A History of Quilting in Canada

I originally wrote this piece to include in a poster that was part of the “150 Years of Quilting in Canada” exhibit at the May 2017 Festival of Quilts, put on by the Ottawa Valley Quilters Guild. As I started to write up my research, I soon realized it was coming out far too long to fit onto any poster. I cut down the text to a more reasonable length (though still probably too long) for the poster, and decided to post the full text here instead. I hope you enjoy it. Please don’t hesitate to let me know if I’ve made a mistake anywhere, I would be more than happy to make corrections.

The poster in all its glory. I crammed in so much text, I can’t imagine many people took the time to read it all!

Table of Contents

Quilting Terms

A quilt is made up of two layers of cloth, a top and a backing. Often, though not always, there is a layer of filling between the top and backing, called the batting. Once assembled, all three layers are tacked together either by tying the quilt with yarn, or by sewing through the layers by hand or machine, i.e. quilting. Tying or quilting the quilt keeps the batting from shifting and adds to the design.

Quilts are made for many different purposes. Art quilts are usually hung on a wall, and often have no batting. They can be any shape. Bed quilts are made to cover a bed, and almost always have batting unless they are meant only for summer use. Crib quilts and lap quilts are smaller versions of bed quilts. Quilts can also be used to decorate the home, as table runners, pillow covers, coasters and tea cozies. Jackets, skirts and other clothing can be quilted for warmth or for decoration.

Quilts are often described by the way the quilt top was put together. In wholecloth quilts the top is made of a single fabric, and all the decoration is in the quilting. Sewing together different pieces of fabric to make a quilt top is called piecing. Pieced quilt tops can be made of a single all-over pattern, or they can be made up of units called blocks. Each block can be made up of smaller pieces of fabric sewn together (a patchwork block), or the block can be a single piece of fabric with smaller pieces sewn on top (an appliqué block).

An example of an appliqué block

An example of an appliqué block

An example of a pieced block

An example of a pieced block

Making a Quilt

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All you need to make a quilt top are scissors to cut out pieces of fabric, and needle and thread to sew the pieces together. For geometric patterns, it is helpful to have a template for each shape, which have been historically made of paper, cardboard, and even tin. Today, templates are usually made of hard plastic. Rotary cutters, which have a handle and a circular blade, were introduced to the quilting world in the 1980s. They are used with a transparent plastic ruler and make cutting precise shapes out of fabric much easier and quicker.

If you are hand-quilting your quilt, the first step is to lay out the three layers and baste them with large sewing stitches or safety pins to keep them in place while you are quilting. The quilt is then put into a wooden or plastic quilting hoop or the newer square Q-snap frame around the area you are going to quilt first.

For larger quilts or during quilting bees, the quilt is placed into a quilt frame instead. This can be as simple as two long pieces of wood with fabric stapled on. The three layers of the quilt are fixed to the pieces of wood, and the whole thing is rolled up until only a manageable section of the quilt is visible. This then rests on some kind of frame, which can be purpose-built, or the backs of chairs. The quilters sit around the frame and quilt on the visible part of the quilt.

Amish quilt frame

A small quilt frame, likely intended for use by a single person. Photo by Serge Melki, via Wikimedia Commons

Modern quilts are mostly quilted using a sewing machine. For a normal sewing machine, you baste the three layers as described above, and then sew through the layers one small section at a time. With a long-arm machine, the three layers of the quilt are mounted to a large frame, and the sewing part of the machine moves back and forth over the quilt layers. Long-arm machines can also run automatically with the pattern pre-programmed into the machine.

Longarm Quilting Machine with Quilt on frame

A typical long-arm sewing machine. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The final step in a quilt is to apply a binding around the border of the quilt to cover up the rough edges and give it a nice finish.

Early Days

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The indigenous peoples of Canada have their own textile traditions, but these don’t include much quilting. The first quilts arrived in Canada with immigrants to “New France” in the early 1600s. These settlers brought as much bedding, clothing and fabric with them as they could carry. There was always a shortage of fabric, needles and thread in the early days because it had to be imported from Europe. For this reason, thread and needles were part of the dowries of the “filles du roi”, young women sent from France to marry the male settlers.

Blankets and quilts were extremely important to the early settlers of Canada, since they had no good way of heating or insulating their homes, especially at night. At first the settlers made blankets out of whatever they could find, including fur, horsehair, deerskin and wool. The Canadian climate is too cold for cotton, so once the European settlements became more established they started growing flax to make linen. It takes about 18 months of hard labour to get a useable linen thread from flax plants, so linen thread and fabric remained precious items.

As soon as they had cleared enough land, the settlers started raising flocks of sheep for their wool. By the turn of the 19th century, most Canadian bedding was being made from a homespun, woven cloth that was a combination of both wool and linen fibres. Often pioneer women were taught how to dye cloth with native plants by the indigenous women who lived nearby. Wool thread was mostly used for tying or quilting quilts, because it is not very strong. Linen thread was preferred for seaming.

