Tag Archives | embroidery

Charlotte Ambach’s secret embroidering in Waldheim Prison

Today’s post is another by Amber Wingfield, as she posted some wonderful craftivism photos from the Mighty 8th Museum in Pooler, Georgia on Twitter recently and I asked to share what she had learned! Photos by Amber and her husband Isaac.

She wrote about the WWII POW embroidery of Thomas J. McGory the other week!

Thanks, Amber!

 

These shoes, no bigger than 2 inches or so, use the colors of Belgium—red, black, and gold—as symbols of defiance.

In 1936, Charlotte Ambach was a 14-year-old German citizen living and going to school in Brussels. One of her school assignments was to write a paper about her beliefs and values. Though she had voluntarily joined the Bund Deutscher Mädel, or League of German Girls—part of the Hitler Youth organization—she had been unable to reconcile what she was being taught with what she believed, so her paper included her refusal to be a Volksgenossin, or Volk comrade. She would instead be “a human being,” she wrote.

Soon Ambach became involved in formal resistance activities. These activities included supplying the resistance with sensitive infrastructure information, which she had access to thanks to her position as a stenographer for a civil and military engineering organization. Then she started helping smuggle out Dutch evacuees who had been members of the resistance but whose identities had been discovered, putting them in danger of capture or death. She also helped evacuate Allied airmen who had survived their planes crashing during reconnaissance missions or battles and who had managed to evade initial capture by the Nazis.

Eventually, in early 1944, Ambach was arrested, along with her mother, Elise, and the two were sentenced to death for their actions. After a short stay at the St. Gilles prison in Brussels, they were sent to Waldheim prison in the eastern part of Germany. There she and her mother were confined to their cell almost constantly, save for a few excursions to other areas in the prison. They, along with their other cellmates, were given work tasks to fill their days: processing corn husks, feathers, and twine.

When they had free time, though, they spent it making contraband creations like small dolls, embroidery, and even rosaries. They had to source all of their supplies on the sly. “Everything had to be acquired by devious means,” Ambach later recalled. They snuck some of the twine they’d processed and used it to make their own shoes to replace their prison-issued footwear that caused perpetual sores. They kept some of the corn husks they’d pulled from the cobs they’d processed and turned them into long, thin braids for making mats. Another prisoner turned her stolen cobs and husks into dolls that wore “clothes” from different historical eras.

Because the women were responsible for repairing their own uniforms, they were occasionally given needles and thread for this task. When the guards returned to pick up the remaining supplies, the prisoners would pretend that they had used more yarn and thread than they’d actually needed—the excess had been hidden away for use later. On the rare occasions that they left their cells, they’d scan the floors and grounds for broken needles and bits of fabric or thread. “The pieces of thread we found were sometimes barely an inch long,” Ambach told the Mighty 8th Air Force Museum in Pooler, Georgia. Then, when they were allowed to repair their uniforms, they’d keep the good needles and turn in the broken ones as if they’d broken while being used.

“A valuable source of thread was the pretty little navy blue scarfs [sic] that were issued with our grotesquely hideous uniforms,” Ambach told the museum. “The synthetic material felt silky, and pulling threads from it, some quite long (almost like threads from a spool), became a favourite pastime that provided a very special material for our creations.”

However, the guards at Waldheim would search the cells randomly, and when they’d find the women’s handiwork, they’d confiscate the items. Still, the women kept crafting, and when the prison was liberated by the Allies on May 6, 1945, Ambach and her mother had a small collection of crafts that had not yet been taken by the guards. They are now on display at the Mighty 8th Air Force Museum.

 

Ambach’s mother used this pouch to hold a tiny amount of soap powder on the rare occasions they were allowed to shower. The M stands for Muschka, which was her mother’s nickname. The pouch was made by prisoners in a cell who had been taught embroidery by one of their cellmates, a Belgian woman who had owned and operated a dress shop in Brussels.

 

This piece was embroidered by one of Ambach’s cellmates. The words are lyrics to two French songs the women sang to keep their spirits up. Note the French and Belgian flags at the bottom of the fabric: These national symbols were forbidden by the Nazis.

 

Ambach embroidered this piece for her mother’s birthday, which was May 3. The prison was liberated on May 6.

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POW Embroidery: Thomas J. McGory

Today’s post is by Amber Wingfield, as she posted some wonderful craftivism photos from the Mighty 8th Museum in Pooler, Georgia on Twitter and I asked her to share some of what she learned on her trip! Thanks, Amber!

Before World War II, Thomas J. McGory was Chief of the Dryden, New York fire department.

After the war, he was an athletic trainer and baseball coach at Cornell University.

