This is an intriguing example from the Second World War - Bernice Archer's account of the secret messages and symbols stitched into Red Cross quilts by British women POWs in Japanese camps, and what they tell us of identity and aspirations under duress.
In Greek mythology the Thracean king Tereus came to help Pandion in a war against Thebes. As a reward Tereus was given the hand of Procne who he took back with him to Thrace. When Procne's sister, Philomela, came to visit, Tereus raped her, cut out her tongue and shut her up in a remote building deep in the forest. The story continues:
What could Philomela do? Her prison, with its walls of unyielding stone, kept her from flight. Her mouth, dumb, could not tell the crime. Yet sorrow is inventive, and cunning is is an ally in distress. Skilfully she hung the threads from the barbarian loom and interwove purple scenes with the white threads, telling of the crime. She gave the finished embroidery to a servant and, by signs, asked her to take it to her mistress. The servant, not knowing what she was bringing, obeyed and took the embroidery to Procne. The cruel tyrant's wife unrolled the tapestry and read the unhappy saga. (http://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Philomela_(princess_of_Athens).html)
At this Greek myth demonstrates, communicating through embroidery is by no means new. Quilting and patchwork are similarly well established art forms, but the narratives of these handicrafts have only recently attracted academic attention because, as Rozsilka Parker claims in her book The Subversive Stitch:
... embroidery and a stereotype of femininity have become collapsed into one another, characterised as mindless, decorative and delicate; like the icing on the cake, good to look at, adding taste and status but devoid of significant content. (http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Subversive-Stitch-Embroidery-Feminine/dp/1848852835)
Such characterisation has prejudiced or even blinded many researchers and archivists with the result that this less conventional form of communication has been either ignored or devalued. However, comments from two very different women indicate that embroiderers and quilters themselves have long been aware of the significance and power of their work. An early American pioneer, Eliza Calvert Hall, quoted in J. Steward Quilting Quotations, explains 'Patchwork - it was imagination, memory, history, biography, joy, sorrow, life and love'. Helen Beck, a Second World War internee, wrote:
To those who would learn a woman's point of view of internment I would recommend a close inspection of the embroidered patches of the hospital quilts made for the Red Cross.That sprig of heather, those snow capped peaks, a miniature flower garden in full bloom and the brave gesture or motto traced in coloured thread, these reveal more clearly than any essay the secrets of the heart.
The 'secrets of the heart' as revealed in the Red Cross quilts referred to in the second quotation are the focus of this article. These quilts were created by the civilian women interned in Singapore's Changi jail by the Japanese during the Second World War. In the jail, communication with their menfolk was banned, writing materials scarce and the written word suspect and incriminating. But by substituting conventional pen and ink with needle, thread and bits of clothing the women skilfully recorded their specific view of internment and eventually circumvented the Japanese restrictions by sending the quilts to the hospital in the military camp.
The last days of the battle for Singapore in early 1942 were marked by total confusion, chaos and demoralisation. Thousands of Allied soldiers were killed, injured or captured by the invading Japanese forces, families were separated in the belated evacuation attempts and after the surrender on 15 February 1942, many Allied civilians were caught in the colony. Initially approximately 2,500 civilians, of whom about 400 were women and children, were interned in Changi prison by the Japanese. In mid-1944, by which time the number of prisoners had swelled to almost 4,000 (of whom about 1,000 were women and children), they changed camps with the POWs in Sime Road, a hutted camp a few miles away. Changi prison was then filled with military prisoners of war.
The civilians were sexually segregated, the younger children remaining with their mothers. Official communications between the men and women were banned except when occasional supervised meetings in an open area were organised and sanctioned by the guards. Nevertheless, because of their close proximity within the prison walls, covert communications were contrived and achieved bringing cheer and joy both to senders and recipients.
Some of the women, however, had loved ones who had fought with the volunteer reservist defence organisations. Those captured were imprisoned with the military POWs in Changi Military Barracks a few miles away. No contact was allowed between the military and civilian camps for ten months, until Christmas Day 1942, when a brief one-hour meeting took place. This absence of early communication created uncertainty and anxiety regarding survivors and exacerbated, for the men and women, the trauma of surrender and imprisonment.
