Lace and the displaced

Handmade silk bobbin lace handkerchief with ‘RK’ monogram for Otto Strauss’ mother, Roesle Kahn, early 1900s. ANMM Collection 00046629.

This handmade silk handkerchief with bobbin lace was made in the early 1900s and brought to Australia in 1938-39 by the Strauss family, Jewish migrants fleeing Nazi Germany. The centre features a circle of silk fabric with the embroidered initials ‘RK’ for Roesle Kahn, mother of Otto Strauss. ANMM Collection 00046629.

The 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht

Today marks 80 years since Kristallnacht (‘Crystal Night’), the night when the Nazis targeted, arrested and murdered Jews across Germany and parts of Austria and Czechoslovakia. This coordinated attack on 9–10 November 1938, also referred to as the ‘Night of Broken Glass,’ takes its name from the shattered glass that filled the streets after thousands of Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues were vandalised or destroyed.

More than 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and deported to concentration camps in Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen. Kristallnacht represented a turning point in the Nazi persecution of Jews and led to a marked increase in Jewish emigration from Germany.

At the museum, we hold a delicate collection of laces and textiles that provides the only tangible link to the experiences of German Jewish immigrants Otto Strauss and Ilse Strauss (née Gimnicher). After Kristallnacht, Otto’s older brother Franz was arrested and sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp, while Ilse’s father and uncle were thrown into prison on trumped-up charges. Tragically, most of Ilse’s family would perish in the Holocaust. Their collection evokes the fragile traces of displaced lives.

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Make your own narwhal softie

finished narwhal softie

I am grey and mottled and a little bit mysterious. I have the largest canines of any animal. Vikings used to trade my big tooth for gold. My tusk was also mistaken for the horn of the mythical unicorn and believed to have magical healing properties. I live in the arctic.  I am actually a medium sized whale.

I am…the narwhal.

For this month’s craft spot inspired by our new temporary exhibition- Amazing Whales, we couldn’t resist the adorable, fascinating and wackiest of all the whale species– the narwhal as the subject for our huggable, loveable, bedazzled and up-cycled fabric softie.

materials needed


  • Sharp scissors
  • Upholstery thread in grey/black/white
  • Large darning needle
  • A few dressmakers pins
  • Some grey/white/black sequins, beads or buttons
  • Pillow stuffing/ polyfill
  • Unwanted socks/ t-shirt or tights in grey tones
  • Extra felt or iron-on interfacing for lining your softie panels
  • Small scraps of white, blue, black felt or fabric for the eyes
  • Small scrap of white felt for the tusk
  • Print outs of our narwhal softie pattern  ( A3 version or page 1 A4 and page 2 A4)

Continue reading

Craft like a Viking! How to make a felted longship rug

Raiders, traders and crafty-art-makers, this month our craft spot is inspired by the exhibition Vikings- Beyond the legend. Get ready for some sudsy, sloppy, slimy fun as we give a nod to Viking age textiles with this whimsical wet-felted rug!

Felt-like material has been found in Viking age archaeological sites and was likely worn by the people we now know as the Vikings. Wet felting is fantastically messy but a really fun craft activity for with children. Best of all you can customise your felt rug with fabric scraps, cut-outs, threads or ribbon trapped between the layers to make a unique artwork or a themed play mat. Have a play and don’t be afraid to experiment with different colours and textures in your felt.

felted rug

A Viking longship felted rug in the making- learn to create your own with the instructions below


  • 1 or two heads of wool roving in different shades/ colours if you can ( available from places like Virginia Farm Woolworks)
  • Dishwashing detergent or soap flakes
  • A large bamboo sushi mat/ bamboo blind or bubble wrap or PVC grip mat
  • A few towels
  • A spray dispenser with hot water
  • Some scrap fabric/ threads or cut-outs.
  • A pair of scissors

Materials for your felted rug

Step 1

Prepare and plan your decorative scene for the rug, if you are adding cut-outs as we are, prepare these first. We chose to make 3 Viking longships with shield details from scraps of pre-made felt and fabric. Ours were cut free-hand but if you would like a guide for your shape just find a nice clear outline /silhouette image online and trace around it onto your cloth before cutting.

felt shapes

Decorative shapes to create a scene in our felted rug

Decorative shapes to create a scene in our felted rug

Decorative shapes to create a scene in our felted rug

Step 2

Lay down your mat (the bamboo mat or bubble wrap- bubble side up or PVC grip liner) first. Make sure it is big enough for the size of rug you are making.

