Dawson Quilts

An internet search will show that the hottest baby gifts of 2016 include a light-up singing turtle, organic cotton mittens and an infant sized pair of UGGs. But the hottest gift for Dawson City babies is a handmade quilt. It’s been the most popular gift since 1980.

That’s the year the tradition started. It can be traced to a group of friends, one of them expectant. The friends decided to give her a collectively-made quilt. Since, the group, in various re-incarnated versions, has collectively made more than 20 quilts for friends, family, and even some to be auctioned off as a fundraisers for the Dawson City Music Festival.

Quilts vary in size and design- from a small wall hanging size, to a full queen size bed quilt. There may be 10 squares, there may be 20, but they will all be original and heartfelt. Most quilts have a theme. Some of these have been, flora and fauna of the Yukon, historic Dawson buildings, or a couple’s favorite activities.

I was unaware of the longevity and breadth of the Dawson quilt tradition when I first laid eyes on a Dawson baby quilt at a friend’s shower, but the love and community was evident even without the historical context. The tradition, which began, as one veteran quilter put it, in a baby boom much like the one currently underway in Dawson, has since expanded to include wedding quilts, retirement quilts, and farewell quilts for those leaving Dawson.

Where do these quilts come from? One, or a few ringleaders, usually close friends of the recipient, come up with a theme, and a list of people who may want to participate. Interested participants declare their square, and then get to work. There are no prerequisites to participate in a quilt, and there is a learning curve for most participants, and a range of skills among contributors.

Teamwork, and reaching out to experienced quilters and sewers is an important part of the experience. As Amélie Morin described her first quilt square experience, “I had no idea what I was doing, and no experience…  I partnered with a friend, we talked to people in town about what to do and how to do it. My partner was crafty so she spearheaded it.”

Amélie also sought out the help of a local craft group, which she remembers as incredibly helpful. People there drop their own projects and run over to help you, and answer your questions. “[Working on a quilt] is also a fun way to interact with our community, I never would of had a reason to go to craft night, or to meet any of the people there.”

The first quilt Julia Milnes participated in was a wedding quilt, it was organized by the mother of the groom, and to Julia it seemed she and her square partner were the novices among a crowd of experts. The groom’s mother had made many a Dawson quilt square, while Julia, as she put it, had, “zero experience.”

As of the original Dawson quilters, who worked on her first group quilt in 1980, Brenda Grant was able to see their skills improve as a group. “Our earlier efforts were much more rudimentary, but because we were in a baby boom, much as you guys currently are in Dawson, many of us participated in many quilts, and our skills and confidence evolved, so many of the later babies received some pretty nice handiwork.”

This group’s handiwork was featured in an exhibition in 1987 at the Dawson City Museum. Regardless of whether the quilts are exhibited, Brenda is quick to add that all quilts are cherished, because they were made by friends.

Quilt organizers work hard to make sure that those closest to the recipient have the opportunity to make a square, which means involving people from both near and far. Many Dawson ex-pats are still part of the group, which means squares traveling back-and-forth by mail to distant place.

In true Dawson can-do style, this may be an old tradition, but it is not an exclusive one. Being asked to help make a quilt, and receiving one, mark an important tie to the Dawson community, even if you don’t live here. Brenda no longer lives in Dawson, but her son and his wife do, and in 2015 she organized a baby quilt for her Dawsonite granddaughter, Sadie. The experience, “brought back many fond memories of the quilts of the past.”

The more experienced members usually team up to piece together the quilt, or work with local experts to put things together. Brenda remembers the assembly as one of the best parts of the process. “One of the most fun parts of the larger quilts, usually with 20 squares, was the communal  input when trying to determine how to lay them out and which ones looked best next to others. We would usually have about a dozen different incarnations and then would try to remember, collectively, which way the majority of us preferred. Talk about collaboration in action! And yet we always managed to do it amicably, with lots of laughter!”

Receiving a quilt is “overwhelming.”

So say three different women who have been gifted baby quilts, and whether they received the quilt in 1981, or 2014.

“It was made by all of these amazing women I love so much […] I can see it every day, and [my son and I] look at the squares and talk about the people who made it,” says Amélie Morin.

Hot Tips for Making Your Own Group Quilt:

  • Creating package for quilt participants including a detailed instructions and a pre-cut square with clearly marked seam allowances can make things easier for first timers, and make final assembly easier.
  • Use only pre-washed and washable fabric, especially if the quilt is one for everyday use. Many quilters also choose to use cotton, and avoid scratchy or embellished fabrics, in the interest of protecting that new baby skin.
  • Take advantage of the internet to illustrate directions and for inspiration! Youtube has many tutorials on every step of quilting, including how to use fusible interfacing (magic quilting stuff included in many of the packages for quilts I’ve participated in) and various embroidery stitches.
  • Don’t take on assembly and finishing by yourself! As Dawson quilt veteran Brenda Grant put it, “it’s always nice to have someone else to run things by, or to help pin and hold all the fabric while sewing, etc.”

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