In search of the phantom quilt

It’s out there. Somewhere. And Heather Joyes has spent a good chunk of the past five years hunting. She’s looking for an antique quilt, white background, maroon border. It’s a family quilt, each square depicting an activity in a woman’s life. One square shows a woman wearing a bonnet hoeing a garden. Another shows a women at an indoor domestic chore. Another shows a woman with a child.

This quilt was a group effort and the signatures of the quilter of each block are stitched on the back of the quilt.

Designing and producing a quilt such as this would have been a tremendous effort a century ago. Women would have discussed theme, colours, fabrics, and design. They would each create their own block; they would assemble in the church basement or at the larger home of one of the “team” and block the quilt on a huge rack. And then, chatting among themselves, their fingers would fly needles in and out, creating precise stitches, uniform, strong, and undeniably the work of experts.

A quilt in days gone by was the mainstay of family life. Newlyweds received a quilt. A new baby received a quilt. In each bed, one or more children would snuggle down underneath a quilt. Quilts were the “bubble and squeak” of domestic life, back in the days when nothing was wasted. Leftovers.

In the days before duvets and polyester fibrefill, a quilt represented mother’s Sunday dress, a son’s first long pants, a father’s new shirt, a baby’s outgrown nightie. All leftover fabric was assessed, cut and pieced in a design that made a quilt a microcosm of family life.

The quilt in question belongs to Susan Montague, handed down to her by her mother who received itfrom her mother who had worked on it. It was one of two quilts Susan received, family heirlooms.

When she received them, she examined them carefully and decided that before putting them to use, she wanted to have them repaired. She called Heather Joyes, a quilter and woodworker, and asked her if she could repair these family “art pieces”. Heather said she was unable to do anything with Quilt #1. But Quilt #1, the family life quilt, received new binding and took on a new life.

Happy story, right? Well, so far. Heather was so impressed with the intricacy and historic significance of the quilt that she called Buffie Woronka and asked if she could hang it in her annual arts and crafts show. Called The White House Show and Sale, Buffie’s annual fall event began in 1994 and itself was the brainchild of three moden-day quilters, June Starring, Buffie and Heather. June Starring was really the quilter who was most enthusiastic about the prospect of a show and together the three women launched the first annual White House event. A year later Heather displayed Susan Montague’s quilt on the second floor of The White House, near the 9th line on the Ridge Rd in Oro Township. June and Buffie were eager that this quilt be shown. They participated in the setting up and tearing down of the show.

Heather, however, had rushed to White Rock, B.C. where her father was tragically killed in a pedestrian crosswalk accident. With her own family crisis at hand, the Montague quilt took a back seat.

As it turns out, the quilt has taken such a back seat that it hasn’t been seen since.

Shortly after The White House Sale June Starring succumbed to breast cancer and her two quilting friends were devastated. June’s family couldn’t bring themselves to deal with June’s quilt room at home, and so for some time things sat. Four years later, June’s husband Ben decided to sell their home and move on. He called Heather to ask if she’d help him clean out June’s quilt room in their basement… no small effort since a meticulous quilter retains every piece of fabric and spool of thread. Heather set to the task. Ben was in the mood to just pack things off to useful places.

When Heather came across a beautiful quilt in June’s workroom, she tucked it away at her own home until Ben’s move was complete. And then she took it back to Ben’s to give to the Starring daughter, Lorie. She thought it should stay in the family. But Lorie, Ben and Tim Starring, when confronted with the quilt through Heather, never ever remembered seeing it. They didn’t remember June ever working on it. It was a foreign quilt to their eyes. It had a maroon border, and individual pictures of women in squares. There were embroidered signatures on the back of the quilt.

Heather was excited. Could this be the missing Montague quilt? She gathered it up and presented it to Susan Montague. But, Susan looked at it long and hard before saying “this is not my quilt.” Problem is that nobody is intimately acquainted with the quilt. Susan barely looked at it before packing it off to Heather for repair; Heather did the repair but in her anxiety over her father has packed the quilt detail in the back of her brain. Meanwhile, both Susan and her mother have moved to new homes and much remains still packed in boxes.

Heather was scoured her house; Buffie has scoured her house. If the quilt was left behind at the show it would be at one house or the other. Could this quilt, found in June Starring’s quilt room, be the Montague quilt? June is gone now; and her husband Ben followed her this summer. Heather took the quilt to the friends who were in June’s Breast Cancer Survivor Group. No recognition of the quilt there.

The mystery deepens and the phantom quilt remains just that.

As Heather talked with me this week, we discussed how easy it is to have something drop out of sight. Because it’s sentimentally valuable, because it has familial significance, we relegate it to a top shelf or the back of a closet or the bottom of a trunk so it won’t get hurt.

I laughed to Heather as we agreed to reconnect once the ownership of the mystery quilt is established. Maybe these heirlooms belong hanging on walls, or laying on beds. Then we’d know where they are!

One thing’s sure… Heather has certainly spent much more time trying to find the quilt than she ever did repairing it.

Thanks, Heather.


PS For those of you who’ve emailed, phoned and left messages about… my groceries arrived on schedule, intact. I paid with my charge card at the door. A totally pleasant experience!