The crafted quilts you see on display today might remind you of your grandmother’s quilts, but they are not the same.
By Hilda Chaulk Murray
Some 30 years ago I went to see some Nova Scotian quilts on display at the Arts and Culture Centre. These truly were works of art and I admired them greatly, but I couldn’t help thinking: these are not representative of the quilts of yesterday, made and used by most Nova Scotian families whose breadwinner was engaged in fishing, farming or mining. Knowing several quilters, I’m aware that it requires a great deal of skill and time to produce one of these beautiful quilts. I imagine spare time was a scarce commodity in most households years ago. Simply put, today’s quilts would have taken far too long to make and would not have been practical for everyday use.
I was born during the Depression in Elliston, NL. My father was a fisherman; my mother, a teacher (a profession she had to give up once she married). Even though ours was a relatively small family - three children - she could not have spared the hours needed to piece together the many tiny pieces of fabric used in some of today’s quilt patterns. I was told that before marriage she did lots of crocheting, tatting and embroidery. I don’t recall her doing these crafts when I was a child. I recall her knitting, mending and darning, but I never saw her use a crochet hook.
During the winter, when there was a lull in outside work, quilt-making and mat-hooking took place in Elliston. During the 1930s and ’40s, many fisherman husbands worked away in the lumberwoods in Central Newfoundland during the winter. Back in 1995, my friend Mary Jane Porter, then 85, told me that when their husbands were away, she and her sister-in-law would live in the same house. They worked on quilts together. They’d baste the quilt pieces onto the backing laid on the kitchen floor. Then they’d sew them in place with the sewing machine.
For the backing they used flour sacking, old flannelette sheets or brin (burlap). Mary Jane, when she was first married, made one using brin. An older woman told her to cover it on both sides with patches. She said for her patches she used any old piece of clothing around: cotton dresses, blouses, shirts, ties and “burny” cotton. The local shops sometimes brought in cotton goods and sold it by the pound; another source was door-to-door peddlers.
Some of the quilts in our house were very thick; others were lightweight. The latter, summer quilts, had a cotton or flour-sack backing and patches were sewn on just one side. The heavier ones had patches sewn to both sides of the backing (often a worn-out flannelette sheet) and some had patches sewn on patches! If they had big pieces of material to work with, they used big pieces; they did not have time to indulge in a make-work program and would not cut their material into tiny pieces on purpose. They made use of everything available. Mary Jane once made a quilt using discarded drapes on the top side! Washing such a quilt was very difficult and wringing it out required two sets of hands. It was too heavy to hang on the clothesline, so it had to be hung on the backyard fence to dry.
I don’t remember my mother making a quilt, but I remember her using pieces of material from old family clothing to repair the ones we had. And she used bleached flour sacks in other ways - for pillow slips, tablecloths, pudding cloths etc. If flour sacks were used for the backing or lining, homemakers made sure that all the lettering was removed. I recall how Mother bleached them. She put a big iron pot of water on the kitchen stove. Added to the water was Gillett’s Lye, which was very caustic. The sacks were boiled in this, for how long I’ve forgotten. The pot was taken from the stove and laid on the ground in the backyard. I remember Mother hooking each piece out of the pot with a long stick, dumping the lye solution into the drain and refilling the pot with fresh water from the well, then rinsing the sacks over and over in fresh water until all traces of lye had been soaked from the sacks. They were then hung to dry, white as the driven snow.
I have a number of old quilts, dating from the early 1900s, before my two aunts (both talented seamstresses) went away to the States. One well-used quilt features a beautiful purple section with the portraits of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandria; I recall one of the beautiful Nova Scotian quilts had the same patch. What was the source of that special piece? Was it bought at the same time as the Nova Scotian piece? Another quilt was a wedding gift (in 1960) from my Aunt Helen in West Allis, Wisconsin; it is still being used in Maberly, although the cotton used in the lovely design did not stand up to washing. I do have one new-fangled quilt - a beautiful one in shades of blue that graces the bed in the guestroom. It was a gift from my dear friend, Myrtle Baird Dunham, a skilful quilter, weaver and knitter.
Of one thing I’m certain. Skillful women in Newfoundland and Labrador, who had the inclination and the time to devote to sewing, must have produced quilts to rival those from Nova Scotia. We just don’t know about them. Correction: I don’t!