And during the war, he was a top turret gunner and flight engineer for B-24s, stationed in England—until his plane was shot down in Germany and he was captured by the Nazis.

Then Thomas J. McGory was a prisoner of war at Stalag Luft IV in modern-day Poland.

For nine months, he and around 8,000 other men struggled to survive the harsh weather, meager food, and poor sanitation. This alone might have been enough to occupy his time, but McGory was concerned about his mental health as well.

“I really needed a project to keep me from going stir crazy,” he said in an interview with the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum in Pooler, Georgia.

So he turned to embroidery.

A handkerchief and a needle in a package he received from the International Red Cross were good starting materials, but he needed thread and a subject to embroider. B-17s and B-24s were natural choices for the handkerchief’s corners, so he sacrificed some black thread from his shoelaces for them. In the handkerchief’s center, he decided to recreate his Eighth Air Force patch, so he needed blue thread. Those strands came from the tail of his shirt. Still, his piece needed something else.

It needed a flag. An American flag.

McGory used cigarettes (a common prisoner currency) to “buy” red and blue threads from other prisoners, who sourced the threads from their own clothing and towels given to them by the Red Cross.

The decision to embroider his country’s flag was not a flippant one. “I knew creating that kind of U.S. symbol was an offense that they could shoot me for on the spot,” McGory said. But he embroidered it anyway.

On February 6, 1945, the Germans forced the Stalag Luft IV prisoners to begin a march of 600 miles to another prison in Germany. The march, which the prisoners called the Shoe Leather Express, lasted 86 days. McGory’s handkerchief was with him every step of the way: He’d tied it around his waist before leaving the prison.

Today, McGory’s handkerchief is on display at the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum. It’s a remarkable example of craftivism among the museum’s exhibits of war memorabilia. Because we craftivists focus so much on the intended effects of our work on other people, we might forget to evaluate the impact our pieces have on us, their creators. McGory’s embroidered handkerchief served as a silent protest against his captors, but it also served as a rallying point for his patriotism, his identity, and his sanity.

 

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For more POW embroidery, check out the story of Jim Simpson!

More info on Louisa Pesel!

One of the great things about having a blog or website is that you never know who will find you or be reading… and just this on its own an be so exciting! Well, after my post about Louisa Pesel the other day and noting that there wasn’t much information about her online, I got an email from one of the women who organized the Ecclesiastical Embroidery exhibition in Bradford Cathedral in 2010, who kindly provided me with more information! Yeah!

Here is her email:

Dear Betsy, I came across your Craftivism blog posting of 13th April, regarding Louisa Pesel, and you say you’d like to hear more about her.

I was one of a small team who organised an Ecclesiastical Embroidery exhibition at Bradford Cathedral in 2010, which is where the “Khaki Frontal” was displayed. The photograph that you have posted of it (in the Cathedral) would have been taken at this exhibition.

This Khaki Frontal is composed of the Super Frontal (the top piece), which was made by the shell-shocked soldiers in 1918, and the Frontal (the larger piece), made by their teachers in 1919. It was made for the Abram Peel War Hospital, as you say, and it was given to Bradford Cathedral for use in the Bolling Chapel, in memory of them after the War. The Bolling Chapel was reordered as part of the extension of the Cathedral in the late 1950’s.

We are currently hoping to raise money to have the Khaki Frontal on permanent display in the Cathedral, as it is such a unique and interesting piece.

The extract below is from the Exhibition Handbook, and includes a little more information about Louisa Pesel than you have in your blog:

On the back of the super frontal are the words:-

This frontlet was worked by shell-shocked soldiers, in the autumn of 1918, at the Bradford Khaki Handicrafts Club, for use at their services at the Abram Peel Hospital. It was lengthened and the frontal added by their teachers in 1919 and was accepted, in memory of them, for the Bolling Chapel in 1920.

The Bradford Khaki Handicrafts Club was established to provide occupational therapy and employment for men returning from the First World War, using embroidery. The Abram Peel Hospital was opened in 1915 as a specialist neurological hospital, and by 1919 had 437 beds. It was sited at Leeds Road.

Louisa Pesel was instrumental in getting the Khaki Club established; she was born in 1870, the eldest daughter of the Bradford cloth merchant Frederick Pesel, and his wife Isabella. She studied drawing and design under Lewis Foreman Day, a contemporary and close acquaintance of William Morris. She was appointed in 1903 as designer to the Royal Hellenic School of Needlework and Laces in Athens, and she acted as director of the school until 1907. On her return to England she became an inspector of art and needlework, and well known lecturer.

