Quilts often reflect the life and times of the women who have made them. The older quilts that have survived the ravages of time can often talk to us about their makers as well as the social and economic conditions of the period.

From 1788 to 1853, more than 25,000 women were transported from Britain to Australia for crimes that required pity more than punishment. The majority were illiterate and were destined for a life of oppression and degradation unless they could offer a useful skill.

In 1816 Elizabeth Fry founded The British Ladies Society for the Reformation of Female Prisoners. Elizabeth and her helpers taught these women simple skills that would help them regain some dignity and purpose when they arrived in the new penal colony. Perhaps the most useful of these was needlecraft.

This special memorial bonnet was made on
this 1882 sewing machine
Photo courtesy of Peter Dean

As they boarded their ship, each female prisoner was given a bag containing tape, pins, 100 needles, four balls of white sewing cotton thread, a ball each of black, red and blue thread, black wool, 24 hanks of coloured thread, a thimble, scissors and two pounds (weight) of patchwork pieces. It was a long and difficult journey in a confined space but this gift helped to pass the time as the women practised their needle skills.

The sailing ship Rajah set sail from Woolwich, England on 5 April 1841, bound for Tasmania with 180 female prisoners on board. During the 105-day voyage the women practised their patchwork, appliqué and embroidery skills to create a quilt top (coverlet) that measured 3.25 x 3.37 meters (11 x 12 feet).

The coverlet was made as a gift for Elizabeth Fry and the ladies of her committee but little is know of its whereabouts after its return to England. Somehow the piece has survived for more than 150 years and is now in the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra

The quilt has a central panel of birds and flowers worked with broderie perse, (appliquéd chintz), to give the appearance of Persian embroidery. This panel is surrounded by a series of borders, some are pieced with squares and tiny half square triangles whist others appliquéd with flowers and flowers shapes. There must have been many women working on the quilt to stitch all 2815 pieces by hand in a little more than 100 days. Some were highly skilled whilst others must have found the work challenging judging from the bloodstains still on the quilt.
Who were these forgotten women who made this quilt and all the others who helped shape a nation?

Christina Henri of Tasmania aims to create a lasting memorial to these convict women. She is asking people to make a convict bonnet as a reminder of the contribution that these women made to society. 25,266 bonnets, one for each convict woman, will be displayed on the site of the old female factory at Battery Point in Hobart, Tasmania when Christina has collected all of the bonnets.

All the details, including the pattern, can be found on her website, please visit Christina Henri for more information.