Turning Flour Bags into Flowers

Grandma’s quilt. Photo: Joanne Culley

The Link, Winter 2018
| by Joanne Culley |

Recently, I found myself in a fabric store – somewhere I hadn’t been for many years – to meet a seamstress I’d enlisted for an important project. I’d just inherited a 53” x 69” quilt top made by my grandmother Louie Louisa Carnegie Reeder in the 1930s from flour sacks and fabric remnants.

Each of the multiple squares has a flower petal pattern with stitching done by my grandmother and her friends from their church in Melfort, Saskatchewan. Her daughter, my Aunt Velma, decided that I would be the best recipient for this treasure among the 25 grandchildren, as I could pass it down to my children and then their descendants.

“Unfortunately, the sewing genes bypassed me due to being part of a generation who saw the “womanly arts” as a form of oppression!”

As the seamstress and I discussed widening, lengthening, stuffing and sewing on a backing to the quilt top, my thoughts went to my grandmother and how she wouldn’t have had the money or the access to a fabric store to buy any of the beautiful fabrics available now.

Grandma went through 100 lbs. of flour a month – an unbelievable amount these days! But making eight loaves of bread every couple of days along with all the buns, pies, muffins and cakes to feed 11 children would use up a lot of it. For their school lunches, Grandma used to give the kids bran or cracked wheat muffins – called graham gems – spread with honey and stored in an old honey pail.

Nothing went to waste back then. Once the flour bags were empty, they were cut up and sewn into diapers, pillowcases trimmed with embroidery, dresser top runners, tea towels, tablecloths, quilts, and shirts for the boys and dresses for the girls, usually dyed different colours so the children could tell whose was whose.

The bags were made out of raw cotton, perhaps from India or China, which was quite durable but creased easily. They had to be washed, bleached, dampened and ironed. The printed scraps for the flower petals were contributed by Grandma and her friends from their collections of old dresses, pajamas and blouses. Grandma also braided rugs out of old stockings and wool remnants. She was an expert at making something from nothing.

Everything on the farm was recycled. People were environmentally conscious back then, mostly out of necessity. You had to “use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without,” a favourite expression during the Great Depression.

Interestingly, this philosophy is enjoying a comeback with the popularity of repair cafés. If alive today, Grandma would be in great demand, sharing her expertise as a “fixer.” Unfortunately, the sewing genes bypassed me due to being part of a generation who saw the “womanly arts” as a form of oppression!

Many of the flour bags used in that quilt came from Quaker Oats in Peterborough, where I live today. In 1929 they were the largest cereal miller in the British Empire. Their slogan was “the happy baker uses Quaker.” The one whole flour bag I have remaining from that time is from A.E. McKenzie Co. Ltd. which had offices in Toronto, Brandon, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton and Calgary.

In the depths of winter, I imagine Grandma and her friends needed to cluster around the cast iron wood stove to help get through it, huddling close beside each other to stay warm. And what better activity to do when there are no flowers around than to create them by sewing permanent petals out of colourful material?

Getting together for a quilting bee would have been a way to socialize, but at the same time look busy to avoid any comments from the men about not getting their work done. As long as supper was on the table by five o’clock they were alright. The patriarchy reigned supreme in those days. My Aunt Velma said that she would read surreptitiously so as not to incur the wrath of my grandfather who would call her lazy and say that she should be helping her mother.

As a child on a visit out west, I remember playing with my baby cousin, Alison, on the kitchen floor. I guess I must have asked Grandma if there were any toys around for me to amuse her with and Grandma gave me some jar lids and pots. She said, “Babies don’t need expensive toys to keep them occupied – the most ordinary things will do.” And she was right. Alison was happy as a clam banging on the pots and throwing the lids around for me to retrieve.

The quilt top is precious to me as it’s the only intact quilt remaining of my grandmother’s. The ones we had growing up were used daily and are now frayed beyond repair. This one would have been a later creation, tucked away on a top shelf. But by the time Grandma had a few leisure hours to finish it, her eyesight was fading and her fingers too arthritic to hold a needle.

It’s a tangible reminder of my grandmother’s philosophy: “We have all we need to make our lives whatever we want them to be.”

As I watched the seamstress leave the store with her armful of fabric I was thinking that Grandma would roll in her grave if she knew the cost of material these days. But I don’t mind spending the money as it’s my way of remembering the kind and gentle soul who created beauty around her, turning flour bags into flowers, while making the most of her limited resources on the dry, dusty prairies.

Joanne Culley is an award-winning writer and documentary producer from Peterborough. Her work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Peterborough Examiner, and Our Canada magazine.

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