STITCHES IN TIME

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature - Quilts 1700-1945 Patch­work Pris­on­ers: The Ra­jah Quilt and the Women Who Made It

DOZENS of women are crammed be­neath the decks of a ship bound for Van Diemen’s Land strug­gling to weave their nee­dles against a poor light. That’s how am­a­teur ge­neal­o­gist Ber­nadette De­whurstPhillips imag­ines life on board the Ra­jah, which set sail from Eng­land in 1841 with 180 con­vict women. Most of the women had been con­victed of lar­ceny, in­clud­ing her great-great­great-grand­mother Grace Stevens, who later be­came a De­whurst when she mar­ried into the fam­ily.

The women were given nee­dles, thread and fab­ric by the Bri­tish Ladies So­ci­ety for Pro­mot­ing the Ref­or­ma­tion of Fe­male Pris­on­ers, a Quaker or­gan­i­sa­tion founded by prison re­former El­iz­a­beth Fry. The sewing tools, de­signed to keep the women busy on the 15-week jour­ney, were used to pro­duce a mag­nif­i­cent quilt, pre­sented to Lady Jane Franklin, wife of the lieu­tenant-gover­nor, when the ship ar­rived in Ho­bart. The quilt is in­scribed with the fol­low­ing mes­sage, framed with flow­ers:

Then the quilt lit­er­ally van­ished from his­tory. More than a cen­tury later, in 1987, it was re­dis­cov­ered in an at­tic in Scot­land and then bought by the National Gallery of Aus­tralia. The Ra­jah Quilt will be shown on loan from to­day at the Queens­land Art Gallery as part of an ex­hi­bi­tion of quilts from Lon­don’s Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum.

About 20 pairs of hands are be­lieved to have sewn the quilt; who they be­long to is a mys­tery. De­whurst-Phillips, 48, is a keen quil­ter and knew about The Ra­jah Quilt long be­fore she dis­cov­ered her con­nec­tion to it. She keeps a blog — Ra­jah’s Grand­daugh­ter — about her fam­ily his­tory and likes to think Stevens was sewing on the ship.

‘‘ It is re­ally ex­cit­ing to think Grace had been on the Ra­jah, al­though there is no way to tell if she had any­thing to do with the quilt,’’ De­whurst-Phillips says. ‘‘ It’s still mys­te­ri­ous.’’

Stevens was a red-headed, blue-eyed 16-year-old with a scar on her left thumb when she boarded the ship with two con­vic­tions, both for steal­ing pieces of fab­ric.

‘‘ It does make me think quilt­ing runs in the fam­ily — but that’s only a guess,’’ says De­whurst-Phillips with a laugh. ‘‘ My gut feel­ing is that she would have been in­volved in mak­ing the quilt.’’

The quilt has con­nected De­whurst-Phillips with Tas­ma­nian his­to­rian Trudy Cow­ley, who wanted to know about Stevens for her new book, Patch­work Pris­on­ers: The Ra­jah Quilt and the Women Who Made It. Cow­ley and co-author Dianne Snow­den have been nut­ting out the­o­ries about who made the quilt and have pro­duced a list of 45 con­victs — listed as hav­ing sewing skills on de­par­ture or ar­rival — who they be­lieve could have sewn it. Stevens isn’t on the list but Cow­ley says, ‘‘ it doesn’t mean she wasn’t sit­ting around with the other women, watch­ing [the quilt be­ing made]’’.

In her imag­i­na­tion, the women on the ship are gos­sip­ing as they sit in a cir­cle on the deck, TO THE LADIES

of the Con­vict Ship Com­mit­tee This quilt worked by the Con­victs of the Ship Ra­jah dur­ing their voy­age to van Die­mans land is pre­sented as a tes­ti­mony of the grat­i­tude with which they re­mem­ber their ex­er­tions for their wel­fare while in Eng­land and dur­ing their pas­sage and also a proof that they have not ne­glected the Ladies kind ad­mo­ni­tions of be­ing in­dus­tri­ous.

