Canadian Red Cross quilts came to Britain in their thousands in World War II, but as Isobel Holland discovers, there are precious few survivors
When I first became the outreach worker for the Quilters’ Guild I spent a fascinating few weeks familiarising myself with the contents of its collection at Dean Clough in Halifax. Among the 400 objects there are British-made quilts that are the best of their kind, pieces made by quilters who are long dead, others by makers who are very much alive, and many of them have a unique story to tell. Among all these native beauties is a small group of nine quilts. None of them has any maker information, and their fabrication shows that they were made quickly, and intended for service rather than sentiment. But they’re no less valuable, and their stories are no less interesting for that, for these are survivors of the many quilts made in Canada and sent by the Red Cross across the submarine-haunted Atlantic to warm the ‘old country’ during World War II.
Crucial to this lifeline were the sewing rooms of the Red Cross branches throughout Canada, whose war effort was co-ordinated by the Standardised Workroom, which sent out samples and patterns for everything – bandages, underwear, clothing. Everything, that is, except quilts. Maybe this was because the quilt tops were made at home and only quilted in Red Cross sewing rooms. Maybe it was because so many tops had been made up before the war. Whatever the reason, even among a nation’s organisation for total war it seems that quilts can remain individual and even enigmatic. We know very little, for example, about the people who made them, though tantalising fragments do remain: the Canadian Red Cross archives relate the efforts of one widowed mother of 18 children who walked 18 miles every week to make quilts throughout the war. Nor do we actually know how many quilts were sent to Britain during the war because they were lumped together with ordinary blankets when the relief supplies were tallied.
It’s clear, however, that thousands helped to make these quilts, and that they came in tens of thousands: Nova Scotia alone sent 24,149 between 1941 and 1945; Edmonton Red Cross workers and country branches made 3,231 quilts in 1942; and in just one six-week period in 1944, Britain received 25,000 Canadian quilts.
The British Red Cross Society singled out the quality of Canadian quilts for particular praise, and indeed some of the quilts sacrificed to wartime need would have been prized possessions in peacetime. In fairness, though, it’s unlikely that many of the quilts made to the patterns printed in North American magazines and newspapers during the war found their way to Europe: most were probably made as sponsored fundraisers. For the main part, the quilts that made the journey were utility items like those at Dean Clough.
Most of the quilts in the Guild’s Canadian Red Cross collection are made-up from crazy blocks using remnants – furnishing fabrics, dress materials, scraps, even unpicked bags – and appear to have been made ‘by the yard’. The backing fabric of Quilt 1, for example, has the faint remains of a blue printed mill label, while Quilt 4 includes some fabric that looks very like feedbag material. Both quilts also have foreshortened blocks, where the made-up ‘material’ has simply been cut off at the required length.
Except for the woollen and wholecloth quilts, all of the backing fabric is either striped or plain flannelette. The hand-quilting patterns reflect wartime pragmatism, too: they’re all quickly and easily worked, using a double dog trail, fan, concentric semicircles, parallel lines on the diagonal, or – in the interest of speed, no doubt – big-stitch quilting.
None of this, as we’ve said, detracts from their historical value. In fact, these characteristics are all part of the quilts’ wartime legacy. Take Quilt 8, for example. This 16-patch piece was recently donated to the Guild and came from a member of one of the families that were evacuated from Strete near Dartmouth for what later turned out to have been the D-Day landing rehearsals. While the events of 6 June 1944 are still remembered, who recalls the training exercises which took place all over Britain? While those who died on the beaches of Normandy are remembered, who recalls the casualties incurred during the preparations, whose deaths were veiled by the secrecy surrounding the invasion plans? But this quilt, with its aeroplane decorated with red, white and blue roundels, is a fragment of those times and events, and by having survived, reminds us that while the great moments of history are celebrated, others are being forgotten.
All Canadian Red Cross quilts of World War II had white woven labels printed with Gift of Canadian Red Cross Society and a cross. But interestingly, the fact that this quilt has no label – something that usually robs a quilt of its place in history – is actually part of its story. The donor believes that her mother might have removed the label because, even in the straitened circumstances of wartime, she felt uncomfortable about accepting ‘charity’.
The handful of Canadian Red Cross wartime quilts now kept by the Guild were largely donated so that they could be kept safe for future generations. Some were given specifically to the handling collection, where people can get closer to the past by touching and feeling them.
But how many other survivors are still out there? When the Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles organised a series of national Documentation Days, 54 more Canadian Red Cross quilts were brought to light. Of the quilts sent independently by church groups,or as part of the Bundles for Britain scheme, the American Museum in Bath has four, two without labels, while Weybridge Museum, the Women’s Royal Army Corps’ Museum and the Museum of the British Red Cross have one quilt each. Following an earlier request for information, Popular Patchwork readers turned up another six wartime quilts; some of their stories were known, others were in charity shops or being used as packing material by furniture removers.
Given the huge number of quilts distributed during the war, this short roll-call of survivors shows just how quickly much of the fabrics of our memories have unravelled and been lost.
Guild member Denise Stone, for example, remembers working in Ynys-y-Planta, a residential nursery in West Cross, Swansea, in 1958. There were cupboards full of Red Cross quilts, she recalls, some well-made, others haphazardly sewn; some with embroidery and others with names and addresses in America and Canada.
We don’t know what happened to them anymore than we know the whereabouts of the comforters cut down from double-sized quilts to fit onto ATS bunks; or of the well-remembered Irish chain quilt that a young Fany had to turn in when she began officers’ training in 1944. They’ve all gone. So, if you own a one of these veterans, write down everything you know about its history so that it too will have a story to tell in the future.
Special thanks to Sally Ward for her research, and to all the members of the Quilters’ Guild who responded to my requests.
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