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.

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

  1. Rebecca May 6, 2014 at 8:41 pm #

    These kinds of artefacts are so moving because they seem to remain so present. Perhaps because they are entirely ordinary and human in the midst of deprivation and suffering. Amazing stuff Betsy.

    • Betsy May 8, 2014 at 8:24 am #

      Thanks, Rebecca! I’ve been so moved myself from looking up these items, projects, and people! And I think you’re bang on about the “ordinariness” of them, and how that adds so much to the story as a whole and allows us to truly connect.

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