Robert Louis Stevenson celebrated the imaginative magic of the comforter in his famous children’s poem “The Land of Counterpane.” And down on Cape Breton Island, Joanne Turner is still honouring the venerable folk art of the quilt. Each year, the 75-year-old member of Trinity Anglican Church, in the parish of Sydney Mines with Baddeck, crafts several beautiful patterned comforters and gives them away to charity or nursing home residents.
“I work on them over the winter and into the spring. It probably takes me about three or four months,” said Turner, who returned to Cape Breton in 1995 after a career as a medical lab technician in cities all over Canada.
Last year, with bids starting at $300, one of her inspirational quilts ultimately fetched $5,000 in a silent auction that travelled church to church the length and breadth of the island. Turner had donated the queen-size coverlet to the Anglican Church Women Nova Scotia Board’s annual project, 2015-16, entitled “Ability to Live with Spirit,” with proceeds going to the ALS Society of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
The design, “Desert Flower,” breathes the spare, spiritual quality of the American Southwest. “It was developed by Elizabeth Whitehead, based, I think, on designs of the Navajo Indians,” said Turner, who takes her overall concepts from magazines such as American Quilt Sampler. Then she brings a lab technician’s precision to cutting her own work patterns for the appliqués.
Designs aside, Turner’s comforters are meant to be warm and practical. “I make those quilts to be on the bed,” she said flatly.
A member of the Golden Arm Quilters, based at St. James Presbyterian Church in Sydney Mines, Turner recently donated a quilt that raised $1,300 for a local nursing home. And another piece is destined to raise funds to help her granddaughter’s Irish dance troupe visit Ireland next year. Taking shape now on her frame is a butterfly quilt, based on a delicate design inspired by ladies’ antique handkerchiefs.
The winning quilt. Photo: Contributed
But Turner’s Christian charity extends far beyond donating her finely crafted quilts. She also volunteers at Alderwood Nursing Home several times a week, serves as a lay reader at Trinity and gives presentations to the children of the church. “One time, she told them the story of pretzel making and actually gave them a lesson in how to make pretzels,” said the Rev. Stacey LeMoine, rector of Trinity Anglican’s 100-plus family parish. “She’s an amazing, positive, creative person. Everyone just loves Joanne— especially her infectious laugh. What a laugh she has!”
And quilt making seems to run in Cape Bretoners’ blood. Trinity’s own quilting group makes “touch quilts” for local Alzheimer’s patients. “They are very tactile, and the patients like to trace the square with their fingers,” said LeMoine.