Long before author Ann Brashares wrote the novel, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, there was another sisterhood along the Amherst shore. Bonded together by travelling quilt blocks rather than a pair of jeans, this sisterhood and its story spans two countries and three generations.
At the age of 17, Bessie Jackson left her home in rural Nova Scotia and headed to Boston where she worked and eventually fell in love, married and had a family. The friends she left behind in Lorneville never forgot her nor did they want her to forget them and where she came from so in 1933, twenty-one women agreed on a project: Each would stitch a quilt block and embroider her own name in the centre. These blocks would then be mailed to their friend Bessie in Boston.
In order for Bessie to keep warm under a friendship quilt from home, however, she would have to stitch the twenty-one blocks together herself, but Bessie’s life in Boston was demanding. She’d married Clarence Burne and the couple had seven children, and Bessie never got around to putting those blocks together in a quilt.
That was 85 years ago. What happened to the quilt blocks?
Born the year they were created, Arleen Goodwin of Lorneville never knew about the quilt blocks her grandmother, mother and mother-in-law had sent to Boston so she was more than surprised when, in the summer of 2011, Bessie’s niece showed up in Lorneville with a box containing the twenty-one quilt blocks.
Opening the box, Arleen says, “was like stepping back in time and touching all our family histories.”
From Bessie’s niece, Arleen learned that sometime after Bessie’s death in 1977, her family sent the blocks to Guysborough where Bessie’s sister, Kathleen, lived.
“She never got them made into a quilt either so Kathleen’s daughter, Hope, brought them to me,” Arleen says.
Inspired by the obvious destiny of these quilting blocks that had just returned to the descendants of the original sisterhood of quilting friends, Arleen took the box of quilt blocks to the next meeting of the Lorneville United Church Women (UCW). As she laid out the blocks in front of the UCW members, many of the women were able to say, “My mother made that,” or “That’s my great-grandmother.” Because of remarriages, her own daughter can point to the names of several grandmothers and great-grandmothers on the blocks.
After suggesting they finally make the friendship quilt for which these blocks were intended, Arleen purchased material that “really looked old” and put the quilt onto a frame in her house. Over the winter, every woman with a connection to the quilt came over and hand stitched “their” block. You can just imagine the conversations as they remembered the woman – their beloved family member – who first held the quilt block in her hands and stitched her own name as she thought about her friend Bessie living so far away in Boston.
In June of 2012, Lorneville United Church held a special service to commemorate the completed friendship quilt, and its remarkable 79-year journey from Lorneville to Boston to Guysborough and finally, home again to Lorneville. Arleen brought her mother’s sewing table to the church to be used as the altar for that special service, a gesture recognizing the sacredness of the domestic arts practiced by rural women for centuries.
At the end of August, the friendship quilt won first prize at the Cumberland County Exhibition in Oxford, as well as the Special Prize for its uniqueness. The quilt now hangs in Lorneville United Church, alongside a plaque commemorating the original sisterhood of the travelling quilt blocks.
Arleen reads from the plaque, “One can just imagine the excitement when all these ladies got together to work on their surprise gift for Bessie.” The same excitement their descendants felt as they finally fulfilled the destiny of that long-ago gift of friendship.