During the early days of internment a project was conceived in Changi to ease this anxiety. A group of young girls in the camp were being taught patchwork to keep them amused, each one making a hexagon rosette and embroidering their initials in the middle. On seeing this, Ethel Mulvany, the unofficial Red Cross leader in the camp, suggested that the women, especially those with loved ones in the inaccessible military camp, should be encouraged to embroider patchwork quilts, one each for the British, Australian and \Japanese Red Cross, in the hope that they could be taken to the hospital in the military camp. Each interested woman was given a 6-inch square of white sacking and asked to put her name and 'something of herself' into the square. The completed squares were then sewn together making three quilts, each containing sixty-six squares backed by a larger piece of white material. In September 1942 the quilts were sent across to a 'craft fair' organised by the civilian men in their section of the camp. The internee newspaper Changi Guardian reported at the time:
Among the exhibits sent over by the women were three quilts made up of individual patches combined together. Each patch provided a mirror of war and humour, tragedy and pathos and the indomitable spirit existing in the women's camp.
The Japanese eventually allowed the quilts to be sent to the hospital in the military camp where they remained throughout the war as symbols of defiance and messages of cheer and reassurance.
These women were facing the challenge of an unexpectedly harsh new lifestyle and quilt making and embroidery fulfilled many functions: the need for beauty in a sparse landscape; a therapeutic comfort in times of stress with an opportunity for delicate creativity within a brutalising environment; and an affirmation of one's existence and endurance.
The background of many of the women prisoners in Changi was middle class. They had been well educated during the 1920s and 30s when femininity and masculinity were clearly defined. Embroidery would have been an important feature of their formal and informal education and their role was to bring colour, beauty, joy, pleasure and support to their husbands, families and homes.
The ability to do this confirmed their femininity both to themselves and others. Thrown into the alien and brutalising environment of Changi prison the choice of a quilt, with its echoes of domesticity, warmth, comfort and the intimate security of the family bedroom, reflects the continuation of that role. The pretty, fragile, traditional, floral symbols in forget-me-not circles, horseshoes and sprays and the stereotypical English crinoline lady motifs, also reflect that femininity.
Separated from loved ones, home and familiar society the Changi women did not need the quilting to relieve isolation. In the overcrowded conditions of the prison most women craved space, peace, quiet and privacy where they could sit with their own thoughts, embroidering their individual love letters.
Once sewn together, the quilts became greater than their separate parts and demonstrate how the women's apparent conformity to the feminine ideal masked their astute political awareness. For example, the dedication on each quilt expresses an impartial sympathy for the suffering of British, Australian and Japanese soldiers. At first glance the quilt dedicated to the Japanese soldiers appears to be passive and appeasing, dominated as it is by floral patches and devoid of the written word. Closer inspection, however, reveals five patches with a strong Japanese flavour - the Banzai in the first square - the Japanese Garden, the Rising Sun and an embroidery probably representing Mount Fujiyama. The impartiality of the dedications and the choice of symbols in the Japanese quilt were no accident.
The women knew they had to act in an even-handed and conciliatory manner to achieve their aims, and these symbols reflected the internees' perceptions of the Japanese male's ideal of women - compliant, fragile and silent. However, the actual making of the quilt and the inclusion of the women's names was defiant, assertive and a far from invisible act. The thematic threads running through the embroidered story wove a picture of an unequivocal white middle-class British feminine culture and the names of the real female characters literally brought them to life for the men.
The paradox of political caution and defiance hidden behind the femininity of embroidery and quilt making is more noticeable in the quilts dedicated to both the British and Australian Red Cross organisations. Here the squares of flower motifs are interspersed with others carrying clear and/or ironic quotations and mottos, as well as those of stark cold , unconventional iconography. Even some of the more fragile designs are juxtaposed, within the same square, with words or symbols indicating strength of character and fighting spirit. The stark contrast between these softer, fragile, traditional symbols and the less conventional hard-edged ones, accentuates and highlights the latter group and their depictions of the prison camp. These two quilts display an active , harsh and - by definition of time and place - unfeminine quality.
Within the restrictions of space, materials and possible Japanese censorship the women found imaginative ways of displaying their past and present landscapes in counterpoint to each other, at the same time signposting their conventional and traditional backgrounds.