In 1920 she was elected as the first president of the Embroiderer’s Guild of England. In 1932 she founded the Winchester Cathedral Broderers with the object of providing the stalls and seats with cushions and kneelers, and she became Mistress of Broderers there in 1938.

The embroidered motifs in the design of the super-frontal and frontal here are similar to motifs from Greek island embroideries, which were one of Louisa’s favourite areas of research. Those on the frontal are similar to motifs from the island of Rhodes. They are worked in cross stitch, which was used in the majority of Louisa’s own projects.

Louisa Pesel died in 1947, and her collection of notebooks, photographs, drawings, and embroidery samples were left to the University of Leeds, and are now held in the University of Leeds International Textile Archive.

Week #12 of 48 Weeks of Historical Craftivism, the Changi Quilts!

Last week, we talked about the Changi Girl Guides quilt, so, as promised, here’s the info about what the women made. It was a bit difficult to figure out who made what quilt, as one is held at the British Red Cross Museum in London and another two are held at the Australian War Memorial Museum in Canberra. Therefore, please make sure to follow each link below to learn more about them!




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When Singapore surrendered to the invading Japanese army early in 1942, many British service personnel and civilians – including women and children – were sent to an internment camp at Changi Prison.

Men were separated from the women and children, and there was little contact between them so families didn’t know if their loved ones had survived.

In the first six months of internment, women embroidered their names and an image that meant something to them on squares of fabric. The squares were sewn together to form quilts, which were given to the military hospital at Changi barracks. For many of the men, it was the first sign they had that their wives and daughters were alive.




The making of the quilts was designed to alleviate boredom, to boost morale and to pass information to men in other camps that the women and children were alive. Mrs Mulvany’s initial idea was that only the wives of soldiers should contribute squares because their husbands were not interned in Changi Prison with the civilian men and could not know the fate of their families. She was herself the wife of a British soldier. However, there proved to be too few military wives in the prison to make up enough squares for even one quilt and so it seems that all the women were given the opportunity to contribute a square, some contributing more than one.

In a shrewd political move, Mrs Mulvany secured the permission of the Japanese commandant to pass the quilts – ostensibly made for the “wounded” as stated on the back of each quilt – to Changi hospitals, by making a quilt for the wounded Japanese. In the event, the Japanese quilt, also containing the signatures of the women who had made it, was passed with the other two to the hospitals and eventually given to an Australian medical officer.

Each woman who wanted to make a square was given a piece of plain white cotton (provided from various sources including flour bags and bed sheets) and was asked to put “something of herself” into the square, together with her signature. From the evidence of Sheila Allen, who made the map of Australia square on the Australian quilt, it seems that it was possible to nominate the quilt on which the square was to be placed. This may explain why there are no Australian names on the British quilt, for instance, and why some of the names on the Japanese quilt are duplicates of those on the other two quilts (not enough women may have volunteered to contribute squares for the Japanese quilt).

While the Japanese tolerated the word “gaol” (the commandant may not have been familiar with the word), the “V” for victory, and the “thumbs up” sign on the squares, the word “prison” was not acceptable, so that when Mrs Mulvany and a Dutch internee came to assemble the squares they had to unpick this word. This can be seen clearly on two of the squares on the Australian quilt. The squares were machine-stitched together and the edges then over-embroidered in red. Very few of the contributors saw the completed quilts.




Each woman was asked to put “something of herself” into the square, together with her signature. The meanings of many of the personal messages on the quilts are now lost.




As very little contact was allowed between the men’s and women’s sections of the camp, many of the men had no idea whether their wives and children had survived. Each contributor was therefore asked to ‘put something of themselves’ into their square in addition to embroidering her name. When, with the permission of the Japanese Commandant, the quilts were given to the Military Hospital at Changi Barracks they provided lists of names of women who were at least alive. This news spread through the hospital and beyond.

The quilts were all made during the first six months of internment and fulfilled a dual purpose during this very difficult period. A small embroidered message was attached to the rear of each quilt stating that it was to be passed to a Red Cross Society at the cessation of hostilities. On a practical note the messages contained the instructions “It is advisable to dry clean this quilt”.

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.




There is also an embroidered tablecloth with 126 names:


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Embroidered signatures are of internees in Changi prison and staff at Miyako Hospital, 1942-43. The item belonged to Mary Thomas (b. 1906) who was interned in Changi and also spent time in the Miyako Hospital suffering from dysentery. Many of the names can also be found on the three Changi quilts made by the women during their first year of internment for the men imprisoned nearby. Some of the names can also be found replicated on EPH 4566, which is an embroidered bed sheet with signatures made by the women at Sime Road Camp, where the Changi prisoners were moved in May 1944 and on EPH 6519, a small tablecloth embroidered at Changi.




