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A Cowpastures memorial quilt

Camden Country Quilters Guild Cowpastures Heritage Quilt

Hanging on the wall in the Camden Library is a quilt, but no ordinary quilt. It is a hand-made quilt that had previously hung in the foyer of the Camden Civic Centre for many years. The quilt celebrated the Cowpastures Bicentenary (1995) and was made by members of the Camden Country Quilters Guild.

A panel in the Camden Cowpastures Bicentennial Quilt showing a map of the Cowpastures using an applique hanging in the Camden Library (I Willis, 2022)

The Cowpastures Quilt is a fascinating historical document and artefact and tells an interesting story of the district.

The Cowpastures Review stated:

The Cowpastures Heritage Quilt, which is featured on the front page, is unique. It is a product of the Camden Country Quilters Guild. It was unveiled by His Excellency, The Governor of New South Wales, Rear Admiral Peter Sinclair on the 19th of February 1995, as part of the opening of the Cowpastures Bicentennial. It was given by the Guild to the Camden Council, which has it displayed in the Camden Civic Centre.

Cover of Cowpastures Review displaying the Camden Cowpastures Bicentennial Quilt Issue Vol 1 1995. (I Willis)

The Cowpastures Bicentennial Committee created postcards and notepaper featuring the quilt that was sold at Gledswood Homestead and the Camden Library.

Postcard of Cowpastures Heritage Quilt 1995 (Camden Museum)

Quilts were practical items with social value

Quilts have sentimental or commemorative value and are examples of needlework skills and techniques, and the use of specific fabrics used in their designs.

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London states on its website:

As a technique, quilting has been used for a diverse range of objects, from clothing to intricate objects such as pincushions. Along with patchwork, quilting is most often associated with its use for bedding.

Quilting first appeared in England in the 13th century, reached a peak in the 17th century and can be traced back to 3000BCE. The word quilt means a ‘bolster or cushion’.

According to the V&A museum, a quilt is usually a bedcover of two layers of fabric with padding or wadding in between held together by lines of stitching based on a pattern or design. Very fine decorative quilts often become family heirlooms and are passed down through generations. In a domestic situation, women made quilts to celebrate ‘life occasions’ like births and weddings.

The V&A states that quilts are often quite large and associated with social events where people share the sewing. In North America quilting was a popular craft amongst Dutch and English settlers and quilts were made as part of marriage dowry for a young woman.

Quilting is often associated with patchwork where the quilt was made of scraps of fabric or ‘extending the life of working clothing’.

Convict women and quilting – The Rajah Quilt

In the National Gallery of Australia is a quilt made in 1841 by convict women transported on the Rajah from Woolwich to Hobart. According to blogger Bernadette, a descendant of one of the women who made the quilt, it is one of the most important textiles in Australia and world history.

The Rajah Quilt (NGA)

The textile is called the Rajah Quilt and was organised as part of the scheme organised by prison reformer Elizabeth Fry’s British Ladies Society for promoting the reformation of female prisoners. The quilt is made up of over 2000 pieces of fabric and it has been described as

 a patchwork and appliquéd bed cover or coverlet. It is in pieced medallion or framed style: a popular design style for quilts in the British Isles in the mid 1800’s. There is a central field of white cotton decorated with appliquéd (in broderie perse) chintz birds and floral motifs. This central field is framed by 12 bands or strips of patchwork printed cotton. The quilt is finished at the outer edge by white cotton decorated with appliquéd daisies on three sides and inscription in cross stitch surrounded by floral chintz attached with broderie perse on the fourth…

On the Rajah’s arrival in Hobart, the quilt was presented to the governor’s wife Lady Jane Franklin by the 29 women who sewed it on the voyage to Van Dieman’s Land. Lady Franklin sent the quilt back to England to Elizabeth Fry and then it was lost. It was rediscovered in a Scottish attic and returned to Australia in 1989 and placed in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia.

The quilt’s story is one of hope at a time of despair and disempowerment from a group of women hidden in the shadows of history. A type of radical history.

Cowpastures Quilt tells a story

Quilts often told a story and in the V&A collection, there are a  number of significant quilts telling Biblical stories, scenes from world events and the 1851 Great Exhibition.

The Cowpasture Quilt tells the story of the Cowpastures on its Bicentenary. The story was represented in the different panels in the quilt created by the Guild members who were part of the project. The quilt’s construction was a community effort and each sewer has their name sewn into the quilt.

