Tag Archives | #HistCraftivism

Act #14 of 48 Acts of Historical Craftivism, Alexis Casdagli’s F*ck Hitler Cross Stitch!

As life keeps conspiring to get in the way of 48 weeks of historical craftivism, this is now 48 acts. Still chuffed and determined to do this, though, so keep posted!

This week I’m talking about a piece of work that has made the rounds of various blogs, but I think is still important to include in this project, Alexis Casdagli’s F*ck Hitler cross stitch, which he made as a POW in WWII.




After six months held by the Nazis in a prisoner of war camp, Major Alexis Casdagli was handed a piece of canvas by a fellow inmate. Pinching red and blue thread from a disintegrating pullover belonging to an elderly Cretan general, Casdagli passed the long hours in captivity by painstakingly creating a sampler in cross-stitch. Around decorative swastikas and a banal inscription saying he completed his work in December 1941, the British officer stitched a border of irregular dots and dashes. Over the next four years his work was displayed at the four camps in Germany where he was imprisoned, and his Nazi captors never once deciphered the messages threaded in Morse code: “God Save the King” and “Fuck Hitler”.

This subversive needling of the Nazis was a form of defiance that Casdagli, who was not freed from prison until 1945, believed was the duty of every PoW. “It used to give him pleasure when the Germans were doing their rounds,” says his son, Tony, of his father’s rebellious stitching. It also stopped him going mad. “He would say after the war that the Red Cross saved his life but his embroidery saved his sanity,” says Tony. “If you sit down and stitch you can forget about other things, and it’s very calming…

Most of all, though, Casdagli recorded his anger and frustration in cross-stitch. He had picked up sewing skills from elderly relatives and, when Red Cross parcels began arriving (containing hairbrushes with secret compartments that concealed maps, which the prisoners annotated with intelligence and smuggled out), he acquired materials. He also borrowed more threads from his old Cretan general friend – this time from his pyjamas.”




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The amazing thing about Major Casdagli’s work is that it was displayed in four separate camps where he was imprisoned, but his captors never caught on to the secretly stitched messages. He also ran a needlework school for 40 officers inside the camp. His work illustrated his thoughts and feelings, and was undoubtedly a major source of strength in surviving his four years as a POW.




“Having run a textiles company before the war he knew a little about sewing, so when he was given a canvas by another prisoner he started stitching for something to do.”

Alexis was held along with a Greek general, from whose dress jacket Alexis pulled the threads he used to stitch the sampler.

“The Red Cross wouldn’t give care packages to captives until they had been held for over a year ,” said [his son,] grandfather-of-five Tony.

“So my father had to pick threads from items of clothing. Eventually he was able to ask for thread and canvas in his packages.

“He was so good at it the Germans had him giving classes to his fellow officers, but the Germans never worked out his code.”




The BBC did a wonderful interview with his son, Tony, which you can listen to here.






Also, the Washington City Paper was kind enough to do an interview with me the other week! Yay!

Week #13 of 48 Weeks of Historical Craftivism, Jim Simpson’s POW Rug!

So what has happened here the past few weeks?! The website was updated so that now I can run it off of WordPress instead of other means! Woohoo! Although I still can’t get the text to show it in blue, all the text below is from other sources and linked back to them.

Therefore, let’s continue where we were, shall we?

This week, I’m highlighting Jim Simpson’s knitted rug that he made in POW camp in WWII. Although I wrote about Jim in 2008, which you can see here, I wanted to include him in #HistCraftivism because what he made is an amazing testament to our will to create during times of distress.




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“I knitted a few pairs of socks for some who were eager to escape, but they all seemed to return rather crestfallen, but with socks intact.” J.O. Simpson, 1995.

James O. Simpson enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force in 1940, aged 26. On his first mission, his aircraft was shot down. Captured by the German Army, he was transported to a prisoner of war camp, where he spent the rest of World War II.

As a prisoner James knitted an extraordinary memorial to this time in Australia’s military history: a rug depicting a map of Australia and the Coat of Arms.





While a prisoner in Germany, Simpson knitted a rug featuring a map of Australia and the Australian Coat of Arms. He started making the rug after German soldiers told him they were going to take his jumper.

They wanted to send it to the Russian front, I said they can’t do that… so I went to the toilet and pulled it to bits, and if they wanted it they could put it together again.

Simpson completed the rug after using wool from a second jumper he brought for 40 cigarettes.


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Part of the full story that Jim tells about the rug over at: The Man From Snowy River Museum:
The rug itself was knitted in one piece, the Coat of Arms and all. The Crown Jewels were worked with a needle and coloured wool, five crowns for the Cross of St George for NSW’s, one crown for Victoria’s Southern Cross, and one crown in the centre of the Maltese cross for QLD.

