A story in every stitch

A story in every stitch

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Museum presents Fabric Art Throughout the Years

Stitching has been an understated form of storytelling through the years, and the Atikokan Centennial Museum is celebrating over a century of those fabric art stories of home, family, and community life here with its History in Stitches: Fabric Art Throughout the Years exhibit.

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The exhibit opened Thursday and runs for the month of May, and contains some little-known pieces of history such as the auto knitter, a circular, hand-propelled sock knitting machine. The two on display were made by the Auto Knitter Hosiery Co., which made the machines available to women under contract to knit socks and ship them to the company for payment.

“It was truly a cottage industry, and the women were required to use the company’s wool and send the knitted socks to the company,” said museum curator Lois Fenton. “It was a very discreet way to make money in your own home.”

She is hoping to hear more about these machines and their historic use in Atikokan during the month-long exhibit. “I’m hoping someone will come in and say ‘Oh. I remember those. We are always looking for provenance [details and origins] of an artefact. It gives context and history.”

The storytelling woven into the quilts, clothing and doilies, and other handmade pieces is sometimes intentional – such as the quilts made to commemorate special occasions – sometimes unwitting, but profound just the same. For example, quilts were largely intended to provide warmth, and depict a time where nothing, fabric included, was wasted.

Perhaps no better illustration of practicality producing an inadvertent historic jewel is the 1957 patchwork quilt made by Myrtle Leishman’s mother Anna Rawn (one of the earliest residents of Atikokan) largely from scraps of men’s suit material from samples from the general store owned by her son-in-law Sandy Johnston. Rawn made the quilt with her grandchildren as the focal point including the names of their mother (Myrtle), Aunt Fran (Frances Rawn), ‘Mom and Dad’ (Myrtle and Sandy Johnston), and children Patsy, Nancy (who has loaned this and numerous other pieces to this exhibit), and Judy.

The various sizes, colours, and textures make the quilt “a document in itself.”

Quilts were intended for practicality, adornment and even storytelling, and not only kept their families warm and decorated their homes, but also were the vehicle by which the women of Atikokan chronicled their lives.

The 115 year-old ‘Petit Patchwork’ quilt on loan from Don and Liz Mackay, was made to commemorate the wedding of Don’s grandmother Christina, a nurse, to a physician, Hector MacKay, in 1902 in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. The handmade quilt consists of one inch squares, and was “an incredible amount of work,” said Fenton.

Another commemorative quilt honours Dr. Walter Kristjanson (‘Dr K’) at the time of his retirement in 1991; each square was created by individual quilters to depict an aspect of his 35 years as a physician here. For example, the stork square refers to the 1,900 babies he delivered during his career, and the syringe is a nod to the fact that the physician contended with polio and diphtheria before the widespread use of vaccines.

“Just the size of the quilt, the energy, and the love – and the amount of work that goes into it – is so awesome,” said Fenton.

Another quilt was created in honour of the retirement of long-time RN Evelyn Ashford in 1984, which depicts her long career and her love of gardening and curling.

There are two themed quilts however, that were the impetus for the entire exhibit, both created to celebrate Atikokan’s 100th birthday.

The centennial quilts were made by the Birch Road Studio Quilters led by Heather Hosick, and the Fix-it Club quilters, and both feature “specific Atikokan depictions” such as the railway, logging, mining, power generation, and many more unique historic aspects of community life.

“If there is anything that screams Atikokan, it’s these two quilts, and I love them,” said Fenton, adding that it was the Pictograph’s request to borrow the pieces for their quilting exhibit, which sparked the idea of telling Atikokan’s history through fabric art. “We took them up on their offer, and I’m glad we did.”

Through that display, Fenton began to think of the broader history told by the women of the community. “We have some wonderful stories to tell.”

Another very old quilt is the ‘Dresden Plate’ quilt made by Anna Rawn, likely circa 1930s, which may have included some machine work but still was largely crafted by hand, with stitching about a half inch apart in diagonal lines to keep the batting in place. Each block includes a delicately coloured flower design, and diagonal petal pieces. “This is one of the more stylish and advanced quilts and is a very early Atikokan piece,” she said. “The Dresden Plate quilt is a real showpiece.”

Another nod to quilt design trends was the Log Cabin quilt, featuring a design popularized by pioneer women during the 18th century. The one on exhibit was created in the 1970s by Anna Rawn, Maude Boone and many other local women.

Frugality is evident throughout the exhibits as well, illustrated by Anna Chambers’ (Laila Goranson’s grandmother) Pin Wheel quilt made in the 1930s or 40s from heavy cotton sugar sacks, with a “simple but serviceable design.”

Because the exhibit “involves all fabric arts of the area,” handmade baby clothes and blankets, likely owned by Myrtle Leishman (also on loan from her daughter Nancy Fotheringham) and a knitted receiving blanket, believed to be the handiwork of Nancy’s mother-in-law Betty, wife of the Steep Rock Mines’ head Pop Fotheringham, is included.

Fine needlework by local women reveals some of the popular new styles of the time, such as the ‘pineapple design’ for doilies and chair covers, “a symbol of hospitality and welcome,” said Fenton. Delicately crocheted place mats had to be starched after every wash to ensure they kept their form.

In the 1960s, before purchasing team attire was a common practice, Eva Wilkins knitted Mary Maxim styled sweaters for her husband and his curling team mates.

There are countless little stories that are best seen to appreciate, such as the opened sewing bag of Anna Rawn still containing the items she placed there decades ago, and the vibrantly coloured cross-stitched pincushion and matching doll dressed in vividly coloured Eastern European garb, crafted by Irene Prokopchuk (Vic’s mother).

The exhibit is open during Museum hours, Monday to Friday 10 am until 4 pm, or evenings and weekends by appointment (Call 597-6585 to book.)

The Museum is hosting a special Mother’s Day Tea, Sunday, May 14, 2-4 pm, as a special opportunity to bring mom out to see the History in Stitches exhibit and share reminisces.

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