In the very early days, when resources were scarce, quilt batting could be anything from down feathers to old blankets or quilts. The ideal batting was wool: it is light, retains its body, and could be produced locally. When available, wool was either inserted loose into the quilt, or made into a batt at a local mill first. Quilts filled with loose wool were quite thick, and so were often tied rather than quilted. Cotton filling, imported from the United States, was available for purchase in Canada from about 1830.

Because of our harsh winters, heavy woolen bed covers remained in use here long after they fell out of fashion in Europe and the United States. The scarce resources meant that patchwork stayed popular long after wholecloth quilts became predominant elsewhere. This makes handwoven, patchwork wool quilts a uniquely Canadian tradition.

The early Canadian settlers would have sewn all their own clothing, either from homespun cloth or imported fabric purchased at the general store. They would cut the clothing pieces out of the fabric yardage, and then they would use the scraps of fabric that were leftover in their quilts. This ensured that no part of this precious resource was wasted. Quilting was also added to clothing to increase its warmth. This included everything from skirts and cloaks to baby clothes.

Quilts were made with pieces of worn-out clothing, but this usually only happened when fabric was particularly scarce or precious, since that kind of quilt wears out soon than a quilt made of new material. Sometimes pieces of old clothing were included in quilts because of the memories associated with that clothing, for instance baby clothes or scraps from a wedding dress. This kind of quilt is still made today.

Another source of fabric for early Canadian quilters were the cotton flour and sugar bags that came from the general store. This material was soft, strong and took dyes easily. It was a good source of cheap cotton fabric, and flour bag quilts were made well into the 1930s.

Early Canadian women did most of their sewing in the main room of the house, often the kitchen, where the light was best. A quilt frame took up a lot of space, sometimes more space than there was available in the house. In the summer the frame could be set up outside, on a verandah or in the shade of a large tree. In some homes, the quilt frame was hung from the ceiling by ropes, and raised or lowered as needed.

Quilting bees, called “frolics” in New Brunswick, were important social occasions when the women of a community gathered together to quilt one or more quilts. These were usually held in summer, after the planting and before the harvest, and often combined with barn-raisings. Refreshments, including lunch, were served during the bee, and a supper was held afterwards with singing and dancing. It was always a good courting opportunity for the young people of the community. It was a point of honour for many quilters of the day to complete the quilt by the end of the bee. They quilted in fine, neat stitches, and some quilts from this era have as many as 10-12 quilting stitches per inch.

My great-grandmother Belle Henderson (far right) at an “old-fashioned quilting” in 1911. Note how simple the frame is, just two pieces of wood resting on the backs of chairs.

At this time, there were two kinds of quilts: everyday and best. The everyday, utilitarian quilts were well used, washed every spring, and replaced when worn out. The best quilts were often made for the occasion of a woman’s marriage. These were treasured and used only by the most important guests, like the minister. They were seldom washed, if at all. Far fewer everyday quilts from this period have survived to this day. Those that have were often made by women who never married; the quilts were kept stored away for a future need that never came.

Marriage was incredibly important for women in those days because there were very few socially acceptable ways for women to earn a living. Women who didn’t marry often ended up as unpaid servants in the home of one of their siblings. Girls were taught sewing from an early age, often starting their first quilt at age 6. In many communities, a girl was expected to have 13 quilts in her dower chest by marriage, 12 everyday quilts and one marriage quilt. The marriage quilt was only started once there was a prospect of marriage. In some places, it was considered bad luck to work on your own marriage quilt, so the work was done by family and friends at a big quilting party. The invitation to participate in the making of a girl’s marriage quilt was often equivalent to announcing her engagement.

Friendship quilts were made by friends of a bride, for someone in distress, for someone who was moving away or for a local dignitary. In a friendship quilt, each participant made a single block, often appliquéd and including the maker’s initials or name. The blocks would be joined and the top quilted over one or two days during a larger social gathering.

The Loyalists, who came to Canada around the end of the 18th century, brought many quilts and a strong tradition of quilting with them. One of the oldest surviving quilts in Canada was made in 1775. It is an all-white linen quilt, likely a marriage quilt, from a family that immigrated to Canada from New England. This quilt is now in a museum in Saint John, New Brunswick.

19th Century

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All through the 19th and into the early 20th century quilts were made for warmth as well as beauty. They were often covered with a counterpane or bedspread to protect them and reduce the need for cleaning.

