Magda and Anu Mihkelson wearing knitted hats in Sweden, 1948. ANMM Collection Reproduced courtesy Anu Mihkelson
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.
Oskar, Anu and Magda Mihkelson in Sweden, 1948. Magda wears a knitted angora bolero. ANMM Collection Reproduced courtesy Anu Mihkelson
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.
Magda knitting beside Anu on Toscana en route to Australia, 1948. ANMM Collection Reproduced courtesy Anu Mihkelson
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.
Haapsalu scarf knitted in lily of the valley lace pattern. ANMM Collection Gift from Anu Mihkelson
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.
Anu’s colourful knitted hat. ANMM Collection Gift from Anu Mihkelson
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.
Anu’s pink knitted jacket. ANMM Collection Gift from Anu Mihkelson
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.
Anu’s blue knitted skirt with straps. ANMM Collection Gift from Anu Mihkelson
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.
Magda’s knitted jacket with cherry bunches. ANMM Collection Gift from Anu Mihkelson
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.
Anu sewing and Magda knitting in Mount Isa, 1957-58. ANMM Collection Reproduced courtesy Anu Mihkelson
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