IWD quilt honours 150 unsung female heroes of Canada’s history

Quilt to be raffled off at WBN's June gala with proceeds going to YWCA Crossroads Shelter

Colleen Carruthers, who is coordinating the 150 Canadian Women Quilt project for the Peterborough Women's Business Network, with fellow quilter Debbie Fisico. (Photo: Jeanne Pengelly / kawarthaNOW)
Colleen Carruthers, who is coordinating the 150 Canadian Women Quilt project for the Peterborough Women's Business Network, with fellow quilter Debbie Fisico. (Photo: Jeanne Pengelly / kawarthaNOW)

It’s Monday night and five women are gathered around a table in a north-end home, needles and fabric in hand. It’s hand-sewing night, so they’ve left their machines at home. Tonight, they’re making finishing touches to some of their personal quilting projects.

“It’s so calming!” “It’s great for anxiety!” “We don’t miss it for anything.” “We were even here on Labour Day.”

Colleen Carruthers is one of the sewers around the table. She’s only been quilting for seven years, but has 40 quilts to show for it.

“I think sewing is a kind of therapy that is building resiliency against anxiety,” she says. “When you’re quilting you can’t think about anything else. It’s like practising mindfulness.”

Carruthers and her sewing friends are also working on a special project, one that will be highlighted at the inaugural Peterborough International Women’s Day Conference, hosted by the Women’s Business Network of Peterborough (WBN) on March 8th.

As a keynote project of the conference, the quilt will be raffled at the WBN’s gala in June, with the proceeds going to the YWCA Peterborough Haliburton Crossroads Shelter for women and children fleeing abuse.

And this is just not any quilt: it honours the unsung female heroes of Canada’s history. The 150 Canadian Women project is a “quilt-a-long” that Carruthers says is having a far deeper impact in the community than she ever imagined. The quilt, she says, is building ‘community.’

The 150 Canadian Women Quilt project honours the unsung female heroes of Canada's history including Louise McKinney, the first woman sworn into the Legislative Assembly of Alberta and the first woman elected to a legislature in Canada and in the British Empire.
The 150 Canadian Women Quilt project honours the unsung female heroes of Canada’s history including Louise McKinney, the first woman sworn into the Legislative Assembly of Alberta and the first woman elected to a legislature in Canada and in the British Empire.

Carruthers says was inspired to take the project to the WBN to see if she could drum up some sewers and cross-reference the project with the upcoming conference, which also focuses on women.

“I just thought, wouldn’t this be a great way to add to the IWD conference, and, in the end, we’d have a quilt to raffle off as a fundraiser,” she says.

Carruthers did not predict the overwhelming response. Not only has the project been popular, but it is growing webs of community connections.

“It’s building little friendships,” Carruthers says, “like bees pollinating.”

Each block of the king-sized finished quilt is designated for a Canadian woman who has in some way been significant in the country’s history. That includes recognizable names such as feminist author Nellie McClung and politician Agnes Macphail, but it also includes women whose names you may never have heard.

Colleen Carruthers and Debbie Fisico show off a row of the blocks that will make up the 150 Canadian Women quilt. Each block of the king-sized finished quilt is designated for a Canadian woman who has in some way been significant in the country's history.
Colleen Carruthers and Debbie Fisico show off a row of the blocks that will make up the 150 Canadian Women quilt. Each block of the king-sized finished quilt is designated for a Canadian woman who has in some way been significant in the country’s history.
vA close up of one row of the quilt blocks.
A close up of one row of the quilt blocks.

Like the woman who embraced modernization of telephone systems long before the corporate giants dreamed it was possible: Leila Wightman, from Mildmay in Ontario.

Or Canadian-born Sarah Emma Edmonds, who disguised herself as a man so she could enlist in the Union Army during the American Civil War.

“There are 150 amazing stories that are so inspiring,” Carruthers says.

And the stories and the project that gives them life inspired Shelley Barker to become involved. Barker, a professional with BDO Dunwoody, says she was drawn to the project by the idea of honouring these significant Canadian women.

Five of the quilters participating in the 150 Canadian Women Quilt project (clockwise from left): Rita DiIlio, Cathy Vickers, Colleen Carruthers, Debbie Fisico, and Rhonda Smith.
Five of the quilters participating in the 150 Canadian Women Quilt project (clockwise from left): Rita DiIlio, Cathy Vickers, Colleen Carruthers, Debbie Fisico, and Rhonda Smith.

“I started talking to my friends about it and they wanted to make a block,” she says. “And my mom wanted to do one, and then two of her friends from her coffee club wanted to join. Now there are six of us, all quilting together.”

Barker adds that there is poignancy in the fact that quilting is traditionally a women’s communal activity, and that this old-fashioned pastime is now being carried into the future by a new generation of women.

One of the women involved in the 150 Canadian Women Quilt project, Rita DiIlio finds quilting a peaceful way to connect with others.
One of the women involved in the 150 Canadian Women Quilt project, Rita DiIlio finds quilting a peaceful way to connect with others.

“My mother gave me a sewing machine shortly after I got married,” Barker says, adding that until now, she had learned only the basics.

“My grandmother was a seamstress, and she taught me some of the skills when I was younger. My mother also sewed. So with this project and the connection to women of the past, I really do feel that connection to the past, and carrying it forward.”

Proving the point, Colleen Carruther’s 15-year-old granddaughter is making a block. And Carruthers says many others who have volunteered to sew a block of the quilt are young professionals,

Around the table Monday night, it was mostly professionals — a lawyer, an administrative assistant — all chatting and creating something new, a stitch at a time.

“It’s really wonderful when we’re sewing,” Carruthers says. “People share a lot of stuff that they would never otherwise share; it really is like the old days.”

All photos by Jeanne Pengelly for kawarthaNOW.

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Jeanne Pengelly
Jeanne Pengelly is a television and radio news journalist with a Master's Degree in Journalism. Even before she got her first typewriter at age 12, she had decided she would be a writer. Highlights of her career include founding the McMaster University creative writing journal, living in a remote northern community on James Bay where she edited a newspaper and trained young television journalists, and being a non-fiction nominee for the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association. Jeanne's many interests include creative writing, photography, music, teaching, needlecrafts, fitness, and golf. You can follow Jeanne on Twitter @JeannePengelly.

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