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While the Japanese tolerated the word ‘gaol’ on the quilts [they may not have been familiar with the word], the word ‘prison’ was not acceptable so when Mrs Mulvany came to assemble the quilt she had to unpick the word when it occurred. The work of nine Australian women is represented on this quilt: Dr Margaret Smallwood, Sheila Allen, Judy Good, Helen Latta, Vera McIntyre, Betsey Millard, Nea Barnes, May Watson and Eunice Austin-Hofer. It is likely that a quilt was made for the Australian Red Cross not because there were many Australian internees, but because it was assumed that the Australian Red Cross would play a major part in supplying aid to Singapore and POWs in Asia.

The quilt is made up of 66 embroidered squares, each signed in embroidery with the maker(s) name. All the squares are edged with turkey red chain-stitch. The squares are bounded by a broad white cotton border, and the same material has been used as a backing.

Week #2 of 48 Weeks of Historical Craftivism: Madres de La Plaza de Mayo!

So last week, we started our journey of 48 Weeks of Historical Craftivism! You can read all about it (and Gandhi spinning khadi!) here and over at #HistCraftivism.

The goal here is for me to share with you what I learned in two hours of research. I’ve decided to mainly go with words and photos that are linked to original sources, so you can either choose to read a little or a lot.

Hope you enjoy!


During the late 70s and early 80s in Argentina, there was what was known as the “Dirty War.” In short, the government didn’t like anyone who they possibly saw as a threat… and often killed anyone who fit in this category. A popular method of doing so included throwing them out of airplanes. That were in the air. Many of the individuals that were disappearing were quite young, those that were pregnant had their babies taken from them at birth and they were given to members of the regime.

Not getting any answers from the government as to where their children had gone, the mothers of the disappeared “Los Desaparecidos” in Buenos Aires met at a large public square, Plaza de Mayo, wearing handkerchiefs embroidered with the name of their disappeared loved one in blue every Thursday. They were the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. Grandmothers met and came out as well in embroidered handkerchiefs, Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo.

There is a lot to read about them, so if you’re interested, jump off into one of these amazing articles and papers linked below. The photographs are links to articles as well.



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Within a terrorist state, those who spoke out put their own lives in danger. Yet, in the face of the disappearance of their children, in 1977 a group of mothers began to meet each Thursday in the large Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, the site of Argentina’s government. There they walked in non-violent demonstrations. As they walked they chanted: “We want our children; we want them to tell us where they are.” The madres said, “No matter what our children think they should not be tortured. They should have charges brought before them. We should be able to see them, visit them.”



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The “Dirty War,” as it came to be called, arose out of a century and, to some extent, a tradition of political instability. According to Anne J. Barry, “The political heritage of Argentina has always been mixed and somewhat unstable.” March 2



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In their grief the Mothers found each other – women who shared the same pain and anguish. At first they came together for mutual support, and then they demanded to be heard. It began with a silent vigil in the Plaza de Mayo, a public square in Buenos Aires that faces the Ministry of the Interior. The vigil became a weekly event. Each Thursday, scores of these middle-aged women, the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, stood silently, identified only by their white kerchiefs, and sometimes by the pictures they held of their missing children.

It was illegal to hold any public protest during the state of siege. But the generals did not know how to respond to this mute outcry. They resorted to ridicule; they called them the “crazy women,” las locas de Plaza de Mayo. Then they resorted to bullying and terror. The Mothers began to receive threatening phone calls and letters. Several times the whole group of them was arrested, loaded onto buses, and detained overnight. Some of the Mothers were physically attacked by government thugs. Several of them were kidnapped and disappeared. But the threats only strengthened their resolve.




In 1986, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo split in two.

One group, led by Hebe de Bonafini, became known as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo Association. The second, became known as Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo Founding Line.

The main differences were ideological. Ms de Bonafini’s group was against receiving state compensation of $275,000 for each disappeared child.

“You cannot put a price on life. Also, to accept this compensation you have to sign a death certificate saying when your child died. I cannot sign this as it is the people who took them who know, not me,” she says.

They also reject the forensic work to identify the remains. They want efforts concentrated on bringing those who committed the crimes to justice.

But Ms Almeida does not agree. “I respect Ms de Bonafini’s opinion, but I need closure. I would like to touch Alejandro’s bones before I die.”





Want to learn even more? Check out:
*Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo: First Responders of Human Rights
*The Encyclopedia of Peace’s entry of Madres de la Plaza de Mayo
*Building Bridges of Memory: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the Cultural Politics of Maternal Memories
*Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo: Group Development from Single-Issue Protest Movement to Permanent Political Organization
*Or go crazy over on Google search!

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