Ok, so I promised everybody the story of the one orange patch in my “Indiana puzzle” block. It’s a long one, so forgive me.

In the early 1800’s, the British were having a tough time dealing with overcrowding and an increase in crime. Too often, these crimes were just petty thievery, such as survival-line food theft. Government policy was to jail almost every convict, so the jails were full to the point that some prisoners were kept on disused ships moored at the mouth of the Thames. I’m sure you can imagine how horrible these places became.

After the British discovered Australia, their government decided that it would make a great place to send men and women convicts.

Over the years 1817-1843, Elizabeth Fry ran a scheme to supply each woman sent to Australia with “one Bible, two aprons, one small bag of tape, one ounce of pins, one hundred needles, nine balls of sewing cotton, twenty-four hanks of coloured thread, one small bodkin, one thimble, one pair of scissors and two pounds of patchwork pieces”. The idea was simple and in line with Quaker philosophy: the women would have something to occupy their minds and their hands on the long and terrible voyage, and then they would have something to sell or exchange when they arrived, so that they might not fall straight into destitution.

Most women sold their patchwork, of course, or used it until it was worn. I suspect that those who didn’t need to sell did so anyway in order to remove the terrible stigma of having been a convict. So we only have one left to us, and have no real idea what they tended to look like. We do have a record from a ship’s captain, who spoke warmly about the women’s solace in sewing.

This story has been in my mind since I started my sampler quilt. What does it mean to make a sampler quilt in Australia?

To me, it means having many ‘grandmothers’ to teach me differently, and through different channels (their quilts in museums, books, web pages, in person). Many grandmothers who have different ideas on what’s important or beautiful. Who use the art form for many different purposes – like wrapping gifts, showing respect to warriors, or just keeping their children warm. Or even showing off a little! Whilst American patchworkers have much to be proud of, indigenous patchwork and quilting traditions have evolved in Australia, India, Korea, Japan, and so many other places that the swapping of techniques is a web that unites us.

Some women chose patchwork, and others found unexpected solace in it during a journey over which their lives changed forever. Over difficult weeks, the women who came to Australia would watch the stars change into an alien landscape: heaven knows how they felt when they saw the colours of the land they would have to try and survive on. It would take many decades before Australian patchworkers would develop a palette and a style all their own.

This is the reason for the mariner’s compass I will make for the centre of my quilt. I intend to make it in the colours of the sun: deliberately, a little confusing (does it show the way, or is it a sun burst?). The sampler blocks will come from all over the world, and they’ll take on the colours of the sea and the sky. But they’ll reflect and refract the sunset/sunrise/compass in the middle. It will be a quilt about making networks – not least over the net – and about traveling through unknown seas. About learning and growing in the process itself. That’s what a sampler should be.

Colour-wise, it’s not so much a plan as an idea. I’m still not planning to map it out too much as I’d like to learn different methods before planning out blocks with them. But it satisfies me in some small way that while I sew, I can think about those who have stitched these blocks before me, pay tribute, and learn from them.

Update: oh, and some days, it’s just nice to sit in a comfy chair and sew something ;D

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