By the middle of the 19th century Canada had established flourishing manufacturing industries, which included textiles. Cotton yarn and fabric became available in Canadian stores by about 1820. Both were imported from the United States and Europe, but prices had decreased enough that they were accessible to almost every Canadian family. New chemical dyes were developed, creating new colours in textiles like apple green, bright purple and bright pink. Women started making clothing out of cotton and cotton scraps found their way into their quilts. Over time cotton replaced linen in Canadian quilts. Wool, valued for its warmth, was used for much longer. Despite the availability of store-bought cloth, homespun cloth can be found in Canadian quilts well into the last quarter of the 19th century.

By this time, Canadians could also purchase finished quilts imported from Britain and the United States. These quilts were mostly wholecloth and quilted by machine. However, thrift remained a national virtue and most sewing rooms still had a patch bag into which scraps were thrown, to be assembled into a future quilt. The lessening of the extreme scarcity and increased availability did mean that more quilts were being made for decoration, rather than solely for warmth.

The Singer sewing machine was introduced in 1851 and was rapidly adopted. Many Canadian quilters gave up the time-consuming hand-piecing for the much more efficient treadle sewing machines. Electrical-power machines soon followed. Hand-quilting retained its dominance over machine quilting until the end of the 20th century.

Several 19th century newspapers and magazines included quilting patterns, such as the Godey’s Lady’s Book (1830), The Canadian Illustrated News (1869), and the Family Herald and Weekly Star (1869). By the early 20th century Canadian quilters could send away for bundles of fabric remnants and booklets of patterns for less than two dollars.

The first Canadian National Exhibition took place in Toronto in 1877, and it included a display of quilts. The general level of skill in quilting was increasing, and a distinctly Canadian flavour began to appear in many handicrafts, including quilting.

Towards the end of the 19th century, embroidery and crazy quilts became increasingly popular. Embroidery was used to create pictures on blocks, and to add names and dates to a quilt. Embroidery was commonly used in signature quilts, another style of quilt popular at this time. Signature quilts were often used to raise funds; people would pay a fee to sign their name on a block, and the final quilt was raffled off.

Crazy quilts were often made as throws and hangings, rather than bed quilts. The blocks are made up of odd shapes of luxury fabrics with heavily embroidered seams. It was often a point of honour for the quilter to use 100 different embroidery stitches in a single throw, and to have no two blocks alike. The luxury fabrics were difficult to quilt, so crazy quilts were usually tied. It could be difficult to get enough luxury fabrics, so quilters would trade their scraps to get the largest variety possible. Crazy quilts could also include fabric labels, advertisements, badges, prize ribbons or even silk cigar bands.

Crazy Quilt, 1884

An example of a crazy quilt. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

A dressmaker named Fannie Parlee made a crazy quilt from the leftovers of dresses she made for the ladies attending the balls and galas Charlottetown-Quebec Confederation Conference in 1867. This quilt is now at Kings County Museum in Hampton, New Brunswick.

1900-1950

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As the 20th century began, women began to move out of the home and into the workforce. Quilting was primarily a women’s craft, and it began to decline as women took up manufacturing and office jobs. Women’s clothing simplified, which reduced the amount of scrap material available for quilting. Mass-produced bed linens like the Marseilles woven coverlets replaced the handmade quilt as the bed covering of choice for urban dwellers.

In the rural areas, quilts were still being made, especially by those who could not afford the popular coverlets. Quilting bees were still valued social events and an important time for sharing community news among far-distant neighbours. Signature quilts remained popular in this period, especially in Western Canada, but appliqué and crazy quilt popularity declined.

During World War One many quilters, especially in rural communities, made quilts for the war effort. Signature quilts were used to raise money to buy war bonds, and utilitarian quilts were made quickly to send to war refugees. Many quilts were made from the promotional silk and satin patches included in the packaging for tobacco products. Many quilt patterns took on patriotic themes.

Great changes were occurring in women’s roles at this time, as reflected in the first voting rights for Canadian women that were won in 1917. The high death count of World War One meant that for many women marriage was no longer an option. The increase in careers for women and movement into the cities continued. All this was reflected in the slow decline of quilting as a commonly-practiced craft, especially in urban areas. There are few appliqué quilts from the interwar years, but many pieced, signature, crazy and embroidered quilts have survived.

The Great Depression hit in 1933, and with the economic hardship quilting became a necessity again for many families. Quilts made at this time were scrappier, and tended to be pieced rather than appliquéd, because fabric was a scarcer resource. Despite the hardship, the Depression was a boom time for quilting. Newspapers carried syndicated quilting columns that featured pattern sketches. Quilters could purchase the full pattern for 5 or 10 cents, although many reconstructed the patterns from the free sketches instead.

Popular patterns from the 19th century were revived, and new patterns were written. Some of the new patterns depicted very modern inventions, like airplanes. A full pattern for a Wheel of Fortune quilt, including instructions for cutting, sewing and finishing, cost 20 cents in 1936. Quilt kits increased in popularity, and department stores like Eaton’s and Simpson’s sold bundles of material specifically to be used for quilt patches.

