Pioneer women in a log shack with a sod roof and a dirt floor had the same craving for “pretty things” as her sister “back home”. Besides, there was too often the gnawing heart-sickness of isolation and loneliness. Busy hands were the best antidote for that disease. There will never be a time again where so much “handwork” will be done.
Even when all supplies had to be freighted over the Peace River or Edson Trails, and when cash was almost nonexistent, it was a rare order that did not include some “six-strand embroidery cotton”, and/or some crochet cotton. Both were cheap. Both found their way to the adornment of thousands of flour sacks, sugar sacks, and feed bags. Few pillowcases, tea cloths, tablecloths, aprons, or even sheets and curtains were not lace-edged in crocheting, tatting, or knitting.
Probably the making of homemade “pieced” quilts came nearest to being a true craft. The material for the simplest, of course, was salvaged from any garment that had enough fabric left to hold the holes together. The “crazy-quilt” resulted — pieces of any size and shape applied to a cotton block eighteen to twenty-four inches square, which had likely been a man’s worn-out shirt tail or a child’s outgrown dress. When the blocks were sewn together a quilt-top appeared. Unless a homesteader’s wife was in dire need of bedding, her visitors would raise eyebrows if she used her sewing machine!
Stitches should not show. It was pathetic to see how often the edges of each patch were adorned with embroidered feather stitching or blanket stitching, even when the time was wasted on yarn raveled from things so far gone that it could not be re-knit without too many knots for comfort. It was many years before I perceived in these utilitarian and often ugly things the expression of the yearnings of a woman, desperately lonely and starved for beauty.
After the simple crazy-quilt came an enterprise that few men could understand — cutting up pieces of cloth, just to sew them together again! In the days when almost all clothes, except men’s pants, were homemade, there were always bits of bright new cloth left over. Geometrical shapes, when joined, created patterns. Traditional ones were “Log Cabin”, “Star of Bethlehem”, “Necktie”, “Flower Basket”, “Double Tee”, “Nine Patch”, or “Double Wedding Ring” — and many more. A woman who devised an original one was proud indeed. Again, the real craftswomen sewed them by hand, tiny stitches being much admired. Besides, when the sewing machine was used it was much harder to make the corners of cloth exactly fitted, especially on bias seams.
At long last the “quilt-top” was finished. The proud or lonely maker let word get out that she was inviting the neighbors in for a “quilting”.
First a lining was tautly stretched on frames consisting of four strips of wood, longer than the finished product was intended to be. On top was smoothly places the filling which might be discarded long johns or carefully carded homegrown wool — or in more affluent times a roll of cotton batting. On top came the quilt top, evenly stretched and also fastened to the frames.
After a day or two of busy baking the wagons, Bennett buggies or sleighs would begin to arrive. Then all took their places along the longer side of the frames. Sometimes the stove had to be taken down, or the table moved outside to allow room for work and workers.
With needle and thread, began the actual process of quilting sewing through the three thicknesses of cloth to keep all in place. Some women were expert, their stitches were tiny and even on both front and back. Some couldn’t keep to the quilting lines or else they made huge irregular stitches.
“Why do you ask Mrs. A. when you know that tonight you’ll rip out every stitch she’s put in”, asked more than one mystified husband.
“Because she never gets out for a visit except to a quilting, and besides this is the only time all of us have time to exchange news.”
“Gossip, you mean!”
“Perhaps so, but most of it is kindly, and just shows interest in our neighbors’ joys and sorrows. The shy ones can always keep their eyes down on their work, and everybody can find time to brag a little in a nice way.”
Quilting is one community craft that is still practiced and always will be so, as long as Women’s Institutes remain. There are two reasons — or perhaps excuses — to carry on: to give to “emergency aid” for victims of house fires or to exhibit for competition at District Meetings and Summer Community Fairs, hopefully to be chosen for exhibit at the Pacific National Exhibition.
As outstanding example of such a project is exhibited in the Dawson Creek Museum, a Centennial project of the West Saskatoon Women’s Institute. The committee responsible for the project consisted of Mrs. Jessie Harod, Mrs. Vera Piper, and Mrs. Ruby Stevenson who created the design to illustrate the set theme “One Hundred Years of Progress in the Peace River Block.” Mrs. Jean Dickson of Pouce Coupe developed the details with her clever painting, to show that law and order, transportation and people develop a country. The historical details were based on Mrs. Marjorie Coutts’ excellent history of the district. Individual members made the several units in appliqué in minute detail.
No picture could show more than an impression of the design. It was based on a wagon wheel, emblematic of the pioneer settler. In the hub of the wheel appears the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the unifying force that kept the area free from the Wild West tradition of violence.
The panel between each pair of spokes developed a topic. For example, transportation from the Indian dugouts, canoes, pack dogs, and horses, covered wagons, river paddle wheel steamers, the N.A.R. railway, Alaska Highway, Fort St. John Airport and John Hart Highway. Mrs. Ruth Paterson elaborated her panel with astonishing details from the huge grain elevators and grain trucks to the white-faced Herefords in a pasture, to the barnyard hen-and-egg production, and even, in the point of the pie-shaped piece, a tiny beehive.
An example of the thought and planning was the arrangement of the details in each wedge so that the whole tapestry could be viewed in the same manner as in reading a book. It is all in horizontal lines, so that no twisting of the tapestry or of the viewers’ neck is necessary to follow the pictograph from top to bottom.
In the scalloped edge of the frame around the motif appears the history of each of the area’s Women’s Institutes. In the corners, the stylized emblematic dogwoods identify the area as part of British Columbia while all of the colours of the Coat of Arms of British Columbia appear in the coloured areas.
The quilting is exquisitely done.
To the chagrin of the makers the quilt did not receive even an Honorable Mention in the British Columbia Provincial Women’s’ Institute Convention on the grounds that it did not represent the Centennial history of all British Columbia. The first prize went to the depicting of the landing of the first Governor at Vancouver!
Nothing daunted, Mrs. Vera Braden took it to the International Convention of all Women’s Institutes in Michigan, U.S.A., where it took First Prize, with the commendation that the quality of the work was the finest ever seen at the show place of the best in women’s handiwork.
Characteristically, the winning of such International Honors got very little coverage in the newspapers–not only of the province, but in Dawson Creek. Hence, this small tribute to the skill and artistry of the women of a little farming district in the vast Dominion of Canada.