80 YEARS LATER
CANADIAN WARTIME QUILTS COME HOME
In the April 1987 issue of Canada Quilts, a letter to the editor was published from a British woman, Pauline Adams, who was looking for information about quilts made in Canada during the Second World War, that had been shipped to Britain.
Pauline wrote: “There seem to be a great many of these quilts in Britain, and I am now undertaking some research into the subject…it seems to me that some of your readers may have actually taken part in quilting bees or sewing circles making the quilts. If this is so, I would dearly love to hear from them, as a means of giving life to this little bit of quilting history.”
According to the Canadian Red Cross, our country shipped over 52,000,000 items to Britain during the war, and most of them were items sewn or knit voluntarily by women. Of these items, over 400,000 quilts were made and sent for use in military barracks, hospitals, and most of all for civilians who lost their homes in the bombing raids. Many of the quilts were identified with a tiny cloth label, “Gift of the Canadian Red Cross Society”.
I don’t know what replies she received, but Pauline’s letter is the earliest example I have found that these quilts were being researched and collected. Between 1987 and 2005, other women who continued and added to this research were Isobel Holland, Bridget Long, and Sally Ward in Britain, and Chrilla Wendt in Germany, who had located some unused quilts at a market near Munich.
In 2005, three women—Dr. Anna Mansi, Maxine March, and Jackie Maxwell—decided to take on this research in earnest and formed the Canadian Red Cross Quilt Research Group (CRCQRG) as a sub-group of the British Quilt Study Group. Their goals were to rescue as many Red Cross quilts as they could and form a joint collection, to raise the profile of these quilts in both the quilting world and with the general public by giving talks to interested groups, to find exhibition space for the collection, and to collect stories of the makers and the recipients.
Women workers at the Red Cross Work Room in the basement of Hespeler Public Library, c. 1942. Credit Hespeler Heritage Centre. Photographer Frank Johnston.
From 2005 to 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic, these women researched, wrote, and presented lectures about the quilts they were finding, and about how and where they were made. Many quilts were donated to them as they continued to share their knowledge, and they meticulously recorded all the quilts they located in both public and private collections throughout Britain and in other parts of the world.
In 2010, the Quilters Guild of the British Isles mounted an exhibition of Canadian Red Cross quilts at their location in York, England, with the assistance of the women of the CRCQRG. Quilts from both public and private collections were shown, as well as quilts in the collection of the CRCQRG. Another exhibition toured in 2016. Sadly, Anna Mansi passed away before the second exhibition was mounted, but her husband, Tony Mansi, continues to collect quilts in her memory and make presentations in England of their collection.
In 2022, Maxine March and Jackie Maxwell decided it was time to share the collected quilts with the Canadian people. Before 2020, there may have been as few as 10 of these quilts that had been returned and were in public collections in Canadian museums. Combined, Maxine and Jackie had collected over 60 quilts, and they hoped to find one museum in Canada that would be interested in adding all the quilts to their permanent collection. When no Canadian institutions expressed an interest in accepting the whole collection, they enlisted Lucie Heins, Assistant Curator, Daily Life and Leisure, at the Royal Alberta Museum, to assist them in finding permanent homes for individual quilts in museums across Canada. (Lucie will be speaking about the Red Cross quilts on Friday, June 21 at 1:30 pm during Quilt Canada 2024 in Edmonton.)
“Gift of Canadian Red Cross” label that identifies quilts that were made by volunteers in Canada and sent to the UK during the war.
Before quilts were sent to Canada, the CRCQRG first contacted British cultural institutions to inquire if any wished to add one or more quilts to their permanent collections, and several more quilts were placed within Britain. Then Lucie Heins contacted museums all across Canada, and through much organization and correspondence, succeeded in placing 64 of these quilts in Canadian public collections. There were quilts accepted into almost every province, creating a tangible representation of the charitable wartime work of women.
We are grateful to Maxine and David March, and to Jackie Maxwell for their foresight, for their diligent work in collecting and speaking about these quilts, and now generously donating them back to Canadian cultural institutions. The remaining few of the millions of gifts that were made and sent across the ocean by our mothers, aunts, grandmothers and great-grandmothers have now been gifted back to our nation so that we can learn about and honour the work of our foremothers. This would not have been possible without the work of the CRCQRG.
SPECIAL NOTE During the repatriation project, wartime quilts were not placed in museums in Quebec, though efforts were made. All quilts found homes before the Yukon, Nunavut, or Northwest Territories could be contacted. We expect, over time, that more surviving quilts may surface in Britain, that will be offered back to Canada. If you know of an institution that would be interested in repatriating a quilt in the future, please ask them to contact the author to be placed on a waiting list for a Canadian wartime quilt to be added to their public collection.
Many of these quilts are in fair to poor condition—they have been well-used and well-loved over the last 80 years. Few could withstand the rigours of a travelling exhibition. So in the near future, my goal is to obtain funding to allow us to create an open source public website where multiple images and the written record of each quilt can be viewed, and where letters, articles, and primary sources can be archived. It is an ambitious project, but it is important for ongoing investigation into the groups that were involved, where they were located and how they organized the work they undertook; the materials used to make the quilts and how they were sourced; the methods used for quilt design and construction; the role this making played in the lives of women on the home front; and the significance these quilts had to the recipients of these gifts during and after the war.
The unpaid wartime work of Canadian women has for too long been ignored. The surviving quilts are the only material artifacts that remain demonstrating this extraordinary effort, and they provide us with a window into all of the voluntary contributions of women on the home front in a period of cultural upheaval. Most importantly, the quilts are a historical record of women’s lives. In the absence of written stories, articles about this work in newspapers and periodicals of this period, researched alongside these surviving quilts, will document a vital story in Canada’s history and its international relationships in wartime.
West Arran Helpers, Ontario (later to become the West Arran Women’s Institute), c. 1942. Credit: Private collection—used by permission.
Joanna Dermenjian is a quilter and a Research Associate at the Modern Literature and Culture Research Centre at Toronto Metropolitan University. She welcomes the opportunity to share her research about Canadian wartime quilts through presentations to quilt guilds and museums. You can read more about her research and see images of quilts on her website sutureandselvedge.com and on Instagram @suture_and_selvedge. She welcomes contributions to the conversation on the Facebook Group page Canada’s Forgotten Wartime Quilts.