On top of this lay your wool roving to the size you require.

Gently separate out the strands of roving with your fingers. You need to layer your roving in different directions- horizontal then vertical then horizontal etc. We started with 3 layers.

roving on mat

Laying down the first layer of roving onto our mat in a horizontal direction

All three layers of wool roving ready to be felted

All three layers of wool roving ready to be felted

Step 3

Spray the surface with hot or warm water all over and a small about of detergent or soap flakes drizzled on top. You can combine the soap flakes or detergent into the water spray for convenience if you like. Gently press down the wet surface with a spare piece of your mat fabric.

Spraying the surface of the wool with hot water

Spraying the surface of the wool with hot water

Adding some detergent or soap flakes to the wet wool

Adding some detergent or soap flakes to the wet wool

Step 4

Now the wool is hot and soapy it is ready for friction to be applied so that the open fibres will bind together. Roll up your mat on top of the felt layers and give it a good rub back and forth for a few minutes. You may even like to turn the felt over and spray and roll from the other side as well.

Pressing down the hot soapy wool with some of the mat

Pressing down the hot soapy wool with some of the mat


Rolling the mat back and forth to bind together the fibres into felted fabric

Step 5

Now it is starting to look a bit flatter and evenly wet, add your decorations to the top layer. Lay over these another layer or two of the lighter coloured roving. Remember our next layer of roving is horizontal, then vertical and so on. We have laid ours very thin so as to avoid obscuring the scene but if you are doing more of an abstract thread decoration this will not matter as much and more than one layer on top will ensure your decoration is more securely embedded.

adding the fabric cut outs to felt

Adding in our decorative elements and another layer or two of roving

Step 6

Repeat as before with some hot soapy water sprayed on, press down with your mat and then proceed to roll. TIP: The bamboo mat is not the most ideal for this stage as it can distort the surface of your design and pull at any small threads so if you can use bubble wrap or grip mat that will be helpful. Keep rolling and rubbing (this can take a while) until your wool is looking much thinner and flatter. Give the surface a pinch test to see if it is all well bound together.

Pressing down the hot and soapy wool fibres before rolling again

Pressing down the hot and soapy wool fibres before rolling again

rolling the felt

Rolling back and forth to bind the fibres into felted fabric. Be gentle on decorative surfaces. Pinch the surface to test if it is properly felted, no fibres should pull up if it is well done.

Step 7

Once you are happy with the texture of your felt rug, rinse it out with water and use the towels to squeeze out excess moisture.

washing the finished felt

Washing out our completed felted rug. It will take quite a bit of water to wash out all the suds.

Step 8

Hang your rug out to dry.

hanging rug to dry

Squeeze out excess moisture and hang to dry.

And there you have it. A felted Viking longship rug perfect for play, stories or just for decoration!

For more Viking crafts and activities pop along to our Scandinavian Sunday Family Fun Day this weekend. Full info online here

A tale of three blazers, two t-shirts and one pocket – collecting America’s Cup apparel

Imagine a sailor, navigator or tactician and you don’t picture them in a blazer. Blazers are part of a formal uniform which need to be viewed alongside other artefacts to reveal their character and meaning. Most of the jackets and blazers in the sporting collections at museum have been collected as part of a selection of material related to sporting personalities, but here I’ll detail a few of them in isolation, to chart some of the key campaigns during Australia’s participation in the America’s cup.

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The Australia II crew gathers for the 30th anniversary of Australia’s America’s cup victory in front of Ben Lexcen’s innovative Australia II tank test model on display at ANMM’s Wharf 7 Maritime Heritage centre. Skipper John Bertrand asked to hold Ben Lexcen’s green and gold team jumper as a tangible memory of him, of ‘Benny’. Ben Lexcen died in 1988.

In the years leading up to 1983 Australia had won the right to challenge every three years bar one since 1962. Then Sydney media baron and sailor Sir Frank Packer bankrolled the Alan Payne designed Gretel to scare the Americans a little with its efficient winch system, deck layout and speed to windward. With six further challenges moving from the east to the west coast of Australia the two countries had enjoyed a twenty year rivalry. Continue reading

History and knitting

Magda and Anu Mihkelson wearing knitted hats in Sweden, 1948

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

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

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.

Anu Mihkelson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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).

Kim Tao
Curator, Post-Federation Immigration

From Bengal to Bandhani to Bandanas: a story about Indian textiles

On my desk is a simple cardboard box filled with wonderful things.

