By Rebecca Beausaert
It is a cold, wintry Wednesday afternoon in January 1917. Half a dozen women of varied ages are seated around a large quilt frame set up in the sitting room of a rural farmhouse in Oxford County, Ontario. Some work quietly, their thoughts running to domestic tasks set aside to be here. A few cannot help but think about their sons and brothers serving overseas. Others chat quietly with their neighbour about the price of flour or the latest news from the Western Front. All bend their heads over the canvas of white cotton directly before them, their fingers deftly moving needles trailing red cotton thread in and out of the fabric. Each tiny, careful stitch helps turn their collective project into an intricate quilt; each quilt completed and auctioned off raises money for their war charity work. Scenes like this, repeated in numerous communities across the country, were an integral part of First World War Canada.
It is well known that on the home front, women and girls were also mobilized for war, many going above and beyond their usual duties to contribute to the war effort in any way they knew how. For most, this occurred through the accomplishment of traditionally-feminine domestic tasks. Untold numbers of female volunteers spent thousands of hours rolling bandages, knitting socks, sewing blankets, canning preserves, and constructing care packages to send overseas to soldiers and displaced civilians. Like so much of women’s unpaid labour, however, war work was often dismissed for being “recreational” in nature. While most of these hand-crafted items have long since been used and disappeared, surviving fundraising quilts continue to serve as tangible remnants of how Canadian women used their domestic skills to contribute to the war effort.
Historic quilts are popular collector’s items for their complicated designs and exquisite craftsmanship, and the war’s centenary has sparked an interest in quilts as communicators of personal stories. A handful of such quilts can be found in museums in Oxford County, a largely rural and agricultural region in southwestern Ontario. Two in particular, the Braemar Women’s Institute Autograph Quilt and the Wolverton Red Cross Quilt, were recently included in a travelling museum exhibit in 2015. The exhibit, which paid homage to wartime voluntarism in Oxford, was one of 100 events planned as part of a five-year long commemoration project called “Oxford Remembers: Oxford’s Own.” Each event explores an aspect of Oxford’s wartime experience, in the hopes of expanding current understandings of how rural and agrarian Canadians participated in the war effort.