You are now in the main content area

Threads of history: Repatriated quilts highlight Canadian women's war efforts

November 09, 2023
A quilt with a maple leaf and names embroidered in red thread on white fabric.

The Toronto Signature Quilt is one of 20 repatriated Second World War quilts made by Canadian women donated to a collection archive at TMU’s Modern Literature & Cultural Research Centre. Image credit: MLC Research Centre Archive.

Twenty quilts handmade by Canadian women during the Second World War and sent overseas to comfort soldiers and civilians have been repatriated to Canada and donated to Toronto Metropolitan University’s (TMU) Modern Literature & Culture (MLC) Research Centre, supporting heritage preservation and research.  

The MLC project, “Repatriating Canadian War Quilts,” is led by the centre’s director and Faculty of Arts professor Irene Gammel. This collection of 20 quilts – the largest in Canada – showcases just a few examples of the estimated more than 400,000 quilts that were made by Canadian women and sent to Europe to offer comfort to people impacted by the war, especially those displaced by the Blitz, the German bombings of the U.K.  

This project started as an extension of the MLC’s Operation Canada project, which explored diaries from the First World War. The quilts came to the attention of the MLC through the British Canadian Red Cross Quilt Research Group, a volunteer organization that had been collecting these quilts in Britain for 18 years. In 2023, the Group started repatriating these quilts to suitable Canadian institutions nationwide, including the 20 now in the MLC’s collection.

“My team and I are incredibly proud to be the custodians of the world’s most extensive collection of Canadian war quilts. This is an honour and an opportunity for leadership and partnership for our MLC Research Centre and for Toronto Metropolitan University,” said professor Gammel. “We see this repatriation of Canadian war quilts as the core for building a national quilt archive here at TMU while working with internal and external collaborators, such as the Royal Ontario Museum, as we preserve these quilts and research their historically sidelined stories about war, trauma and women’s work.”

A black and red quilt with a fan pattern. Closeups show the multicoloured fabrics making the fans and a patch notes it is a gift of the Canadian Red Cross Society.

The MLC’s growing collection of repatriated war quilts is the largest in Canada and will support heritage preservation and research.

These quilts were sewn by groups of volunteer women from across the country to raise funds. One of the quilts in the MLC’s growing collection was crafted in Toronto and is inscribed with resident donor names.

“The Toronto signature quilt includes 108 blocks with a remarkable 1,340 names hand-embroidered in red thread on cotton fabric, with alternating blocks featuring red maple leaves. This signature quilt represents a real boon for our research project and is of interest to our students,” said Joanna Dermenjian, a war quilt historian and MLC research associate.

MLC postdoctoral fellow and executive member Jason Wang noted the dual functions of this collection. “This rare collection of war quilts serves to preserve Canadian heritage and the heritage of volunteer women who made them while illuminating an important international context of conflict. They also serve as valuable research and training resources for students and scholars, which is something we hope to set best practices for at our MLC.” 

The arrival and unboxing of some of the Canadian war quilts now in the MLC's collection. Video courtesy of the MLC. 

Learn more about these and other Canadian-crafted quilts and the stories they tell (external link) 

Learn more about TMU's Modern Literature and Culture Research Centre

Learn more about the Operation Canada project

Photo information: 

Photo 1: Toronto Signature Quilt, Word War II Quilt, handmade, 152 cm x 172 cm, MLC Research Centre Archive, TMU. 

Photo 2: Victorian Fan, Word War II Quilt, handmade, 198 cm x 227 cm, MLC Research Centre Archive, TMU.

Updated January 9, 2024.