later sold to fishermen. In Nova Scotia’s Lunenberg settlement people of German ancestry made feather-filled comforters and quilts using one piece of cloth decorated with excellent stitching designs.
As United Empire Loyalists settled in the Maritimes and Lower and Upper Canada, clothing and quilts were often their only possessions with pieced quilts the most practical. Young girls learned their needle skills at an early age and were expected to complete several quilts by marriageable age.Loyalists of the New England gentry brought furnishings and elaborate quilts with them. They purchased fine materials and had the extra time necessary to keep alive the all-embroidered quilt in crewel work and the applique quilt. Mennonite quilts displayed highly developed skills which greatly advanced quilt making in Canada. Their applique designs were noted for the primitive colors and simple motifs such as hearts, birds, and hex signs.
Irish immigrants driven from their homes by famine were among the thousands who arrived in Canada during a great period of development in the mid-19th century. Their lovely Single, Double or Triple Irish Chain designs are still quite popular.
The first real trek west began in the 1870s when widely different peoples worked together for survival. Russian Mennonites brought their traditional woolen quilts and made new ones of uncarded wool placed between stitched, unbleached muslin layers. The removable, washable covers were cotton patchwork with embroidered decorations. Ukrainians stuffed down between layers of coarse material, then put that into a removable outer cover trimmed with lace or delicate embroidery. Scandinavian women’s quilts were beautifully embroidered in their favourite cross stitch. The popular English mosaic style, such as Honeycomb (later also called Grandmother’s Flower Garden) used one shape, often the hexagon.
Gold seekers opened up British Columbia and the settlers, mostly British, took sheep with them for producing warm woolen clothing. They and other Europeans made quilts similar to those produced in the rest of the country. Favourite patterns were
Log Cabin and Wedding Ring..
The Victorian Crazy Patchwork made of silk, velvet or satin remnants was a decorative piece with embroidered pictures, names, and dates in coloured silk
World Wars and the Depression
Sewing machines and new chemical dyes helped women create quilts that were more a luxury than a necessity in city homes. Interest in quiltmaking decreased considerably during the early 1900s because machine-made goods that could be purchased were preferred though rural women did not foresake their thrifty habits. During World War I, women who weren’t serving as nurses or aides or working in factories, helped the cause by donating utilitarian quilts.
The Depression forced a return to their ancestors’ thrifty practices and the practical pieced quilts made from scraps came into vogue again with sugar and flour bags often used for quilt blocks.
During World War II, women worked in factories or helped prepare bandages, clothing, and utilitarian quilts. The latter were sent by the thousands to aid bombing victims, and quilts with patriotic themes were sold to raise war bond money. Post-war years found many women unwilling to give up the freedom of outside jobs, so for more than ten years there were virtually no new ideas introduced in quilt making.
First Nations Communities
“…there is no “Native quilting tradition. However, there are in Canada, as in the United States, various indigenous textile traditions — many of them still practiced, or being revived, within First Nations communities”, according to Nancy Cameron Armstrong, Chairperson for the Canadian Quilt Study Group.
Noting in her study of quilts influenced by Native art and made by Native women, Ann Bird commented, “Native quilts are utilitarian except for Star Blankets (Lone Star), which are often ceremonial and have been used to honour people since the late 1800s, mostly on the prairies.”
Canada’s Centennial 1967
Canada’s Centennial in 1967 marked the beginning of a new era. New quilts depicting historical events and landmarks shown at art galleries raised the so-called cottage craft to its rightful place among the arts. Modern designers began to make their own comments about our times and quilt making became, once again, the lively art that continues to evolve.