We live in a web of ideas, a fabric of our own making.
-Joseph Chilton Pearce
This May, the Atikokan Centennial Museum is putting on a colourful exhibition, History in Stitches: Fabric Arts Throughout the Years, in collaboration with the Pictograph Gallery's exhibit, Wild Things ...We Quilt Everything. Both of these displays are created to showcase the vibrant quilting and fibre arts community in Atikokan. The museum's exhibit encompasses many unique pieces, including: doilies, various types of quilts, the Atikokan Tartan, crocheted placemats, children's clothing, wall hangings and a beautiful hooked rug. The museum wants to make this exhibit accessible to the wider community and other Canadians by creating a virtual exhibit. For the purposes of this online exhibit several of the quilts and the town's official tartan will be the primary focus of discussion. Please stop in to the museum to view the other exceptional artifacts on display.
The museum's staff has worked hard over the past month to prepare the gallery space for public viewing. Our Curator, Lois Fenton, has collected local artifacts and stories. Heather Hosick, founder of the Atikokan Quilter's Guild, happily shared many important insights into the town's quilting community. Laila Goranson and Wanda Bigwood, who helped to create the Fix-It Club quilt, also sat down with us to share their stories. The Museum's Assistant, Nancy Kozlovic, and volunteer, Jim Clark, worked tirelessly at exhibit design, ensuring the gallery space looked great. With their efforts many of the quilts on display were dramatically hung from the ceiling. Our volunteer, Joan McIntosh, lent creative vision to the space. My role was to photograph the artifacts for the blog as well as to provide a broader discussion of quilting for context. Many of the views expressed here are the ways in which I interpreted the artifacts and only offer a small glimpse (a sneak peek, if you will) of the material presented in the physical exhibit.
It is also important to acknowledge the many people who loaned artifacts for use in the museum's exhibit. Nancy Fotheringham kindly loaned many family pieces including, quilts, doilies, placemats, a knitting bag, knitting patterns and children's clothing. Dr. Walter Kristjanson allowed us to borrow his beautiful quilt, which was given to him for his retirement from the Atikokan General Hospital in 1991. Jim Blunderfield loaned an exquisite quilt and matching pillow that belonged to Evelyn Ashford, a head nurse who also received a quilt for retiring from the hospital. All of these contributions will be acknowledged in the photographs' captions.
Poster image featuring artifacts used in the exhibit. The bag, place mat, and cream coloured doily were loaned by Nancy Fotheringham. The multi-coloured doily belonged to Evelyn Ashford. Log cabin quilt block, circa 1887, 1967.1.1, Atikokan Centennial Museum. Wooden crochet hooks, 2017.2.1 & 2017.2.2, Atikokan Centennial Museum.
A Rich Artistic Tradition
For a small, isolated Northwestern Ontario town, Atikokan has a large and rich artistic tradition. This tradition was inspired by two important factors: the natural beauty of the surrounding environment, and necessity. Because of the town's location, two hours from any other population centre, its citizens learned to become self-reliant. This meant creating many articles, like quilts and clothing, for themselves and their families. For many women, these activities became important because they allowed for creative expression, an opportunity for social interaction, and meant that their families stayed warm and well clothed.
In addition to the town's quilting community, there are many other exceptional artists including painters, carvers and weavers. In 1981 Atikokan Reeve, Dennis Brown commissioned Irma Hicks and Jack Fraser to create Atikokan's tartan. A vibrant piece, the colours used in its creation represent many important aspects of the town's history and identity.
Blue recalls the blue skies and lakes so prevalent in Northwestern Ontario.
Red is symbolic of the Canadian National Railway which gave Atikokan its raison d'etre when the community was designated a Divisional Point at the turn of the century.
Green for the dominant conifers that blanket the area, and commemorates the logging industry.
Gold stands for gold mining which once drew prospectors and miners to the area and for the autumn colours which blaze throughout the forests.
Rusty Brown is a reminder of Steep Rock Iron Mines and Caland Ore Company which brought prosperity to the community.
Grey symbolizes the presence of the ageless rocks of the Canadian Shield.
