Searching for Signatures

Today’s Melbourne paper “The Age” carries an article by Bridie Smith about a 19th Century signature quilt.

You can read the article here.

The challenge for conservators is to identify all the people whose names appear on the quilt.  What a challenge for the geniesleuths amongst us!  Who wouldn’t want to take up the challenge of identifying those mysterious donors and the story of this wonderful work of art and its fundraising background.

The National Museum of Australia has already begun some of the research but now needs the help of the public in order to identify some of the donors.  As we are all no doubt aware, not everyone pops up in the Australian Dictionary of Biography as a potential source! Check out the research progress here.

Signature quilts and quilts with signatures worked into them, like the Victorian era Crazy Quilts, are the most wonderful source of family history.  Signature quilts were, as described by the NMA, often used as a means to fund raise for specific purposes.  They were sometimes known as shilling quilts – as that was the price to ‘buy’ your space for your name to appear.

Shilling quilts were used by Red Cross groups to raise funds to support the work of the Red Cross during World War 1.  I believe there is one such quilt in the hands of a local historical society in Melbourne but at the time of writing was unable to confirm this.

Perhaps the most well known signature quilts are in the possession of the Australian War Memorial – I refer, of course, to the Changi Quilts created during WW2 by women prisoners in held Changi Prison – the history of these quilts can be read here.


This is just one of the blocks created in the Australian Changi Quilt – all the blocks and the complete quilt can be viewed on the AWM website along with transcriptions and descriptions of each individual block.

When a quilt of this nature is held in a public institution, it becomes something more than its initial purpose.  Quilts such as these have become, in effect, memorials to those people whose names appear on them.  They no longer fulfill the goal of fundraising, having done their duty in this role at the time the quilt was created.  They no longer offer a distraction from the horrors and boredom of prolonged incarceration as this time has passed.  They do, however, provide us with some small insight into the lives, aspirations and conditions in society at the time they were created.

A quilt such as that which is currently being studied and researched by the curators at NMA tells us something of society in Melbourne and Sunbury at the time of its creation.  It is also a reflection of the skills of the women who created it and these are quite possibly not the names recorded thereon.  Yet this quilt stands testament to their devotion to church and community.

Do you have quilts in your family treasures collection? These wonderful objects conceal stories about which we can only guess, especially those in the hands of family members treasured as often all is known is that great great grandmother bought the quilt with her on the journey from England or Ireland in the 1800’s, or from Scotland early last century. There are some families who treasure their Scandanavian and German pieces, others who have American made quilts acquired whilst their ancestors followed the gold from California to Ballarat and beyond.

Embroidery Sampler originally brought to Australia by Lucy Jane Dixon (nee Banks)
Embroidery Sampler originally brought to Australia by Lucy Jane Dixon (nee Banks)

I am lucky enough to have pieces of embroidery and a lace veil that made the journey from Liverpool to New Zealand in the 1870’s and then on to Australia in the 1880’s.

Not all signature pieces are quilts…. cushions, tea cosies, piano covers all appeared at times during the Crazy patchwork fashion period. This lovely example is still a mystery:

Crazy Patch Tea Cosy Side 1    Crazy Patchwork Tea Cosy side 2

Front and reverse of a Crazy Patchwork Tea Cosy made in velvets, silks, cottons and other fabrics dated 1899. As all the initial sets end in R, it is reasonable to assume this has been made by a family group or is intended to record a family.



Author: Robbie

There's a whole new direction to the creative pursuits undertaken by Robbie - writing, photography, genealogy, gardening and, just because she can, a return to study at university. Still dabbling in textiles, volunteering, tutoring and solving the design dilemmas of her students.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s