Words Lucy Hyslop
Photograph via The Woodshop on Fogo Island
Saluting almost horizontally in the wind, the parade of hundreds of quilts on washing lines across Canada’s low-lying Fogo Island is a ridiculously cheerful sight. Think nothing flapping but supersized British bunting or Tibetan prayer flags on ‘hang out day’ – Newfoundland’s annual nod to a deep-rooted textile tradition.
It’s May and the remote community around Joe Batt’s Arm is just out of the vice-like grip of Winter and Pack Ice seasons, as they’re bluntly known. The Atlantic gales are starting to behave and the homemade patchworks signal the third out of seven seasons: Trap Berth with its abundant seafood, from crab to lobster.
‘All the different colours and patterns look stunning on the lines,’ enthuses Linda Osmond, a fourth-generation quilter who specialises, naturally enough with hand-and-line cod fishing a lifeblood of the region, in designs of fish heads and tails. ‘Everything should tell a story; it’s an important part of a quilt’s creation.’
Whether it’s punt boats, puffins or the embarrassment of sunsets at North America’s eastern edge, fellow fourth-generation quilter Mona Brown agrees that a ‘sense of place’ guides her myriad patterns. ‘It’s simply plentiful,’ explains the owner of the town’s Mona’s Quilt & Jam Shop.
The craft is also celebrated at Fogo Island Inn, where both their and other folks’ handmade quilts have adorned each of its 29 beds since opening in 2013. The hotel may ooze 21st-century clean lines, cantilevering cleverly into the ocean on stilts, but its roots are cemented in the island’s centuries-old mantra of ‘make do and mend’ – always writ large on a distant island of 2,400 inhabitants.
The size and placing of the designs measured precisely, Osmond uses a plain straight stitch to bind the patterns creatively together in the wood-cabin studio she shares with artist husband, Winston, at Herring Cove Art gallery. Forgoing a computer – ‘that’s just cheating,’ – Osmond depends on her Reliable MSK-8900m workhorse sewing machine alongside more ornate herringbone stitching at the edges. Each quilt takes around a week to finish.
‘Quilts are very useful; a great way to recycle clothing you no longer use,’ says Osmond, rifling through material – from castoffs from amateur dramatic societies to old kids’ clothes. ‘They were born out of thriftiness and necessity when money was tight, and it works today because people are realising the power of being more frugal. And yet – and this is important – they are just so beautiful in their own right.’
As Brown says, ‘This is our heritage and we don’t want to lose that. It’s who we are.’