White is a symbol of the winter snow that provides livelihood and recreation for so many.
The above information was copied from an Atikokan Centennial Museum label created by Lois Fenton and adapted from Jeanne Georgeson's Atikokan Progress article.
Through the generosity of local resident Don Meany the tartan was formally registered by the Scottish Tartan Society on June 14, 1999. This approval authenticated that there were no other tartans that followed its particular thread count and design. They described this thread count as follows: white (4), green (6), mid brown (6), maroon (6), light grey (6), light blue (28), and yellow (12). The tartan now hangs permanently on display at the Atikokan Centennial Museum as a silent reminder of the town's multi-faceted and vibrant history.
A Brief History of Quilting
Quilting has been performed by women for hundreds of years. Patterns first appeared in publications in the 1830s; however, it was not until the 1880s that printed patterns became mainstream. This phenomenon occurred because with better technology printing techniques became better and cheaper, which allowed for a greater dispersion of materials. Later, in the 1920s, many newspapers began to offer quilting columns dedicated to the craft. It was also popular among friends to share patterns with one another. During the Depression era many women continued to make their own quilts, rather than buy more expensive, pre-fabricated models from department stores. Quilts have gone through trends, much like anything else. For instance, the "crazy quilt" became a popular design in the late 1800s. These quilts were fashioned from fine silks, velvets, brocades and fine embellishments before falling out of fashion with urban women. This technique was used long after by women from rural communities because it allowed them to use many different scraps from worn out clothing. Fine silks and velvets gave way to cotton and wool materials. Crazy quilts became less about aesthetics; instead, they became more about a practical use of materials. Below is a beautiful example of a crazy quilt made by Anna Rawn in 1957. The names of her family members were tenderly stitched into the asymmetrically cut and sewn fabric. Anna cut pieces from old clothing and stitched them together in order to create an extra layer of warmth for her family.
A Language that Speaks Through Fabric
Quilts act as storytellers, depicting important community narratives spoken through the many voices of those who helped piece them together. Seen this way, quilts tell the stories of both the individuals who helped create them and the community in which they were made. Allison Carey, English professor at Marshall University, states that "quilts have a language that transcends national boundaries but also has a distinct local meaning communicated by fabrics, patterns and colours." Scholar Elaine Hedges also speaks to this when she states that quilting is both an "individual and collective art" where "no other art has ever brought together so many people."
The quilts on display at the Atikokan Centennial Museum were all hand-stitched, offering examples of earlier quilting techniques. In 1999, in time for Atikokan's 100th anniversary, two beautiful quilts were crafted, one by the Birch Studio Quilters and the other by the Fix-It Club Quilters. Both of these quilts captured imagery specific to Atikokan and were made using traditional methods. Many women contributed to the quilts, each bringing something of herself as a means for creating a community symbol. To offer an example, in the quilt below, created by Birch Studio Quilters, a large blue heron is noticeable in the centre right. This square was made by Sandra Nash. The imagery undoubtedly speaks to the wildlife of the region, but it also speaks to the fact that Sandra and her husband were birdwatchers. Likewise, the patch that depicts logging was created by Tanis Hampshire, who chose this subject matter because her husband worked in the bush. In these cases, it was women who decided what were important Atikokan symbols to include in the quilt's narrative. Quilts like these offer a great look at the town's history and identity as seen through the eyes of women.
The above quilt was made by: Karin Arif, Marilyn Barber, Eunice Hamilton, Shirley and Allan Cain, Maryann Couch, Ida Docking, Mary Elder, Tanis Hampshire, Heather Hosick, Lorena Jaman, Barb Kwasnicia, Sandra Nash, Teresa Larson, Janette Payne, Louise Sawchuk, Sally Speck, Chris Spilchuk, Lynn Enge, Linda Jung, and Barb Wiens.
