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The McGregors
A Quilting Bee

As the February sun spread a little more light and warmth each day the women of the settlement tried to put aside their midwinter lethargy. The bitter cold and harsh winds of January had held them close at home. Even good church-goers had not ventured out on the colder Sundays. One morning Dan MacDonald paused at the door on his way to help Jim in the clearing.

"Janet, Mrs. McKenzie is having a quilting bee this afternoon and the missus wondered if you would pick her up with the horse and cutter. She thinks you should get out more, and the women would be glad to see you. Truth to tell, it's too far to walk and she's no hand with a horse, Janet. I would be obliged to you if you see fit to go."

"Of course, Dan. I've been ready to climb the walls for the past week. I'll be glad to go."

And she was glad, though apprehensive, about meeting the neighbour women, for she had sensed that they did not entirely approve of her.

"What will I wear?" she asked Jim at noon. "I don't want to be too formal, and yet I should show respect to Mrs. McKenzie. She seems a kind person, though I don't know her well."

Jim grinned. "Wear anything you like as long as it isn't breeks, and be as modest as you can. Act like you did before I married you."

"Oh, you don't take it seriously. I've been penned up with you so long that I don't know how to act in public, and I want them to like me."

"Well, if you think a quilting bee is such a big social event it certainly is time you got out. I'll harness Gamey for you. Take warm gloves."

There were ten ladies at the bee, but there was only room for eight to work. Mrs. McKenzie was busy being hostess, and she had invited Grandma Haig to please her, for the old lady could no longer see well enough to be any help. The women greeted Janet warmly. She froze when she saw Mrs. McIntosh, but even that good lady, erect and closely laced, greeted her graciously. And Grandma Haig gave her a toothless smile, warmly approving.

"Oh, ye are Jamie McGregor's wife. I'm glad to see ye, and a fine lass ye are, slim and bonny as I was myself at one time, though ye would not know it now after ten children and two in the grave. But it's time ye were plumping out a bit, dearie. What's the matter with that Jamie? I'll hae to speak to him." She cackled with enjoyment at Janet's blush.

"Oh Grandma, you're dreadful," said her daughter-in-law. "She's an awful tease, Janet. Sit beside me here; I've been wanting to talk to you."

She was glad to talk to the young Mrs. Haig, and thankful that she had enough sewing skill to compete with these experts. A wooden frame of one-by-three-inch wood strips clamped together at the corners sat on the backs of four chairs. A lining for the quilt had been sewn by cords to the frame, and carefully carded wool spread evenly on it. Over that was placed the pieced-together top of the quilt. The pieces in this quilt were all of woollen material because it was meant to be an extra-warm winter comforter, perhaps for use in a chilly attic bedroom. The patches were both squares and triangles, the sides measuring three, four, or five inches and placed together so as to make a symmetrical and pleasing pattern. The patches had been cut from the good parts of discarded clothing. Sometimes there were enough different colours to avoid monotony in the quilt pattern, but if not, some patches were dyed bright shades. Even colours that were supposed to clash did not look out of place in these quilts, for, like flowers in a garden, they blended in a bright cheerfulness to lighten the otherwise sombre bedrooms. This particular kind of quilt was tied at close intervals by coloured bits of yarn. The ends of the yarn, cut off evenly at one-half inch or so, were spotted in bright dots across the quilt.

Tying a quilt did not take too long. A lighter one would have been sewn, or quilted, as the ladies called it, in a fan pattern; the stitches close, sometimes only one-eighth of an inch apart. This took a great deal of time and, in the poorly lighted early log houses, was very hard on the eyes. On this occasion, though, the ladies proceeded rapidly with the tying of the quilt. The talk was general; it might almost have been called gossip. Only the fact that the ten women present were all that were resident in that particular neighbourhood saved someone from being intimately discussed. Those from several miles away could be talked about, but not with the same relish and attention to detail as one's closer neighbours. As the tufted rows grew on the quilt it was turned on the frames so that the ladies came closer and closer together. Mrs. McKenzie apologized for the quality of the wool filling in the quilt.

"It seems so harsh and stubborn. I fear it will weep through and be as prickly as a porcupine. I washed it thoroughly, too, with soft soap several times. I don't know what's the matter."

There followed some talk on how to wash wool. Grandma Haig broke in.

"Now if you ask me" - no one was asking her, but she went on and the young Mrs. Haig looked anxious - "you take your fleece and put it in a boiler and as it comes to a boil you dump in a good potful of piss. You have to save it overnight to get enough, but it has no equal. Your wool does come out so soft and nice and gives you no trouble after. But people nowadays are so nicey-nice, they wouldn't think to use it. I see you are all shocked at what I say but it is true what I tell you."

"Grandma is right enough," said Mrs. McLeod. "I've heard my mother say they did that in the old country and the wool was so clean and fine and believe it or not it had a perfume, and I don't mean the kind of perfume you are all laughing about, but a clean, fresh smell. I suppose something in the `what do you call it' cut the grease in the wool."

The quilt was finished as the light dimmed toward evening. Mrs. McKenzie served tea and little squares of something between candy and cake.

"I never tasted anything so delightful," Janet said. "Whatever is it?"

"Shortbread," answered three or four at once, and Janet's stock went up a few points as she accepted slightly differing recipes from the many experts there.

A wind had come up, and it was snowing as they left the house. Janet brought Gamey from the barn, leading him past the threatening heels of the three McKenzie horses. Gamey was fractious. There had been a ram in the box stall next to him, and he was upset about it. Holding the reins in one hand and the shafts up with the other, with an expert twist of the wrist on the tightly held reins, Janet manoeuvred him expertly into the cutter shafts. With Gamey in this mood there was no relaxing of attention as she fastened the tugs and adjusted his check. Mrs. MacDonald and Mrs. McLeod, who were hitching a ride, filled the seat amply, and Janet had to sit on their knees. Gamey set off at a half-canter, and Janet braced her feet, took a shorter grip on the lines, and prepared to take command. But the gloves were thick and clumsy and her slim fingers barely able to hold the reins from slipping. Gamey squatted lower in the shafts and went into a top-speed trot, and Janet had a moment of panic when she realized that it was Gamey who was in control. He was pulling the cutter with the lines, and the bit was in his teeth. Janet fought down the feeling of icy fear that was stealing over her and used all her strength to pull Gamey in. The days of overhead nailing of ceiling boards had built steely muscles, and they stood her in good stead now. Fortunately, no one was on the road as she sawed at the lines, at first gently to break the horse's concentration, then more firmly until his gait became unsure. The stronger will won at last, and Gamey became more obedient, although he still pounded out a fast trot, snorting to get that ram smell but of his nose. The wind stung Janet's face with tiny pellets of snow, and her hands chilled in the thick gloves. The two ladies, well swathed in scarves pulled over their faces, chatted comfortably.

"My, what a fast ride. I wish I could be independent and handle a horse like Janet can," said Mrs. MacDonald.

"It's wonderful not to have to depend on a man for everything," agreed Mrs. McLeod.

Janet sat with freezing cheeks as snow balls from Gamey's feet flew by. "Right now," she thought, "I would turn the reins and my independence over to the first man that came along."

"How was the hen party?" Jim asked as they unharnessed Gamey and bedded him down for the night. "Any news that's fit to tell a husband?"

"Not that much. Grandma Haig told us how to wash wool and she thinks I'm not plump enough. She's going to speak to you about it."

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