Nova Scotia

A story in every square: How a quilt united Big Tancook Island during COVID-19

A community project that began on Big Tancook Island, N.S., before COVID-19 arrived in the province turned into an unexpected way for people to stay connected and work together during the pandemic.

Residents each created a quilt square that reflects island life

Grade 3 student Felicity Corkum sewed a fishing boat and mackerel on her square because she loves to fish and her dad is a fisherman. (Big Tancook Elementary School)

A community project that began on Big Tancook Island, N.S., before COVID-19 arrived in the province turned into an unexpected way for people to stay connected and work together during the pandemic.

Community members recently finished creating a quilt with 25 unique squares that reflect what they love about Big Tancook Island, a community of about 100 people in the winter that's located 10 kilometres off the coast of Chester, N.S.

Using fabric, paint and found materials, residents young and old created quilt squares that depict the natural world and important landmarks like the island school and former boat shop. Every square is unique, but in the words of one resident, "totally Tancook."

"It was a nice way for the community to come together without really having to physically come together, and it will be a reminder of this difficult time, of sort of a bright light," said Hetty van Gurp, a teacher at Big Tancook Elementary School.

Felicity Corkum's nickname is Fishy. (Big Tancook Elementary School)

The quilt started out as a student project back in February. But with just a handful of students in grades Primary to 4 at the island's only school, they quickly realized they needed to bring in reinforcements.

So the students delivered a letter and supplies to 17 friends, neighbours and family members asking if they'd pitch in.

Nine-year-old Felicity Corkum didn't have to think long to come up with an idea for her square. People on the island know her by her nickname, Fishy, and she wants to be the captain of the ferry when she grows up.

"I put on a boat with a fish about to jump out of the water … because I really like fishing and my dad is a fisherman," she said.

Twenty-five people of all ages contributed to the quilt. (Big Tancook Elementary School)

Connor McLean, who is six years old, decided to sew deer and trees on his square because he often sees them when he's adventuring around the island with his older brother, Carson.

"This is just a really good island because we're free," he said. "We have a backyard and we're grateful for what we have."

Connor and Carson miss school so much during the pandemic they've taken to wandering up to the schoolyard, which is just down the road from their house, to play student and teacher.

"We're keeping busy," said Carson. 

The quilt project turned out to be the perfect thing to do in the middle of a pandemic.

Residents worked on their squares individually while physically distancing at home. Once they were complete, van Gurp collected them so master quilter Verta Rodenhiser could piece them all together.

Rodenhiser, who has lived on Big Tancook Island for more than 70 years, said sewing is in her blood. As a girl, she made clothes for her dolls, and as she got older began sewing clothes for herself.

Verta Rodenhiser says sewing is in her blood — her mother and grandmother were also sewers. (Big Tancook Elementary School)

The project was a welcome chance to stay busy and keep her mind off the pandemic, she said.

"It was exciting to try and rearrange it to get the colours balanced and things in their proper order. It was quite the job," said Rodenhiser, adding it took about two days of work.

It's fitting that the residents of Big Tancook Island would come together to create a quilt. For many of them, the island signifies comfort and warmth.

Hillary Dionne grew up on Big Tancook Island but lived away for many years. She decided to move back in 2000 when her son was just two months old.

Brothers Carson and Connor McLean busy working on their squares. (Big Tancook Elementary School)

There are no stores or restaurants on the island in the winter, so people rely on the ferry to get to the mainland for groceries or have them delivered.

For Dionne, who contributed to the quilt, the pandemic hasn't changed life on the isolated island all that much, although she jokes that she's been able to finish her yardwork for the first time in 20 years.

"I've always thought that Tancook was a very healing place. I hope that a lot of other places in the world are regrouping and can find solitude and peace in this new way that we're living now," she said.

When van Gurp looks at the finished quilt, she's reminded of why she chose to move to the island from Halifax five years ago.

Carson McLean sewed the eight-pointed Mi'kmaw star. (Big Tancook Elementary School)

"People may have come from different places and have different life experiences, but everybody is welcomed and accepted for who they are or their contribution to the community, and I think that's pretty unique," she said.

While the quilt is now finished, few people have been able to see it in person. The plan is to hang it up in the island's recreation centre this summer, and its permanent home will be at the school.

Corkum said she was in awe when she saw pictures of the finished quilt posted on Facebook.

"I didn't know what to say, it was that beautiful," she said.

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