The knitting time to make this rug was about six weeks. The winding of the wool, some well worn, some reasonable, to make it twelve ply, took many months to get a reasonable article to knit with. There were hundreds of small sections or worn wool joined together to be reasonably even. I had no trouble with the Germans in making this article, as a matter of fact they were rather astonished with the finished product.



Afraid that his new wool Naval pullover would be stolen by the prison-camp guards, Jim unraveled the sweater, rolled the white yarn into balls, and stored them away in Red Cross boxes. Everyone thought he was crazy, wondering “what the hell he had all that stuff for.

Jim was planning to knit a rug, an item that would keep him warm but be less tempting to thieves than a sweater. He needed more wool, so he went on a scavenger hunt in the camp. For $50 he bought another Naval pullover. He knit a new pair of white socks and traded them to a Canadian airman for his multicolored hockey socks. He traded cigarettes for other wool items that could be unraveled. And he used a few balls of sock yarn his mother had sent him.

Even with all of this, getting enough yarn for the rug was a challenge. The only sweaters Jim could get were either wearing out or full of lice. Parts of the sweaters had to be discarded because they were threadbare. Jim also had to boil the yarn to get rid of the lice.

Finding knitting needles was no easier. Jim had to make his own. He took the handles off of Italian Army “dixie cans” (cooking pots), straightened them out, and sharpened the tips to points by rubbing them on cement. Amazingly, he was allowed to keep these sharp objects.





They crafted knitting needles out of their dixie pan handles. They unravelled socks and had to boil the wool to get the lice off it and then spin it into 12 ply.

It’s a complete map of Australia with all the states marked, all the mountains and the rivers and lakes. He’s got a coat of arms for each of the states above the map.

The whole thing is a six-foot square rug. It’s in fantastic condition. It was used for a little while then rolled up and moth-balled so from a conservation point of view it’s been very well looked after.




Jim and rug




Earlier this year [2011] Jim Simpson’s bed caught fire.

For 60 years he’d kept a rug of national significance, depicting a map of Australia and the Coat of Arms he knitted while a prisoner of war, under that bed.

“It was rolled in his kit-bag and then in another kit-bag under his bed, so ideal conditions as far as keeping it away from temperature fluctuations and light,” Upper Murray Historical Society project officer Marita Albert said.

Which was all wonderful until his electric blanket caught fire.

“We’re very, very lucky that two weeks prior to the fire he had given it to us.”

Mr Simpson’s rug was officially unveiled as the centrepiece of an extension to the Man From Snowy River Museum at Corryong.

For years the Australian War Memorial had wanted to preserve the rug but Jim, 96, would not let them.

“I want it to be in Corryong in memory of my mother, who taught me to knit, and in memory of the boys in the camp,” Mr Simpson said.




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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 #10 of 48 Weeks of Historical Craftivism, Hannah Ryggen!

Hannah Ryggen is a Norwegian weaver who made amazing political tapestries. I had never heard of her until I started talking about craftivism to a museum curator in Oslo, who then introduced me to her work. That’s one of the things I love most about craft, there’s always something or someone new to discover, uncover, and learn about!




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Born in 1894 in Sweden, Hannah Ryggen moved to Ørland, Norway, in 1924 where she lived most of her life until her death in 1970. Originally trained as a painter, Ryggen adopted weaving and tapestry as a medium to reflect her social and political engagement. Among her most important exhibitions are a solo exhibition at Moderna Museet, Stockholm (1962), and participation within the Nordic Pavilion at the Biennale di Venezia (1964).




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The story of Hannah Ryggen is far from the classic tale of the contemporary artist born and trained in the big city, the fulcrum and hotbed of the edgiest scene. Instead, it is that of a leftist, pacifist woman, in love with nature, who lived on a farm far away from it all, on a Norwegian fjord, where she wove tapestries. These large works combine abstraction and figure, and not only address timely topics of the day—the invasion of Ethiopia by the Italians, for example—but also express dissent—regarding the execution of the communist Herrmann, or the war in Vietnam—or admiration for those who refuse to be swayed by questionable positions.




Ryggen’s political commitment is demonstrated in tapestries dedicated to the executed German communist dissident Liselotte Herrmann (Lise Lotte Hermann Halshuggen, 1938) and to the imprisoned left-wing humanist campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize-winner




“I am a painter, not a weaver; a painter whose tool is not the brush, but the loom.”




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A self-taught weaver, spinning and colouring her own yarn with plant-based dyes, Ryggen created works that came to be characterized as ‘Tendency Art’ – art with socio-political and critical contents. With the medium of weaving, she commented on Fascism and Nazism’s emergence in Europe in the inter-war years, and Norwegian politics in the post-war years.

Ryggen never drew preliminary designs before beginning to weave; she was experimental, but had a clear idea of how the end result should look. Most of her pictorial weavings are characterized by an explicit social and political protest that is executed in a daring, original and personal style.