The quilt below, created by the Fix-It Club, shares several similarities to that of the Birch Studio Quilt, namely the mining, logging and nature imagery. One of the differences is that these women also created patches that depicted architecture from Atikokan's rich pioneering past. For instance, the Pioneer Hotel is visible in the top left corner. This hotel was built by Tom Rawn, the man credited with being the town's founder. Atikokan originated as a Divisional Point on the Canadian National railway between Fort Frances and Thunder Bay; after this hotel was built in 1900 people began to settle in the area. Atikokan's first school and jail house (which were the same building, due to building scarcity at the time) and the first train station were also included in the quilt. Like the Birch Studio quilt, this colourful piece speaks to how its creators saw the town and its surrounding area.
The above quilt was made by Bev and Laila Goranson, Claraine Cavner, Wanda Bigwood, Diane McKay, Adeline McCormick, Linda Geurts, Ila Quinn, Beaulah Larocque, Anne Humphrey, Grace Chamber and Josephine Hart.
The museum's staff had the pleasure of speaking with Laila Goranson and Wanda Bigwood, two of the quilt's creators. Wanda recounted that she made the jail house patch and that she learned about the history of this building from Anna Rawn. When asked about the quilt's brown trim, Wanda jokingly recalled that "years ago [Atikokan] was dirty, dirty, dirty" and that "on her first day in town she told her husband that she did not want to stay." When asked what changed her mind she said that "the community was so inviting." At that time, many young people moved to Atikokan and this contributed to a rich social scene. Wanda has called Atikokan home ever since. Laila told us that many of the quilt's squares were made from her husband Leo's drawings. She recalled that the women got together once a week to work on the quilt, but that many of them also worked on their own quilting projects at home.
Quilts capture many different types of stories. Below is a quilt that belonged to Evelyn Ashford, head nurse at the Atikokan General Hospital. It was given to her by hospital staff upon her retirement in 1984. The squares can be seen as a storyboard depicting important moments in Evelyn's life. She was an avid curler, a fact represented in a number of the quilt's squares. She was also a graduate of St. Joseph's Nursing School in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1951, an achievement also captured. These and other squares, including the nurse's needle, recount Evelyn's greatest achievements and varied interests.
Like Evelyn, Dr. Kristjanson was also given a quilt for his retirement from the hospital in 1992. He practiced medicine and served the community for over 40 years. When he started his career in 1951 he worked at Atikokan's newly built Red Cross Hospital. At that time there was no highway linking Atikokan to larger city centres. He stated that "we did have the train, and in a few cases we commandeered it to take patients to Thunder Bay." There are many interesting features of Dr. Kristjanson's quilt. The stork carrying the baby speaks to the many newborns that he helped deliver, which he has estimated to be 1,900 over the course of his career. This was an even more impressive feat considering that Atikokan had the highest birth rate in Canada in the 1950s. Many of the quilt's patches speak to his abilities as a doctor, while others showcase his interests.
The museum feels very fortunate to be able to exhibit many beautiful quilts as well as other exceptional fibre arts. These pieces speak vividly about Atikokan's history, capturing many aspects that make it unique. We invite you to come visit both the museum and the Pictograph Gallery's exhibit. The museum's opening reception will be held on May 4 from 1-4pm. This is a white glove affair; fancy hats are encouraged. Tea and dainties will be served and we look forward to seeing you!
 The Scottish Tartan Society, Atikokan Tartan Certificate, June 14, 1999, on display at the Atikokan Centennial Museum.
 Allison Carey. Patterns: Continuity for Generations of Quilters. Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Winter 2015., 18.
 The International Quilt Study Center and Museum/ University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The Idea of Fairyland, http://www.quiltstudy.org/exhibitions/online_exhibitions/Fairyland/crazy_quil70.html (accessed April 18, 2017)
 Allison Carey. Patterns: Continuity for Generations of Quilters., 18.
 Elaine Hedger. Quilts and Women's Culture. Radical Teacher, No. 100 (Fall 2014), 12.
 Laila Goranson and Wanda Bigwood, Informal interview with Atikokan Centennial Museum Staff, April 25, 2017
 Carol Stanley. "Dr. Walter Kristjanson Honoured for 35 Years of Community Service," Atikokan Progress, December 3, 1986.
 Allan A. Viita. A History of Atikokan: 75th Anniversary Edition, 90.