Historic quilt stitches together Confederation story

A quilt created by dressmaker Fanny Parlee out of silk and velvet gowns worn to Charlottetown Conference galas in 1864 has been restored, and will soon be displayed at the Kings County Museum in Hampton.

152-year-old quilt carefully restored by Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa

Conservators at the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa carefully stitched repairs, and used custom-dyed modern underlay fabric for the quilt’s most fragile sections (Canadian Conservation Institute)

Dressmaker Fannie Parlee couldn't have known, as she stitched a richly textured quilt, that she was piecing together fragments of Canada's history.

Parlee lived in New Brunswick and saved silk and velvet pieces from the gowns she made for ladies attending the balls and galas of the Charlottetown Conference in 1864.

With many different types of stitches, the Hampton woman pieced together 16 large blocks and four smaller blocks into a variegated crazy quilt. She finished it with a grey ruffle, embroidering the date on the back.

Now, 152 years later, the Confederation Quilt will have a place of honour at the Kings County Museum in Hampton.

'Amazing' foresight

The Confederation Quilt was made by Hampton dressmaker Fanny Parlee in the 1860s. Richard Brown is president of the Kings County Historical Society. 12:44
Richard Brown, president of the Kings County Historical Society, said the quilt, in his view, is a "Canadian icon."

"The Americans always talk about the Betsy Ross flag," he said. We've got the Confederation quilt."

That the quilt was made at all, let alone preserved for more than a century and a half, is remarkable, Brown said.

The Charlottetown Conference, held on Prince Edward Island from Sept. 1 to Sept. 9, 1864, brought together representatives from the colonies of British North America to discuss Canadian confederation. It laid the foundation for uniting the colonies and the formation of Canada.

The 152-year-old quilt was in need of delicate repairs. A former museum curator applied to send it to Ottawa for restoration in the mid-nineties, but the process didn’t start until four years ago. (Canadian Conservation Institute)

"I think [Parlee] realized that this was something very significant, but I'm not sure that she realized a new nation would come out of that conference," said Brown. "It's amazing that she had the foresight to do it."

Role of women in early Canada

The quilt sheds a spotlight on the role of women, and women's arts such as dressmaking and quilting, in Canada's early history.

The Parlee family kept the quilt in their home until the 1970s, when it was donated to the Kings County Museum by Hazel Parlee.

The quilt was in need of delicate repairs. A former museum curator applied to send it to Ottawa for restoration in the mid-nineties, but the process didn't start until four years ago, according to Brown.

The Confederation Quilt is made of hundreds of silk and velvet scraps and edged with a grey ruffle. The entire quilt has been restored and reinforced. (Canadian Conservation Institute)

Conservators at the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa carefully stitched repairs and used custom-dyed modern underlay fabric for the quilt's most fragile sections. The ruffle was "independently supported between two layers of sheer silk crepeline fabric," the institute said.  For display purposes, the quilt will be fully supported on a custom, lightly padded flat mount.

"They've restored it to near-pristine condition," Brown said. "It's a work of art."

The quilt is being shipped in a purpose-built eight-by-seven-foot crate by an art transport company.

"It's an elaborate process," Brown said. The quilt will have to become acclimatized for several days before the box can be opened and the quilt displayed in a museum-quality display case.

The Confederation Quilt could, eventually, become the centrepiece of a broader exhibit on Canadian Confederation.

"We're thinking that maybe we can tell the story of Canada's birth through quilts from all areas and parishes of the county," Brown said. "There was a lot of opposition and debate on it, and we're hoping that we can tell that story through the quilts."

While other cultural institutions have already asked to borrow the quilt for display, "we won't be doing that for a while," Brown said. "We're glad to have it back.

"It's a very significant thing for the province, for the museum and for Canada as a whole."

For him, Fanny Parlee's quilt is a powerful symbol of the contrasting, mismatched pieces that make up Canada itself.

"It's a representation of all the diverse pieces that were brought together in Confederation — like a beautiful quilt," he said. "I think it's a Canadian icon."

The quilt will be on exhibit at the Kings County Museum in Hampton at 27 Centennial Dr. in summer 2017.

With files from Information Morning Saint John