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Historic Sites of High Prairie quilt, Farm Women’s Union of Alberta, c. 1970, High Prairie, Alta.Royal Alberta Museum

A quilt can tell a story – of a marriage, a family, a province. Quilts can also uncover pieces of history. Through her documentation of Alberta quilts, the Royal Alberta Museum’s Lucie Heins learned details of the hardships of early settler life – communicated by the women (primarily) who made them.

“Often history is written from the male point of view,” says Ms. Heins, acting curator of Daily Life and Leisure at the museum. “The quilts were sort of the medium to get to some of these stories that would otherwise not be told.”

Ms. Heins began working on her project in 2010. She has documented about 700 quilts from around the province, found at regional museums, through guilds and in private collections.

She was motivated, in part, by the lack of information about the quilts of Western Canada – Alberta in particular. What she describes as the “go-to” book for the country’s history of quilts – 300 Years of Canada’s Quilts – was written in 1976, with little space allotted to the West. Ms. Heins’ new book, Alberta Quiltmakers and their Quilts, is a corrective.

“It just seemed an opportune time,” she says. “Why wait 300 years to do research on the making of quilts when you’ve lost total contact with the people who knew the quiltmakers?”

The book, which includes quilts made by Indigenous, Black and male quilters, also documents findings from previous and concurrent Alberta quilt research projects.

“I hope that it will serve as inspiration to some of the other Western Canadian provinces to do a similar kind of project,” Ms. Heins says, “so that history can be collected, as well.”

Pictorial quilt

Minerva Horton

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A block from a pictorial quilt by Minerva (McLeod) Horton, 1968, Dunvegan, Alta. From the book Alberta Quiltmakers and their Quilts, by Lucie Heins.Royal Alberta Museum

The 12 blocks in this 1968 quilt by Minerva Horton – who was 63 when she made it – tells the story of her family’s difficult months-long journey from White River, Ont., to their new home in Waterhole, Alta., when Ms. Horton was 6. Block four is devastating. By the time the family reached Athabasca, the children were sick with the measles. The older kids recovered, but six-month-old Lorna died. In this image, Ms. Horton’s mother kneels by the baby’s burial site while the children sit nearby and their father prepares the covered wagon for travel. “Her embroidery is absolutely beautiful. She just really captured a time in history,” Ms. Heins says. “And how moving, the fact that they had to leave her little sister who died and bury her and then move on. I can’t imagine as a mother having to just carry on with your life. You had to be really tough.”

Comfort quilt

Artist unknown

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Canadian Red Cross quilt, artist unknown, 1939-1945, Alberta.Royal Alberta Museum

To support the Red Cross during the world wars, Canadians quilted. For the First World War, one campaign called on people to make quilts to raise money for ambulances, nurses, even hospital sheets and blankets, by having people pay to have their signatures embroidered onto a quilt. During the Second World War, quilts made in Canada were sent to Britain for victims of bombings. After liberation, Canadian quilts were sent to France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Alberta quilters were prolific, making more than 43,000, including crib-sized quilts. Few of these “comfort quilts” remain in Canada. This one was donated to the museum in 2004 by a British collector.

Four stars patchwork

Buela Heslop

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Four stars patchwork quilt, by Buela Heslop, early 1930s, Amber Valley, Alta.Royal Alberta Museum

When people brought quilts in for documentation, Ms. Heins says they would often apologize for the shape they were in – if they had holes, for instance. But Ms. Heins loves the holes; they let her see inside, and what’s inside can also tell a story. Items she has found as fill include long underwear, deconstructed coats, plaid wool skirts and bison fur. “Quilters were very frugal and they wasted nothing,” she says. This quilt was made in the early 1930s by Buela Heslop, one of Alberta’s early Black pioneers. Ms. Heslop, who settled in Amber Valley, used an old quilt as fill for her new one – not a common practice, at least in the quilts Ms. Heins has documented. The museum photographed and digitally manipulated the new quilt, allowing researchers to identify the Dove in the Window pattern on the first quilt.

Wedding quilt

Dorothy Shewchuk

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Baltimore Album quilt, by Dorothy Louise Shewchuk, 2002-2004, Tofield, Alta.Royal Alberta Museum

Born in 1930, Dorothy Shewchuk didn’t learn how to quilt until 1980, when she took a continuing education course. To mark 50 years of marriage to her husband, Louis, in 2001, Ms. Shewchuk spent two years creating this Wedding Quilt, which is completely hand-appliqued and hand-quilted. “It was a slow learning process, but that’s really what I wanted to do: paint pictures with fabric,” says Ms. Shewchuk, now 91. It includes images of things they both loved: fruits, flowers, birds. And Canada; Ms. Shewchuk’s parents had immigrated from Illinois. The main anniversary block includes images of the little house they fixed up when they were first married and began their life together on a farm near Tofield, Alta., in 1951, and the larger one they built in 1964 to accommodate their growing family. They ultimately had seven children, and Louis died in 2016. “He was very proud of my work. He was my best fan and encourager,” says Ms. Shewchuck, who was able to continue quilting until last year. “I used to say every stitch was a prayer. So there were lots of prayers in each quilt.”

Bird quilt

Rose Bernard

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Bird quilt, by Rose (Dubé) Bernard (1919-1985), c. 1960, Edmonton, Alta.Royal Alberta Museum

When a museum colleague was brought this quilt in for documentation, she was impressed by its beauty, but unsure whether the 35 birds were accurately portrayed. The museum’s ornithologist was consulted. “He was able to identify all the birds just by looking at them,” Ms. Heins says. Further, he noted how similar they were to the way the birds were portrayed in the Audubon guide; they were even in the correct trees, with accurate foliage. This circa 1960 quilt is an early example of machine quilting, and it’s believed Rose Bernard may have learned about it from a McCall’s Needlework & Craft magazine. Ms. Bernard, a mother of 12, had a subscription and the fall-winter 1957-58 issue featured an article titled “Sewing Machine Art.” “We start seeing more in the seventies, eighties,” Ms. Heins says of the technique. “But she would have been one of the first ones out the gate.”

Turbo quilt

Verna Steil

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Turbo quilt, At Home in the Woods, by Verna Steil, 2004, Sedgewick, Alta.Royal Alberta Museum

If ever there was a case illustrating the importance of quilt labels, it’s this one. Verna Steil is a third-generation quiltmaker who began making her own quilts in 2000 as an adult, when her eldest daughter gave her a gift certificate for a class in the art. Ms. Steil – who owned an oil field operations company until she retired in 2015 – proceeded to make quilts for her children and grandchildren, including one for her son, Murray, nicknamed Turbo. Murray moved to New Orleans and Verna hand-delivered the quilt to him in 2004, taking it with her on the plane she was so concerned it would get lost in checked luggage. But in 2005 it was lost – gone in the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. Five years later, a clean-up crew uncovered it; seeped in silt, it was identifiable by the name “Turbo” pieced out in block letters. Tragically, her son never saw the recovered quilt; he contracted viral pneumonia in 2011 and died at 43. Ms. Steil flew down to New Orleans to collect his ashes. She brought them home to Alberta, wrapped in the Turbo quilt.

Some of the project’s quilts are being shown at a bed-turning event at the Royal Alberta Museum March 25 and 26.

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