True to the pioneer tradition to not waste a single scrap, Bertha made use of the tiniest remnant of both pants and tunic. Once the big patches were used up she cut and sewed in ever smaller bits and pieces.
Below, tiny scraps of red and black fill out her design.
A Fabulous Utility Quilt: This quilt was never intended to be for special use only, like when the priest or minister came for a sleep-over. Its manufacture clearly shows that; it was a utility quilt, designed for everyday use. That is also why - unlike so many "good" quilts made for "show" that survive today - it shows the wear and tear of daily usage in a Canadian pioneer home.
That is why not hundreds but tens of thousands of these quilts were ultimately thrown out, as a matter of course, and replaced with new ones, on a regular basis, by pioneer families.
But this one received special treatment. Someone in the family decided that Uncle Jacob's Uniform Quilt should be preserved as a heritage item.
We are glad they did and that we were able to reclaim this Great Canadian memorabilia item for our museum.
The Bloody Blanket: As backing for her quilt, Bertha used an army blanket of the time, which may have been brought back by her uncle from the Riel campaign as well. Soldiers needed bedrolls to keep warm as it was freezing when they went west. It too has stains of many kinds that may very well be battle stains of blood.
(One must remember that in the days before petroleum products were everywhere - like oil and grease - dirt or blood were the major sources of soiling in clothing and bedding. Wounded and bleeding soldiers would have been carried to safety in blankets, or laid on them.)
The Bloody Tunic: Bertha cut the red serge of the tunic into squares and stitched four hearts into each patch, probably an emotional expression on her part for a beloved uncle who almost died and was nearly lost to the family.
She framed each patch of hearts with black serge cut from the trousers of the uniform.
Below is a charcoal portrait of a Canadian Militiaman from the Riel era, dressed very much as Bertha's uncle would have been, with a red serge tunic and black serge trousers.
|Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Canadian Militiaman, 36th Regt., Shelburne, ON c. 1870 (detail)
Charcoal sketch - Image Size - 16" x 20"
Found - Palgrave, ON
Besides being a fabulous heritage item - because of the history of the materials from which it was made - it is also a fine example of a "utility quilt" of which so few survive today, when all collectors zero in on the pristine "good, for show" quilts. After all it was the "utility quilts" that played the major role in keeping pioneer Canadians protected from the cold.
Quilts: In nineteenth century Ontario, quilts were found, by the dozens - or more - in every cabin and home. Sometime around 1900, the nine Merkley sisters of Williamsburg, ON, sat with their mother and finished making 12 quilts for each to take when they married. Since only one ever married - taking her quilts with her - when the youngest sister died, in 1974, 112 unused quilts were found in the attic of her home.
Since sewing was so time-consuming and vitally necessary in the pioneer home, girls would be taught to sew when they were only two or three years old, just as soon as they could hold a needle.
Since fabrics were expensive to buy and hard to get, big fabric items that wore out were plundered for parts. Hence quilts were born, coverings made up of scores of recycled fabric remnants which were sewn onto a backing. The Merkley quilts were all backed with discarded sugar and flour sacks.
Frozen to Death: Early Canadian winters were so cold - and fires were out by morning - that it was common to have numrous quilts on one bed. Catherine Parr Traill mentions the cold that left hoar-frost from her breathing coating her quilt by morning, and the excruciating painful exercise of dressing, when it was 25 degrees Fahrenheit (- 6 degrees Celsius), or lower, in her home (1830s).
There is more than one story of a pioneer baby who was dislodged from under the quilt at night - perhaps after a bout of drinking - by tossing and turning adults, only to be found frozen to death in the morning. Joan Goldi's grandmother, Agatha Herman Mackenzie, who homesteaded at Rosebud, Alberta c 1910, lost her first born, a set of twins, that froze to death. The parents just could not keep them warm enough to survive...