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New Pathways into Quilt History written by Kimberly Wulfert, www.antiquequiltdating.com

Antique Quilts from 
Nova Scotia, Canada 

by Kimberly Wulfert, PhD 
and Co-Authored with Janet Gordon

Be sure to click on the underlined words to see antique photos.

If you were shown three 19th century quilts made in the eastern U.S., another Wales, the last Nova Scotia, you'd find it difficult to determine which came from where.

Nova Scotia, Canada, is at the furthest edge of North America. It lies between Britain and the United States, as a peninsula jutting out from New Brunswick. Surrounded by water, ships from far and near made their way bringing people, fabrics, and other goods to the settlers there.

According to the book, the earliest inhabitants were the Mi'kmaq. The French established the first permanent European settlement in 1605, but Norse explorers and Basque fishermen had been there long before from across the Atlantic. At that time the region was loosely comprised of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and called Acadia.

In 1713 the British fought the French for Acadia and won. In 1749 they built a large seaport in Halifax for their main defense against the French, who had taken back their fortress in Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island under the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. But the British got it back and secured all of Nova Scotia by 1758. It remained in their hands from then on. They proceeded to encourage and arrange for Swiss and German immigrants to settle in Halifax, the capitol, and subsequently in Lunenburg, further south on the Atlantic coast. The Scots came later, in 1773, to settle in Cape Breton and Pictou County.

1907 stereoscopic view card of an apple orchard in NS

British intentions had been to establish themselves all along the coast starting in Virginia. In 1755, Acadians were expelled from their homes and deported to colonies in America and the West Indies. When they could finally return in the 1760s, many found their homes destroyed and their farms taken over by so-called "New England Planters."

The Commons in Halifax

After the American Revolution, American families still faithful to the British government moved and settled in Nova Scotia, including a substantial number of Black settlers. Immigration from the British Isles and America continued into the 1800s. With this settlement pattern, it is easy to understand why particular quilt styles, techniques and fabrics are found in Nova Scotia's quilt heritage.

The oldest surviving quilt at the Nova Scotia Museum collection dates to 1810, yet a much earlier mention of a quilt appears in a 1754 newspaper. An ad in the Halifax Gazette tells of a quilt for sale by an auctioneer. Household inventories in the late 18th century indicate quilted petticoats were in fashion there, and due to the large number, were likely imported from Britain. The newspaper ads also tell us calico patches and strips were sold for "quiltings." Some "patches" were from India and sold at two dollars each, a hefty sum in those days. They also imported chintz, most likely from India.

Quilting offered social opportunities to both the rich and the poor, although they were likely working with differing quality of materials. Young girls learned how to sew in school, and diaries are full of references to helping a friend work on her quilt or going to a quilting. The term "Bee" is not used by the diarists when recording a quilt get-together. Then, as well as today, Nova Scotians prefer the term quilting or quilting party.

If differences must be recognized, these generalizations may apply: Nova Scotians preferred making geometric pieced quilts more often then appliquéd ones. Borders are scarcely seen in their 19th century quilts; designs went to the edge ending with a narrow binding. Canadian quilters in general used a lot of white or unbleached cotton. Perhaps it was more readily available and affordable. On a more cerebral level, I wonder if women found light colored quilts more compelling to make as they endured less daylight during the long winter season.

Cut-out chintz quilts were not found in NS. Instead, their appliquéd quilts were likely to be the red and green type. The nine block format was preferred over the large four square or random appliqués style. Usually they were made with a vine border. The Colonial Revival style of floral quilts in pastels, or red on white are extant. It appears their green dyes were often fugitive as indicated by blue or tan fabrics remaining where the green once was.

<--- 1920s quilt - a wedding gift for Diana, made by a church group

Mosaic quilts made there used the paper-pieced method of combining hexagons, following in the traditions of the British Isles. Nova Scotians favored silks for this pattern. The American type of Grandmother's Flower Garden quilts are not in their collection. 

The book states that Nova Scotians preferred the English tradition for arranging their mosaic quilts, which may at times resemble GFG, but are distinguishable putting the colorful prints into different arrangements than a flower.

The earliest quilts follow the style of the frame quilts and wholecloths made in Britain. The later quilts use multi-pieced blocks reflective of the American tradition.

Given their cold and windy weather and self sufficient living, small-scale sheep raising was common. This means of course that wool quilts and wool batt are evident. Yet, there is an absence of glazed wool or calamanco quilts in Nova Scotia's history. Perhaps the sheep they raised were not long haired producers of the fine worsted wool needed in order to call a quilt a calamanco. Wool batt was carded by hand or larger sheets of batt were carded in their mills. Cotton batting was imported. Wool quilts were tied or quilted with big stitches so they could easily be taken apart for cleaning. They served both as beds and as covers.  

