Steiglitz BLOG

Quilts ... and how they depict the history of women

Until recent times, history was recorded through the eyes and actions of men.  What they invented, conquered, ruled, erected and a multitude of other ‘achievements.’

It’s as if females never existed, or if we did, never achieved anything worth acknowledging.  Though what do we expect?  It is, after all, his-story!

However, the achievements, dreams and sacrifices of women around the world have been recorded. ....

Just not in dry old history books.  Instead, typical of women, their history (or her-story) has been recorded in something both beautiful and useful.

For the story of how women have shaped & changed the world can be found in every hand-stitched quilt ever made.  Look closely.  Imagine.  Interpret.  You’ll discover the history of women is all there…

‘That tiny image of a book, stitched in place by the first female in her family’s history to learn to read, means more than we could ever know.  The snippet of satin from a treasured wedding dress…beginnings of a love-filled family tree.  Bright stars, telling of a mother’s grief for children lost to illnesses modern medicines made obsolete.  Perhaps a surviving scrap from her beloved mother’s apron…the one she wore tied under her armpits while being patiently taught to cook.  A tribute to skills that, in later years, helped her family survive the Great Depression.  Or scraps of silk, remnants from a foreign parachute found hanging in a tree during the war.’

Like the precious Australian aboriginal fur cloaks (that became cosy quilts during cold winter nights), each lovingly stitched quilt depicts stories of ‘clan and country.’  Through the eyes of women.

Quilt making crosses all borders…language, colour, skills, class, time, even gender.

In early colonial Australia, women and their skills, were scarce.  To survive, men created a quilt known as the Wagga (springing from its place of origin, the Wagga Wagga region of NSW).  All they needed was a needle, twine and material found in abundance – flour sacks.  Though worn out clothing, scraps of jumpers and old socks sufficed.  Waggas were so famous, even Henry Lawson wrote of them. 

To survive the Great Depression (1929-35), women created their unique ‘Salesman’s sample quilts.’  It seems, in an era of door-to-door salesmen, the most eagerly awaited sold materials.  Housewives would often coincide their baking sessions with his visits.  For, it was hoped a belly full of baked goods would dull his memory, and he’d accidentally leave a sample book behind.

Thus, the salesman’s sample quilt was borne from women’s ingenuity & men’s love of food!  

Today, soft doonas, electric blankets and ducted heating, means quilts are often viewed as little more than pretty throw rugs.  Understanding how, only a few generations ago, a quilt could mean the difference between life and death, is almost impossible.                                                                                                                                                                    

Though picture it...the early Australian goldfields.  You’re alone, on foreign soil. Have just sold almost everything to buy the tools necessary to ‘make your fortune.’  A pick axe, shovel, billy and large oiled canvas (to string amongst trees & sleep under) are about all you own.                                                                                                                                                              Winter sets in.  Meagre savings are eaten up by outlandish food costs.  Firewood’s scarce, quickly grabbed up by new ‘hopefuls’ arriving daily.  Each night, you fall into your ‘tent,’ exhausted, praying tomorrow will be the day you strike it rich.  Each long, cold night, as temperatures plummet, the quilt your wife made is your one comfort. Your one connection with home.  For many, it’s also the only thing between living to work another day, or freezing to death that very night.

Knowing her husband was sailing to Australia in search of gold, what private messages did each wife secret away as she sewed?  How many tears soaked into her stitches?  Perhaps she stitched tiny four-leaf clovers, to remind him of home.   Verses from their favourite poet, Robert Burns.  Or did she lovingly depict the Chinese temple from their childhood village?                                                           In such cases, those quilts were not only a story of family; they were a precious love letter.

Once upon a time, all women quilted.  For some, its creativity offered a welcome diversion from a tough reality.  For others, it was a vital part of what held their community together. 

For the joy of an impending marriage often inspired a ‘quiltin’ party.’  Women, isolated by household demands, distance, and lack of transport, collectively came together, bringing with them precious material scraps.  Children threaded needles.  And men?  Well, they sat in the background, contributing tall tales to the mix.  At day’s end, those tales would be swapped for musical instruments, and the partyin’ would begin.

Quilting was global. Everyone needed to stay warm.  Though wealthy women made quilts to pass time.  It’s said English gentry, in the 18th Century, taught their Irish staff quilt-making skills.  

The Rajah Quilt is one such example of gentry passing their skills on.  Considered one of Australia’s most important textiles, it’s of immense value to the National Gallery of Australia.  In 1841, 180 female convicts headed for Van Diemen’s Land in a ship named the Rajah.  Gentry provided each woman with the materials needed to create her part of this unique quilt.  While less-then-skilled, its creators were determined, for their blood stains can still be seen on it today.

The Australian War Memorial & London office of Red Cross, proudly display three equally special examples of women’s history…the Changi Quilts.  World War 2 saw women & men separated in Singapore’s Changi Prison Camp.  One Canadian Woman, Mrs Ethel Mulvany, brilliantly solved the problem of providing personal information to the men.  Quilters hid secret messages in quilts made for wounded male prisoners.  Not inside the quilt, but on it.  Initials told men of wives still living.  Baby images told of births.  While faces of children told of family survival.  Each secret message, a ray of sunshine to their loved ones.                                                                                                                        

Quilts aren’t just throw rugs. Throughout time they’ve spoken for the illiterate, saved lives, and even provided hope to prisoners of war.  They’ve deepened the bonds of communities. And helped women deal with what was (and still is) a very real, part of being female…the isolation of a wife and mother.

Everyone knows how debilitating isolation can be.  Imagine it in a time without phones, tv, cars, or even real roads?  A time when your nearest neighbour was three days horse ride away, or a week walking.  To combat that isolation, and for practical purposes, women around the world began meeting up to air their quilts.  After a long Winter’s use, airing your quilt was both beneficial and necessary.  Equally so after a year of being stored amongst moth balls and strong herbs. 

Just as necessary was the social element of these ‘Airings.’ This became one of the few times a year you met up with neighbours.  Could catch up with local goings on.  Hug old friends.  Ask advice.  Or help finish each other’s quilts…with a fun ol’ quilting bee.

Although the reasons for quilting may have changed today, the tradition still continues…as do the airings.  

You can be part of one about to happen locally.  How?  

By airing your quilt with hundreds of others at the award-winning ‘Steiglitz Airing of the Quilts & Reunion’, Saturday 7th October, 10 am – 3 pm.  It’s free, relaxing, slightly eccentric and, typical of the story of women, it’s also beautiful.

Oh, and don’t think you have to be a quilter, or a woman, to enjoy this quirky day.  The country cooking, home-made lemonade, bush setting, historical displays in public buildings, and the Reunion mean this is a great family day…that won’t break the bank.

So, come on down to this beautiful little town…look closely…Imagine…Interpret.  You never know what you’ll discover!

With great big grins, Lindy Allinson.




Fences, trees, wagons…if it stands still long enough, then a quilt will be airing on it!