World War Two, for quilting, was very much a repeat of World War One. Utilitarian quilts, made for bombed-out war victims, were made quickly and were often tied rather than quilted. More elaborate, patriotic quilts were made as fundraisers and raffled to buy war bonds. These were often red, white and blue, and were made with large blocks so they could be completed quickly.

1950-Today

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After World War Two prevalence of quilting as a household craft declined further as more women moved into the workforce, even in rural areas. At the same time, quilting was finally starting to be recognized as an art medium in Canada. The first Simcoe County Quilt & Rug Fair in 1949 helped to raise the profile of quilting and revived interest in the craft. Much of the folk art from this period, including the new art quilts, expressed Canadian themes and a blossoming Canadian identity. Art galleries across Canada began to include quilts in their folk-art sections.

In 1955-56 the Toronto Star held its first “Canadian Quiltmaking Contest”. Nearly 600 quilts, mostly appliquéd or embroidered, were entered in the contest. The prize for the overall winner was $500, and the winning quilt was donated to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Similar competitions across Canada helped keep the art of quilting alive during this period. Many of the competitions of this time regarded machine quilting as inferior, and only hand-quilted entrees were considered for prizes.

The Centennial celebrations in 1967 inspired a boom in quilt making. Many quilts were created by Women’s Institutes, often depicting the history of the local area. The official symbol of the Centennial celebrations, the stylized maple leaf, was easy to recreate in patchwork. It featured in many quilts from this time. A similar reaction has taken place with the Canada 150 celebrations this year, with many quilts being made in honour of the event.

By the 1970s quilts had moved out of the folk-art sections and into the “true” art space of art galleries and museums. The National Gallery in Ottawa had its first exhibit of a textile artist. Antique collectors began collecting quilts as their historical value was increasingly recognized.

The changing social consciousness of the 1970s helped increase the popularity of quilting. Parts of the feminist movement began to champion needle arts as a historically “women’s art”. The green movement made quilting more appealing as a potentially eco-friendly craft because it used up small scraps of fabric.

Quilting technology also began to change. Synthetic thread appeared in the 1960s, and the rotary cutter was introduced by Olfa in 1979. Long-arm quilting machines had existed for nearly 100 years, but they became commercially available to the average quilter starting in the 1980s. These changes started the transition from traditional handwork to an enthusiastic embracing of quick-piecing techniques and machine-work. By the 1990s machine-quilting was finally accepted as a beautiful way to finish quilts, and today most quilts are machine-quilted.

Many quilting guilds were founded in the 1980s and 90s. The Ottawa Valley Quilters Guild was started in 1981 by three quilters: Ann Bird, Joyce Legault and Isabel Johnston. Since that time, our membership has grown to nearly 200, and many other quilt guilds have formed in Ottawa. OVQG was incorporated as a non-profit in 1987.

In 1998, Esther Bryan began Canada’s “most comprehensive textile project”, the Quilt of Belonging. Each of the 263 diamond-shape blocks represents a different cultural group that makes up Canada’s mosaic, including the Metis, First Nations and Inuit peoples. Volunteers “from Victoria to Newfoundland to the Arctic Circle” helped to complete this Quilt, which contains a range of materials from sealskin to African mud-cloth. The Quilt of Belonging was completed in 2005 and has been on tour since. It is returning to Ottawa in 2017, and will be on display in City Hall from June 23rd to July 5th.

The Quilt of Belonging at the inaugural exhibition at the Museum of Civilization (now the Canadian Museum of History). Photo by Nick Wolochatiuk, via Wikimedia Commons.

Today, many quilters use the most modern technology when creating their quilts. They cut fabric with specialty cutting tools and rulers, piece and appliqué with digital sewing and embroidery machines, and quilt by long-arm or domestic machine. Other quilters continue to cut, piece, appliqué and quilt by hand in much the same way as the first European immigrants to Canada did more than 150 years ago. Modern quilters participate in group quilt-a-longs over the internet, purchase digital patterns, and share photos of their creations on social media. They also come together to sew in much the same style of an old-fashioned quilting bee. Of course, they also they gather at guild meetings to share their work and their knowledge.

Quilting is both old and modern, both art and craft. Just as we look forward to the next 150 years of Canada as a nation, we also look forward to the changes and the continuity of the next 150 of Canadian quilting.

References

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  • Quilts and Other Bed Coverings in the Canadian Tradition, by Ruth McKendry. Published by Van Nostrand, Reinhold in 1979
  • 300 Years of Canada’s Quilts, by Mary Conroy. Published by Griffin House in 1976.

Both of these books can be found at the Ottawa Public Library. They cover the history of quilting in Canada up until the 1970s, when they were both published. For the more recent history, I drew on my own experience plus the results of some Google searches, although unfortunately I didn’t keep track of the websites I visited.

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