Archive | #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.”


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.

Culture Victoria

“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.


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.

rug plaque

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!


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:


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.




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 #11 of 48 Weeks of Historical Craftivism, the Changi Girl Guides Quilt!

During WWII, hundreds of prisoners of war were interned in Changi Prison, civilians who were in Singapore when it fell to the Japanese in February 1942. During their imprisonment, quilts were literally scrapped together at the camp. Several quilts were made by adult women who wanted to show their husbands that they were still alive; that’s the topic for next week. However, I wanted to start with the Changi quilt done by a Girls Guide group that formed within the prison, which is the topic of this week, as the web seems to have less information on this quilt than on the others. While some of the resources are the same, I’ve extracted text specific to each group, as these quilts are so important I think that they deserve separate posts.

Also interned in Singapore were civilians (non-Malays/Chinese) who had not been able to obtain shipping berths in time to escape, or who, in some instances, had made a decision not to leave. The majority were associated with the British colonial administration of Malaya and Singapore or with the colonial (white) administration of plantations and tin mines. Many of them had wives and children, and although most of these had been evacuated by the time Singapore fell, a group of about 400 women and children remained at the time of the surrender.

Together with the civilian men, the women and children were crowded into Changi Prison, a building designed to hold about 600 inmates and now accommodating about 2,400. The women and children occupied one wing of the building until 1944 when they were moved to another Singapore camp at Syme Road. For the purposes of the Japanese administration, children were deemed to be all female children of whatever age and male children up to the age of twelve. Twelve-year-old boys were automatically transferred to the male section of the prison whether or not they had relatives there. Internees were permitted to run schools for the children during the first few years of captivity although the subjects were limited. The teaching of history and geography was not allowed.

Quilt made by Girl Guides who were interned in Changi. 20 girls aged 8-16 years made the quilt as a surprise birthday present for their Guide leader, Elizabeth Ennis. They collected scraps of material and met in secret to sew them together. Each girl embroidered her name on the quilt. The Changi Girl Guide quilt provided inspiration for Ethel Mulvaney, a Canadian Red Cross representative, to come up with the idea of creating quilts for their loved ones interred in other sections of the camp and the three Red Cross Changi quilts were made, which the Japanese allowed to be sent to the military hospital at Changi barracks.

The girls were hungry, threadbare and living in appalling conditions. They had to scavenge for every scrap of material.”

girl guides changi

20 girls aged 8-16 years made the quilt as a surprise birthday present for their Guide leader, Elizabeth Ennis. They collected scraps of material and met in secret to sew them together. Each girl embroidered her name on the quilt. The Changi Girl Guide quilt provided inspiration for Ethel Mulvaney, a Canadian Red Cross representative, to come up with the idea of creating quilts for their loved ones interred in other sections of the camp and the three Red Cross Changi quilts were made, which the Japanese allowed to be sent to the military hospital at Changi barracks.

“When we were first in Changi,” Olga recalls, “it was very boring so Mrs Ennis decided to start a Girl Guides group. We met once a week in a corner of the exercise yard. It became a sort of family. I remember saying our Promise, singing and lying down at night while Mrs Ennis taught us the constellations. We didn’t know which year she was going to get the quilt but we started it anyway. It gave our lives a sort of permanence.”

She describes how they worked in the baking fields, growing crops they harvested but were never allowed to eat. When their dresses rotted in the sun, they would unpick the seams and reuse the thread for the quilt. Under Mrs Ennis’s instruction, they learned patchwork but also sewed their Guide badges and emblems. “Needles and thread were worth more than gold,” says Olga. “Whenever we left our cell, we had to post someone on duty so we weren’t robbed.” As they sewed, they were on constant alert for the sound of approaching Japanese guards. At the clatter of boots, they stuffed the patchwork into their knickers. ….

“The idea of children being interned is a powerful one,” says Pritchard, who spent six years on the exhibition. “What is seditious in sewing? They were trying to normalise their lives.” To Olga, each hexagon is a coin in her memory bank.

The newly-married Mrs Ennis, who inspired the quilt, had been a nurse with the Indian Army when she and her British husband, Capt Jack Ennis, were imprisoned. She was proud that, as she put it: “Out of the grimness and misery of internment something so beautiful could be made by the Guides who had lost all their possessions – but still had courage.” After her death three years ago, the quilt was presented to the Imperial War Museum. “Mum was always a keen Guide”, says her daughter, Jackie Sutherland. “She gave the girls a focus. The quilt became part of our family lore. To see how much stock others put in it is very emotional.”

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