The iconography is peppered with national symbols: maps, thistles and heather for Scotland, daffodils for Sales, shamrocks and harps for Ireland, maple leaves for Canada, and Union flags for England. One map, a crude outline of Malaya, plots the route taken by a woman from her home in north Malaya down to Singapore and Changi jail. Not only were these maps and national symbols identification aids but, as the Japanese banned patriotic gestures in the camp, they were also a device for a defiant display of patriotism and encouragement within the embroidered pattern.
This theme is continued with the imagery of the male figures in the squares all of which depict real of mythological heroes; Sir Frances Drake, St George and the Dragon, the cheerful tommy with the defiant grin and the thumbs up gesture, the hunting, shooting, fishing and skiing British male, the Scottish piper in full regalia.
Conscious that the lost battle, the surrender and the final humiliation of their internment had seriously undermined wartime perceptions of masculinity, the women seemed to have deliberately used these symbolic, heroic figures as a loud and clear ego-boosting message of reassurance and encouragement both for themselves and their menfolk.
Equally reassuring the equally unreal was the women. The few depictions of the feminine form are either tiny victims, angelic or the ultra feminine crinoline lady. This representation was far from the truth as the women successfully and 'manfully' struggled to overcome the harsh brutalising conditions of the jail. But the imagery was one that the women themselves wanted to cling to and one they wanted the men to believe.
Nostalgia and homesickness were recurrent themes. The English country garden, lambs gambolling in a British landscape, snow-capped New Zealand mountains, green hills of Ireland, a sitting room with a three-piece suite with the quotation 'thoughts of home' and the exquisite embroidery of a beautiful laid table with a delicious meal and the wistful words 'it was only a dream'. Home is where they longed to be and their depictions of home, no matter where that was, are in soft and colourful contrast to the landscape and conditions the women now faced. The dream of flight and freedom manifests itself in the birds, butterflies and other winged images in the quilts.
Amongst the harshest and most evocative squares in the quilts are those reflecting the conditions the women were facing. One square is subtly and delicately covered with lines of flowers, but it only takes a little imagination to see the resemblance to barbed wire. Others are more precise, intermingling their flower or heart motifs with details of cell and block number. Here clearly is the ambiguous mixture of fragile and loving icons and defiant realism. Yet other squares disregard the traditional route, forging an unconventional, starkly aggressive pathway with crude depictions of the black prison bars, black brick prison wall, a dark cell with figures cowering in the corner and the words 'how long dear lord how long?' and the prison itself with the Japanese flag flying above it.
The unconventional nature of these squares, the overt darkness emphasised by the use of black yarn as opposed to the colourful thread of the other squares, not only indicates a realistic acknowledgement of themselves as prisoners undisguised by any attempt to 'pretty up' the picture. Was it just a clear way of saying 'we are captives', or were these women so overwhelmed by their situation they could not see beyond their present dark conditions? Or did some find in the new environment, unprotected and unconstrained by the patriarchal colonial society, a mode of expression hitherto denied them? Was there a paradoxical personal freedom of expression within the confinement of the prison camp?
Not only did these quilts offer the women an opportunity for artistic expression at such a barren time and place, but the embroiderers in Changi, far from 'mindless, decorative and delicate,' transformed their limited materials to produce whole ranges of signicant and powerful meaning. Within the fragile and deminine, the powerful and political, these messages express all those human emotions.
|'V' for Victory|
By putting 'something of themselves' in the individual squares the Changi women, as Rozsika Parker claims, 'used the genre to make meanings specific to their experience' and from fragments of their repressed lives they created an individual yet unifying alternative way of communicating that experience to those who would understand.
From an article in 'History Today', 1997
Three quilts are known to exist and it is probable that there was a fourth as the quilts were intended to be presented to the Red Cross Societies of Britain, Australia, Canada and Japan at the cessation of hostilities. One quilt now hangs at the British Red Cross museum in London and another two quilts at the Australian War Memorial Museum, Canberra. The whereabouts of the alleged fourth quilt is unknown. (http://www.redcross.org.uk/About-us/Who-we-are/Museum-and-archives/Historical-factsheets/The-Changi-quilt)
|A stitch in time: Olga Henderson points to her section |
of the quilt produced by the Changi Girl Guide Group
in Changi Prison, Singapore in 1943