  

Camden Cowpastures Bicentennial Quilt hanging in Camden Library in John Street Camden (I Willis, 2022)

The significance of the individual panels in the quilt was explained by the Cowpastures Review and it stated:

The central pane – the discovery of the Hottentot cow. The left pane – The Aboriginal influence, mining, the map of the ‘Cow Pastures’, representing flora and fauna and the Stonequarry Bridge at Picton. The right panel – St John’s Church, John and Elizabeth Macarthur, Camden Park Estates, Belgenny Farm, Gledswood Homestead and merino sheep and vineyards. The bottom panel – John Street, Camden, including ‘Macaria’ and representations of horticulture venture in the area. Not visible in the photograph in the names of the ‘quilters’ and some surprise ‘first family’ names.

Title panel in Camden Cowpastures Bicentennial Quilt hanging in Camden Library (I Willis, 2022)

Fashion quilting

According to the V&A quilting fell into decline in the early 20th century under the influence of modernism. It found a revival in the 1960s as part of the hippie culture and the art community and is firmly part of the art space.

Quiltmaking as art

Artist Isis Davis-Marks writes on the Artsy website that

Quilts’ inherent associations with warmth, nostalgia, and community make them particularly appealing now, in the midst of the pandemic and widespread division and inequity. Perhaps this fraught reality can account for, at least in part, why contemporary artists are drawn to quilting as a means to express themselves. The tactility of quilted fabric inevitability conjures domesticity, and every stitch—every precisely placed patchwork—brings us back to that feeling of the comfort and safety of home

Davis-Marks writes that contemporary American artists are engaging with the craft of quilting and building on the ‘enduring and complex history of quiltmaking’. In the US context quilting was practised by slaves, Indigenous Americans and other marginalised peoples as a form of expression and craftwork for the everyday.

An applique panel of the Cowpastures Quilt shows the Regency mansion on Camden Park still estate built in the 1830s. The panel uses figures to tell a narrative about the foundational story of Australia and the Camden district as part of a settler society. The Cowpasture Quilt is on display at Camden Library (I Willis, 2022)

Davis-Marks writes that the ancient craft of quiltmaking has resonance for contemporary artists in the age of social media and illustrates a broader appeal of working with traditional mediums of textiles, ceramics, knitting and other crafts.

In a January 2020 article for Artsy, writer and curator Glenn Adamson reflected “At a time when our collective attention is dangerously adrift,” Adamson wrote, “trapped in the freefall of our social-media feeds and snared in a pit of fake facts, handwork provides a firm anchor. It cannot be spun. It gives us something to believe in.”

Artists are using quilts as a lens to look into the dark history of the past. Sometimes these are called ‘story quilts’ where they tell a story in a narrative and figures. Artist Faith Ringgold‘s work often explores notions of ‘community and ancestry’ and said that she bonded through the experience of jointly sewing quilts with her mother.

The Cowpastures Quilt is a ‘story quilt’ and tells the story of our past as part of a settler society and the dispossession of Indigenous peoples. The quilt uses figures and narrative to examine the past through the lens of the women who constructed the quilt in 1995. More than this the Cowpasture quilt is a public statement and an affirmation of community through the collective efforts of local women who undertook the sewing project. The collaborative efforts of the Camden Quilters created a significant piece of public art and a narrative statement of who we are through the use of history.

A panel of the Cowpasture Quilt shows the Henry Kitchen cottage from 1819 still standing today as part of the Belgenny Farm complex which is one of the most important colonial farming complexes still intact in Australia on the former Camden Park estate of the Macarthur family. The quilt is on display at the Camden Library. (I Willis, 2022)

Updated 26 August 2022; originally posted 16 August 2022

Attachment to place · Belonging · Blue Plaques · Camden Red Cross · Camden Story · Cultural Heritage · Cultural icon · First World War · Historical consciousness · History · Local History · Local Studies · Memorial · Memory · Military history · Myths · Philanthropy · Pioneers · Place making · Red Cross · Second World War · Sense of place · Storytelling · Volunteering · Volunteerism · War · War at home · Wartime · Women's history · World War One

Blue Plaque recognises Camden Red Cross sewing circle in wartime

Camden Red Cross sewing circles during the First and Second World Wars

The wartime efforts of Camden women have been recognised by the successful nomination for a New South Wales Blue Plaque with Heritage NSW.

The announcement appeared in the Sydney press with a list of 17 other successful nominations for a Blue Plaque across the state. They include notable people and events in their local area.

What is a Blue Plaque?

The Heritage NSW website states:

The Blue Plaques program aims to capture public interest and fascination in people, events and places that are important to the stories of NSW.

