Last weekend we traveled north to celebrate the 65th wedding anniversary of my Father & Mother In-Law, along with their 90th birthdays -one in October and one in November. With this in mind, I thought a short story about the legacy of quilting from their perspective might be appropriate.
Living “off the grid” sounds cool. It represents freedom, anonymity, self sufficiency. Yes. When you can drive half an hour to a city. When you can communicate instantly with the world via i-phone or social media. When you can visit family, shower and eat a nice meal in a local restaurant. Then living off the grid may be cool. Even fun.
Not so much in the 1930’s when my mother-in-law was a child. Coming from Eastern Europe, my mother-in-law along with her sister, 2 brothers and mom were deposited on a farm in Central Canada and left to fend for themselves. Being 3 miles from town didn’t matter. Few people there spoke their language anyway. Her dad, the only one who spoke English, left home for days/weeks/months on end in order to work in a distant mine. He did what he could to provide for the family. He was the one who did all of the monetary transactions. When he was not around, they just had to make do.
Over time, they cleared land to convert it from bush to farm land. Over time they added animals. Anything to move from the random provision of hunted animals to the self-sufficiency and the dependency of domestic animals. Cows meant you had meat, milk, cream and butter. Pigs provided meat, sausage, and lard for baking and making soap. Chickens gave meat and eggs. And from geese you collected feathers.
Survival in a foreign land required adjustment. Everything revolved around the 4 seasons – planting, growing, harvesting and winter. Very, very cold winters. Storms where you did not leave the house for days on end except to feed the animals. Nights when the temperatures inside the house were so cold the water in pails turned to ice.
But winter evenings in Northern Canada are not only cold. They are also long, with almost 18 hours of darkness. Going out? That was feared. It was much safer inside. And there was always something to be done. After supper, bags of geese feathers collected from the fall ‘harvest’ were brought out. As mother/children sat around the single source of heat for the house – a wood-burning stove, they stripped feathers until mid-night when the last person to go to bed would put a stick of wood on the fire.
At first, the feathers were put into empty sugar or flour bags and sewn shut. These were pillows.
Down filled pillows
Later, the family became friends with neighboring Dukabors who showed them how to sew rows on sheets of fabric and stuff channels with feathers in order to make down comforters.
At some point feathers were replaced with wool. Bags of wool were taken down to the river to be washed. They were then carded and rolled into sheets. A quilting frame was set up in the living room where it took up almost every square inch of space. It remained there for weeks until the quilting was done. In this case it was hand stitched (loosely) so that the tops could be removed periodically to be washed or replaced.
Wool quilt -front & back, loosely hand stitched
Remnants of this life remain. My mother-in-law still has the treadle sewing machine, her spinning wheel, wool carding equipment, down filled pillows, wool quilts, tea towels made of recycled flour/sugar bags circa 1950’s, hand embroidered pillowcases and cross stitch done on hand made linen fabric. She has passed on to us feather pillows that are the most comfortable ever, down comforters that are way too hot in today’s world of central heating and wool quilts that keep us warm on winter nights. The down and wool provided by geese and sheep who lived 75 years ago still provides us with warmth and pleasure!
For my MIL, the legacy of quilting was simple and very traditional – you made what you needed, but nothing extra. The ‘nothing extra’ applied to everything. There was no time for the extra stitching of blocks. There was no waste of extra fabrics and there was no waste of energy/time making quilts you did not need. This quilt, with a little more planning and stitching came into the family later but the history of the quilt has been lost. All I know is that we used it last weekend.
Have a great week. For my Canadian friends, happy Thanksgiving!