June 1841 snip­ping pieces of fab­ric and stitch­ing their threads. ‘‘ They wouldn’t have made it in the dark be­cause they wouldn’t have seen the stitch­ing,’’ Cow­ley says. ‘‘ They were only stuck down­stairs at night and when the weather was bad.’’

Cow­ley and oth­ers be­lieve the ship’s young ma­tron, Kezia Hayter, over­saw the de­sign of the quilt be­cause she was put in charge of keep­ing the con­victs oc­cu­pied and well­be­haved. ‘‘ Kezia would have re­alised that sewing skills were im­por­tant to women in the colony, so she may have taught some of them,’’ she says.

‘‘ She had quite a gen­teel back­ground and some of the skills ladies learned back then were em­broi­dery and patch­work and sewing.’’

Hayter fell in love with the cap­tain of the ship, Charles Fer­gu­son, and kept a diary of their ro­mance af­ter she ar­rived in Tas­ma­nia. The quilt may have made its way back to Eng­land on the Ra­jah’s re­turn trip.

‘‘ Be­cause Fer­gu­son was Scot­tish, it may have gone back with him,’’ Cow­ley says. ‘‘ But we don’t re­ally know.’’

Deb­bie Ward, head of con­ser­va­tion at the NGA, has spent more than 500 hours study­ing the quilt and says it is in re­mark­ably good con­di­tion. The seams, how­ever, are thin and put un­der ten­sion when­ever it is dis­played, so it is usu­ally shown for only about one month a year. ‘‘ It is clas­si­fied as one of the most sig­nif­i­cant works in the tex­tiles col­lec­tion and it would have to be the cheap­est one,’’ Ward says. ‘‘ We prob­a­bly have more re­quests to see it than a lot of other things in the col­lec­tion.’’

Most of the quilt is made from the type of cheap cot­ton fab­ric used in fash­ion house sam­ples, al­though some of the flow­ers and birds are cut from ex­pen­sive chintz. Ward sus­pects Hayter told the women to make the quilt. Al­though the quilt has a glow­ing in­scrip­tion, Ward can’t imag­ine why the con­victs would have made it on their own free will as a gift.

‘‘ If you were given a cou­ple of me­tres of fab­ric to make things to sell en route or [for your­self], there is no way you would want to give that up to some rich lit­tle lady when you ar­rive,’’ she says. ‘‘ We not talk­ing here about peo­ple who are grate­ful to be sent to Tas­ma­nia.’’

Some of the stitches are 1cm long — which would at­tract the wrath of a sewing teacher — while other parts of the quilt dis­play bet­ter tech­nique with 16 stitches to the cen­time­tre. And some of the pieces have been sewn in back­wards which makes Ward sus­pect ‘‘ that some of the sewing was not done with best light­ing’’.

Mean­while, De­whurst-Phillips is work­ing on a hand-ap­plique na­tiv­ity quilt that she hopes to com­plete in time for Christ­mas. Quil­ters, she says, are no­to­ri­ous for hav­ing piles of un­fin­ished projects in the cup­board, snip­ping up squares of fab­ric for more than one quilt at a time. When she saw The Ra­jah Quilt for the first time in the ex­hi­bi­tion Not Just Ned: A True His­tory of the Ir­ish in Aus­tralia two years ago at the National Mu­seum of Aus­tralia, she was amazed at its colours and vi­brancy, hav­ing seen it only on the in­ter­net pre­vi­ously. Like the north­west coast of Tas­ma­nia where she lives and where Grace De­whurst is buried, the quilt con­nects her to her past. No­body knows ex­actly who made The Ra­jah Quilt, but it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter.

‘‘ There are hun­dreds of descen­dants of Ra­jah con­victs liv­ing in Aus­tralia,’’ De­whurstPhillips says. ‘‘ But the quilt makes it more in­ter­est­ing.’’

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