No one followed directly in her footsteps, yet she is considered important, not least because she was the first Norwegian textile artist to be accepted as a bonafide pictorial artist. Her works, moreover, were purchased by Norway’s National Gallery and were, in 1964, the first textiles to be included in the Autumn Exhibition – a prestigious, juried event.




A story about one of Ryggen’s special forms of protest in her Norwegian homeland has been handed down. During the German occupation of the country—up to seven thousand German soldiers were stationed in Ørland during the Second World War—the artist hung her critical tapestries on a laundry line next to her house, where they were very visible. In 1924 Ryggen and her husband had moved to a small farmhouse in Ørland, “the adventure of our lives,” as the artist herself wrote. Prior to that, but after working as a teacher, she had received a thorough academic education in painting. Despite their remote location, she and her husband, the painter Hans Ryggen, attentively followed the developments of the European avant-garde. Furthermore, the artist—a pacifist and an avowed reader of political writings—was active in the Norwegian communist party in the 1930s and was an early advocate of feminist ideas.

Week #9 of 48 Weeks of Historical Craftivism, Louisa Pesel!

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First of all, you may be wondering, what is a woman riding a camel in the Khyber Pass doing on a post about craftivism? Well, it’s totally related once you realize that that woman on that camel is Louisa Pesel, who helped shell-shocked soldiers and passed out cross-stitch/embroidery kits (some resources say one, some the other) to POWs with the Red Cross.

I’ve searched high and low on the internet for more information than provided below, but it’s sparse. If anyone has any more information, I’d love to hear it! While this week’s entry may be a bit sparse, I hope it helps someone learn about the fabulous work on this amazing woman.




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Louisa Pesel is a special hero of mine. Many years ago I fell in love with her notebooks and her meticulously hand drawn charted designs of antique needlework. She was saying, ‘Just look at this, isn’t this design wonderful?’ Having travelled to many countries in the near East, she wanted all the world to see what she, by her good fortune, had seen. I think it is so important to keep alight the torch she lit. The more so, perhaps, since she was an old girl of my school in Bradford. How strange to think that the school founded in 1875 and something of a scandal since it proposed to teach girls mathematics and classics instead of the usual domestic arts, should have been, in its turn, slightly astonished to turn out a scholar with a passion for design and needlework.




Born in Bradford, Louisa Frances Pesel (1870-1947) was a teacher of embroidery. She studied design under the Arts & Crafts practitioner Lewis Foreman Day, who recommended her for the post of Designer at the Royal Hellenic School of Needlework and Laces in Athens, where she soon became its Director. After returning to England, Pesel worked with shell-shocked soldiers in Bradford, and was involved in establishing embroidery kits for POWs (Prisoners of War) during the Second World War.




More than 90 years ago, in the final year of the First World War, steam trains daily brought injured soldiers into Bradford for hospital treatment.

Among these hospitals was the 437-bed Abram Peel Hospital in Leeds Road, a military establishment for neurological disorders, staffed by the Royal Army Medical Corps, Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service and volunteers.

A club was formed to help them, the Bradford Khaki Club, based in Forster Square.

Khaki Club members were also taught embroidery by Louisa Pesel, the Bradford-born daughter of a German merchant. She was in her 40s, a noted scholar and embroidery expert who had been director of the Royal Helenic School of Needlework and Laces in Athens.

She helped some of them to embroider what is known as the Khaki Cloth, a cross-stitch frontlet made at the club in the autumn of 1918 for use at services in the Abram Peel Hospital.




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The Bradford Khaki Club was formed in the First World War to help the many shell shocked and injured soldiers brought home for hospital treatment. It had a restaurant, games room, library and held concert parties, members were also taught to embroider by Louisa Pesel (first President of the “Embroiderers Guild of Needlework”), some of whom helped embroider what is known as the “Khaki Cloth”, a cross-stitch frontlet made in 1918 and used at services in the “Abram Peel Hospital” in Leeds Road a Military establishment staffed by the Royal Army Medical Corps and the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service.




From 1941 to 1947: Pesel was involved in sending craft kits out to POWS in Red Cross parcels. She also taught sewing to evacuated school girls in Winchester.




Along with all of this amazing work, she was also world traveled and master embroiderer.

The Pesel Collection of Collected and Created works, bequeathed to the University of Leeds in 1947, consists of a total of over 400 embroidered items, ranging in size, stitching and provenance. The majority are of Turkish and Greek island origin, others emanate from Morocco, Algeria, Turkestan, India, Pakistan, Persia, Syria, China, and Western Europe. The collection also includes Louisa Pesel’s own pieces and samples, including her ‘models’ for Winchester Cathedral, and also an archival collection of her notebooks, photographs, articles and drawings*. Many of her publications are available to view in Leeds University Library.




One of the founders of the Khaki Club was Louisa Pesel, a relatively well to do 46 year old woman, whose war efforts also included assisting Belgian refugees and raising money to provide ambulances for use at the Front. She was also an expert embroiderer, and used this as therapy for the soldiers.

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