Quilting for a Cause: Rural Women’s Voluntarism in the First World War
Rebecca Beausaert, Woodstock Museum National Historic Site
Here in Canada, the 100th anniversary of the First World War has sparked a renewed interest in this devastating conflict, especially the civilian experience on the home front. In the largely rural and agrarian county of Oxford in southwestern Ontario, a group of museum professionals has made “the local” the focus of a five-year long commemoration project called “Oxford Remembers: Oxford’s Own.” Of the 100 “Oxford Remembers” events scheduled, five are travelling museum exhibits, each one making a temporary stop in one of the county’s participating institutions. The most recent exhibit, “Reaction and Recruitment: Oxford Goes to War,” honoured local women’s voluntary efforts, recognising the significant time and effort spent rolling bandages, knitting socks, canning preserves, and constructing care packages to send overseas to Oxford County soldiers and displaced civilians.
The artifacts chosen to demonstrate local women’s voluntary efforts were two wartime autograph quilts―the Braemar Women’s Institute Autograph Quilt and the Wolverton Red Cross Quilt. When it came to fundraising, the autograph quilt was the most popular style adopted by women’s auxiliaries. Because most of these groups were allied with the Red Cross, surviving quilts often bear the same distinctive markings―white cotton, red stitching, and red crosses. In communities across Canada, women solicited for donations to these quilts with donors contributing a small sum (often ten or fifteen cents) to have their “signature” sewn on to a quilt. The completed quilt would then be auctioned off, with monies directed toward a wartime cause.
In many late-nineteenth century households, quilting had become a pastime of a bygone era. In rural areas, however, women continued to do hand quilting, as evidenced by the ongoing popularity of the quilting bee, which had long served as an integral part of community life. Quilting was a form of domestic work that rural women not only took great pride in, but also prompted sociability among friends and neighbours. Thus, the quilting bee continued to be a mainstay in many Canadian communities during the First World War. The gatherings allowed quilters to put their skills to use for the national war effort, and also offered a brief respite from the tension and anxiety of wartime.
The Braemar quilt was sewn by its local Women’s Institute, a popular organization throughout rural and small-town Ontario in the early years of the twentieth century. Though details surrounding its sale are scant, we do know the quilt was constructed in 1918 and the monies earned were directed towards the Canadian Red Cross.
The Braemar quilt contains a pattern of overlapping circles, on top of which are thirty diamonds stitched in red thread. In between each diamond is a block containing clusters of hand-sewn “autographs,” representing the hundreds of local donors who gave money to have their name appear. The centrepiece of the quilt is a maple leaf, containing the signatures of the quilt’s creators and the year.
The quilt’s vivid red stitching, painstakingly completed by many hands, tells the story of Braemar’s wartime experience and changing social dynamics in this rural community. The hundreds of signatures, particularly their placement and size in relation to others, offer a map of where citizens stood in relation to one another socially, economically, politically, and patriotically. For instance, the central maple leaf contains the names of Braemar’s Women’s Institute’s executive, while the non-ranking members, who were likely responsible for most of the quilt’s construction, are noted in separate blocks on the periphery. Here, we see clear evidence of how much the Women’s Institutes were hierarchically-organized. Typically on autograph quilts, a centrally-located, or larger signature, indicated wealth and status.
Blocks of signatures are also devoted to local churches and schools, enlisted soldiers and their wives, and even the Braemar girls’ baseball team. Most, however, contain the names of individual citizens from across Oxford County, the many Scottish surnames indicative of the early settlement period. Interspersed among the signatures are patriotic sentiments like ‘God Save Our King’ and ‘The Maple Leaf Forever.’
Figure 3 – Wolverton Red Cross Quilt, Woodstock Museum National Historic Site, X1982.01.561
The Wolverton Red Cross Quilt was commissioned by the Wolverton Public School, and donated under that name, though we know little about the identities of the quilter-makers. Likely, it was a group of mothers whose students attended the school, or a local women’s auxiliary. This quilt also contains a pattern of overlapping stitched circles, over top of which are 187 blocks. A single name is sewn onto alternating blocks, totalling eighty-nine names. The centrally-located red cross tells us this piece was also commissioned for Red Cross fundraising purposes. Surrounding the red cross is the signature of “Wolverton Public School” and the date, November 1917.
The Wolverton School was a one-room schoolhouse, located in the village of Wolverton in Blenheim Township in East Oxford County. The Wolverton family, for whom the village was named, was well-known for their industriousness, establishing a very profitable milling enterprise in the community. At least one branch of Wolverton descendants was still living in the community during the First World War, as evidenced by the Wolverton family signatures on the quilt.
During the war donating to, or helping construct an autograph quilt, served as a way for citizens who were not necessarily comfortable attending public activities or did not have the resources to devote to wartime causes, an opportunity to still express patriotic feelings. Purchasing a quilt, or having an autograph stitched onto one, was public acknowledgment of one’s loyalty, sacrifice, and commitment. For the quilt-makers, there was also therapeutic value in the needle, as quilting offered a temporary reprieve from the uncertainties of wartime.
These two autograph quilts offer a rich and unique perspective on Oxford County’s wartime experience from the oft-ignored viewpoint of women. They offer a tactile history of the communities in which they were made, show local social and class dynamics, demonstrate locals’ interest in, and knowledge of, the war’s events, and highlight the important role of rural women’s voluntarism. That these quilts were constructed in the first place, and still survive today, is an important reminder that rural women’s domestic skills and unpaid labour were highly-regarded and very much a part of the war effort on the Canadian home front.