Last week we unveiled a new large-scale embroidered work by Melbourne textile artist Melinda Piesse at the museum. Known as the Batavia tapestry (2017), it illustrates the tragic story of the wreck of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) flagship Batavia in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Western Australia, on 4 June 1629 and the sorry fate of the ship’s company.
Where else can you see a President’s signature (Abraham Lincoln), a Queen’s signature (Victoria R), rare books and etchings, and a seventy-year-old gardenia in one place – but in the USA Gallery of the museum!
These are just a few of the objects from the multi-million dollar collection of paintings, models and artefacts we’ve compiled from the museum’s American collection to represent more than 200 years of the close maritime connection between the seafaring nations of the USA and Australia.
Over the past few weeks I have been working my way through a wonderful collection of textiles, handcrafts, photographs and family heirlooms donated by Anu Mihkelson, who as a toddler migrated from Sweden to Australia with her Estonian parents Oskar and Magda in 1948.
The Mihkelson collection is one of the museum’s richest collections relating to Australia’s post-World War II immigration history. Some of the material will go on display later this year in our Passengers Gallery but in the meantime I thought I would show you a few pieces from the collection that combine two of my favourite things – history and knitting!
Anu’s mother Magda Mihkelson was an accomplished knitter who used her needlework skills to help contribute to the family income. She knitted traditional Estonian Haapsalu lace scarves and intricately-patterned cardigans to order, both while part of the vibrant Estonian refugee community in Sweden in the 1940s, and later amongst the rural migrant cane-cutting and mining hubs of northern Queensland, where Oskar Mihkelson worked.
Magda was such a prolific knitter that she even knitted up all her leftover wool as the family travelled by train from Sweden to Genoa, Italy, to board the Lloyd Triestino liner Toscana for the six-week voyage to Australia.
Anu has written a poem about her mother’s knitting that speaks volumes about women’s work, war and displacement, the industriousness of migrants, and the adaptation of European cultural traditions to the Australian context. She has kindly allowed me to reproduce the poem here and I hope you enjoy it.
She knitted when the house was asleep
Occasionally at the child in the cot she would peep
Peace around her to concentrate
With each item a little more money to make.
Jacquard, chevron, cable,
Samples set out on the table
Haapsalu scarves to slip through a wedding ring
Others to wear by those who sing
At an Estonian Song Festival.
Colourful gloves, bonnets, socks,
Patterns counted off graph-paper blocks,
Traditional snowflakes respecting the trust
Of Estonia left behind, in war’s dust.
In Sweden she did this in earnest
For she was a refugee
And her work was done for a fee.
In Estonia it was a woman’s art
To knit, crochet and dress smart
But then in 1944 with her life she fled
Knitting needles now clicked the feelings not said.
The nickel plated needles are worn
Paper ends to hold the stitches, now torn;
Small double-pointed needles
For socks and mittens and cable sweaters.
Crochet hooks in different sizes –
Later the handkerchiefs won prizes.
All the pieces tell a story
Of migration, and someone else’s war glory
My pink jacket and blue skirt with straps
Other cultures fused
The Christening shawl not used
Since I grew and needed a skirt.
All packed in a trunk
I close the lid,
On all she did.
Life was not to be a failure –
Off again, this time to Australia.
At Tully and Mission Beach
For her family safety was within reach
Swim trunks of merino
White angora bolero
Jacket with cherry bunches
Many hours she hunches
The pattern was wrong
It took so long
The client’s payment seemed a song.
Then off to Mount Isa we went
There eight years were spent.
Days were hot and dry
Still, there was wool –
And the winter nights were cool
She knitted, ready for a southern clime,
Sydney … it was time.
You can read more about the Mihkelson family’s incredible journey from Estonia to Australia via Sweden in Anu’s books Three Suitcases and a Three-Year-Old (Kangaroo Press 1999) and The View from Here (self-published 2011).
Curator, Post-Federation Immigration