Wholesale Dry Goods Warehouse       

Solid colored wholecloth quilts were made of cotton, chintz or silk. White wholecloth, in cotton or silk, were most likely to be heavily quilted. Two types emerge. There are those adorned with traditionally American quilt patterns of pineapples, and feather garlands and wreaths, or they made in traditionally Welsh and northern England designs of circles, flower petals and Celtic circular designs. The two different design styles did not overlap except for crosshatching placed in the background of both. Otherwise, wholecloth quilts had an overall quilted medallion pattern of borders around a large motif quilted in the center. If the top was made in strips of solid fabrics, Strippey style, the quilting flowed across the top, unconfined by the strips. This is more indicative of Welsh quilting patterns than American.

Their crazy quilts look like American Victorian crazy's. There are several in this book, all in high style, dating to the 1880s. Log cabin, pineapple, and courthouse step are other foundation based quilts they made in silks, velvets and cottons. The museum has an early version of the popular silk and velvet tumbling block quilt, made about 1850 in Halifax or Bridgewater. It is fringed and backed with a stunning seashell chintz in a yellow, salmon pink and green print dating to the 1830s.

1871 Clothing Warehouse Store in Halifax

Treadle Sewing Machines

20th century quilters used scraps from old clothes, feed and flour sacks and tobacco premiums for their quilts. Flour sacking was also used to make household linens and clothing. A 1930's girl, Helen Dacey Wilson, recalls her problems with wearing feedsack clothing:

<--- Quilt made of hand-dyed yellow feedsack w/red calico print for a wedding gift. 

"I remember one day my sister Elsie just refused to go to school because the nurse was coming and Elsie's flour-bag slip and sugar-bag bloomers were new and had not yet faded completely...On the back of her petticoat the words CREAM OF THE WEST could be clearly seen- and a large still bright blue arrow pointing to the words UNTIE HERE stood out plainly on the seat of her bloomers. Grete told me that she remembers being invited to a cousin's house... and the group decided to go swimming. Grete loved swimming and wanted to go too, but she couldn't bear the thought of undressing with others. Before leaving home she had counted four messages on her underwear, and that was too much for any girl to stand." (More tales from Barrett's Landing, Toronto:McClelland & Stewart, 1967 and page 33 in Robson & MacDonald's book)

Nova Scotian quilters are self-reliant, resourceful and care about their community members, like quilters everywhere. Nearing the end of the 19th century, in Ontario, Adelaide Hunter Hoodless lost her 18 month old child to an illness caused by unpasteurized milk. She wanted to spare others this tragedy and believed that educating mothers would help with prevention. She formed the "Women's Institute" in 1897. The purpose was to raise the standard of homemaking and health through improvement of the intellectual and cultural life of women living in rural areas of Canada. With the support of the provincial Departments of Agriculture, branches formed throughout Canada. Locally, the organization became known as WINS, Women's Institute of Nova Scotia. Programming was geared toward building the skills homemakers already had for quilting, hooking rugs, and weaving; and helping them to sell their products for income there and abroad. WINS held exhibits, demonstrations and rallies. The members entered quilting competitions locally and beyond, promoting the craft and economic benefits of quiltmaking to other women. WINS continued its efforts with women new to quilting when the revival came in the 1970s.

Other religious and social groups besides WINS got involved in the Canadian Red Cross and local relief work in NS. They came together to make quilts especially during War. The Canadian Red Cross sent quilts to Britain during WWII. The Nova Scotia Division received this request: "The opportunity to help in...connection with the 'World Refugee year'...I know you will be pleased to hear that what we have been asked to make are layettes and quilts. As most of you do this work, I feel sure we will have no difficulty to complete our extra quota of 250 layettes and quilts. If each branch and auxiliary does a few more than usual we will go 'over the top'. Of course our regular quota must be reached, too, so our other articles must be made as well."

After the War, Nova Scotians developed their own cultural identity, independent of the British Empire and American-style nationalism. They chose their historical events and sentiments to reflect in the quilts they made. These were often pictorial appliqué quilts. This trend continues today as the quilters choose themes of national social issues such as AIDS, peace, and the environment.

Click here to continue . . . 

Books from Amazon
See also my used books page for a copy:  Nova Scotia Patchwork Patterns

Old Nova Scotian Quilts

by Scott Robson and Sharon MacDonald, 1995. It features their active history of quilt-making and "50 of the best quilts" from Nova Scotia Museum, of which Scott is the curator.  


Ontario's Heritage Quilts
by Marilyn Walker, Noel Hudson (Editor)


Nova Scotia Patchwork Patterns: Instructions and Full-Size Templates for 12 Quilts
by Carter Houck


Northern Comfort: New England's Early Quilts 1780-1850
by Jack Larkin, Lynne Z. Bassett, Thomas Neill (Photographer), Old Sturbridge Village



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© 2003 - 2015 Kimberly Wulfert, PhD. Absolutely no copies, reprints, use of photos or text are permitted for commercial or online use. One personal copy for study purposes is permitted.

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