The Blue Plaques program celebrates NSW heritage by recognising noteworthy people and events from our state’s history.

The aim of the program is to encourage people to explore their neighbourhood and other parts of NSW and connect with people of the past, historical moments and rich stories that matter to communities and have shaped our state.

The program is inspired by the famous London Blue Plaques program run by English Heritage which originally started in 1866, and similar programs around the world.

“Behind every plaque, there is a story.”

The essence of the Blue Plaques program is the storytelling. A digital story will be linked to each plaque.

The Blue Plaques should tell stories that are interesting, fun, quirky along with more sombre stories that should be not be forgotten as part of our history.

What is the Camden Red Cross story?

What is being recognised?

Camden Red Cross patriotic wartime sewing circles at the Camden School of Arts (later the Camden Town Hall now the Camden Library) – 1914-1918, 1940-1946.

The Sidman women volunteer their time and effort during the First World War for the Camden Red Cross. Patriotic fundraising supporting the war at home was a major activity and raised thousands of pounds. This type of effort was quite in all communities across Australia and the rest of the British Empire. (Camden Images and Camden Museum)

What is the story?

The Camden Red Cross sewing circles were one of Camden women’s most important voluntary patriotic activities during World War One and World War Two. The sewing circles started at the Camden School of Arts in 1914, and due to lack of space, moved to the Foresters’ Hall in Argyle Street in 1918. At the outbreak of the Second World War, sewing circles reconvened in 1940 at the Camden Town Hall in John Street (the old School of Arts building – the same site as the First World War)

These sewing circles were workshops where Camden women volunteered and manufactured supplies for Australian military hospitals, field hospitals and casualty clearing stations. They were held weekly on Tuesdays, which was sale day in the Camden district.

Sewing circles were ‘quasi-industrial production lines’ where Camden women implemented their domestics skills to aid the war at home. Camden women cut out, assembled, and sewed together hospital supplies, including flannel shirts, bed shirts, pyjamas, slippers, underpants, feather pillows, bed linen, handkerchiefs, and kit bags. The workshops were lent a number of sewing machines in both wars.

The sewing circles also coordinated knitting and spinning for bed socks, stump socks, mufflers, balaclava caps, mittens, cholera belts (body binders) and other items. The women also made ‘hussifs’ or sewing kits for the soldiers.  During the First World War, the sewing circles attracted between 80-100 women each week. The list of items was strikingly consistent for hospital supplies for both wars, with the only significant addition during the Second World War being the knitted pullovers and cardigans.

The production output of the Camden women was prodigious. Between 1914 and 1918, women from the Camden Red Cross sewing circle made over 20,300 articles tallied to over 40,000 volunteer hours.  Between 1940 and 1946, during World War Two, women made over 25,000 articles, totalling over 45,000 voluntary hours.

The operation of the sewing circles was fully funded through the fundraising of Camden Red Cross and community donations.  In 1917 alone, over 95% of branch fundraising was dedicated to these activities.

In World War One, other Red Cross sewing circles in the Camden district were located at The Oaks, Camden Park, Theresa Park, and Middle Burragorang. During World War Two, other centres across the local area included Bringelly-Rossmore, Menangle, Narellan, and The Oaks. Each group independently funded its activities.

These patriotic voluntary activities by Camden women were part of the war at home and have received little recognition at a local, state or national level. Wartime sewing and knitting have been kept in the shadows for too long. There needs to be a public acknowledgement of the patriotic effort of these women.

Where will the plaque be placed?

Camden School of Arts – later called the Camden Town Hall (1939-1945) and now the Camden Library.

Camden School of Arts PReeves c1800s (CIPP)

Camden Museum Library building in John Street Camden where the Blue Plaque will be located recognising the efforts of the Camden Red Cross sewing circles in both World War One and World War Two. (I Willis, 2008)

What will the plaque say?

Camden Red Cross patriotic wartime sewing circles – 1914-1918, and 1940-1946.

English Heritage and Blue Plaques in the United Kingdom

The English Heritage website states:

London’s blue plaques scheme, run by English Heritage, celebrates the links between notable figures of the past and the buildings in which they lived and worked. Founded in 1866, it has inspired many similar schemes in the UK and around the world.

Unveiling a Blue Plaque in the United Kingdom (English Heritage)

Reference for Camden Red Cross story

Ian Willis, Ministering Angels, The Camden District Red Cross 1914-1945. Camden Historical Society, Camden, 2014.