Natural dyes and mordants. Cochineal, Black Henna, Indigo and a small laboratory of fixative chemicals. Beside these, a pile of silk and cotton lengths and a well loved wrap skirt made of old saree fabrics patterned with Bandhani ( an Indian technique of tie-dye). These materials sit in waiting for a fantastic program we are running next weekend in association with our East of India exhibition- from Bengal to Bandhani- a talk and textile workshop with renowned artist Liz Williamson.

bandhani (Indian tie dye) saree fabric

Bandhani (Indian tie dye) saree fabric

As a fine arts textiles student in years gone by, I used to spend much of my time thinking about the significance and stories of cloth. There are so many fascinating stories behind Bandhani textiles. Traditionally you could identify a person’s community affiliations from the patterns of Bandhani on their turban or saree. The colour of the dyes could indicate a bride (reds) or a new mother (yellows). A short tie-dyed silk length known as a bandana (also derived from the word bandhnu or banda- “to tie”) from Bengal was an incredibly popular export in the 1700s, worn around the neck, it became a quintessential clothing item for sailors and labourers. In our workshop we will explore many such stories behind Indian textiles, Bandhani, and natural dyes as we make our own silk and cotton resist dye scarves.

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La Belle Époque

Group photo

From left to right: Laura Stewart, Christie Milton, Robyn Murphy, Jessica Allison, Inger Sheil, Anna Porcaro, Tara Mannell and Stephanie Wigens
Photographer Nicole Cama, ANMM

Portrait of model wearing black evening gown

Anna Porcaro modelling a black evening gown made by Rebecca Smith
Photographer Nicole Cama, ANMM

On Wednesday night, the museum hosted its answer to this year’s History Week theme – Titanic Threads. And what a spectacular night it turned out to be! For two hours, guests were transported back to the fashions of the Titanic era. Beaded hats, pretty lace and hobbled skirts paraded across the carpet, a sight not usually witnessed in the Tasman Light Gallery. There were gowns made in every fabric including velvet and silk and one outfit composed of tablecloths dyed in different shades of green. Each outfit was sewed and threaded to perfection to create a vibrant festival of colour that made us all wish we lived in the ‘Beautiful era’ for just one day. Continue reading

A pocket with no jacket – can you help?

Moving objects around the collection stores sometimes turns up interesting discoveries. I made one such discovery that requires a bit of detective work to solve. While searching through a textile box in storage I came across a lonely black fabric pocket. The pocket logically seemed to have come loose from a jacket or blazer and this makes sense as the rest of the material in the box were in fact jackets and blazers.

Black pocket with CSC CRONULLA stitched onto a small flag at the centre

However, the box contained a navy blue Royal Australian Navy cadet midshipmen’s jacket and a black Chief Petty Officers coat both naval jackets. The colour and fabric of these two jackets and the fact that both are complete with their own pockets meant that our lonely pocket did not belong to either of these.

My first port of call was to visit our curator of Maritime Technology, Exploration & Navy which confirmed my suspicions; not a naval pocket. My next visit was to our curator of Maritime Communities to identify the small flag stitched to the pocket.

Upon closer inspection the flag reads: CSC CRONULLA – light bulb moment! Great, I thought, a quick search through the museum’s collection for jackets and blazers relating to the Cronulla Sailing Club or Cronulla Surf Life Saving Club and hey presto a solution, but things are rarely that easy. We have no jackets relating to the Cronulla Sailing Club in the collection and only two jackets from the Cronulla Surf Life Saving Club. On closer inspection neither jacket is made of similar material to our lonely pocket nor is either jacket missing a pocket, another dead end.

Next step was to contact both organisations but before this the pocket needs to go to our photography department for a close up. Photo taken, emails sent I sit back and wait, not too long before I get a reply from the Cronulla Sailing Club. The experts suggest the pocket’s from Cronulla Surf Club.

Cronulla Surf Club confirms the flag is familiar, to be sure they send it onto their history committee for clarification, great we’re almost home! But wait this just in, the experts don’t recall this as a type of flag used for the club – Cronulla SLSC always had a reel on their flags, try Cronulla Sailing Club! And so the plot thickens.

Can you help identify the flag on our pocket?

Registrar, Information Management

Behind the scenes with our textile conservators

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Julie prepares flag from 1900s for storage

This week we are going to take you behind the scenes of the museum to meet some of our staff and see the interesting things they get up to!

Today we’ve checked in with our conservators… Julie is preparing a flag from the early 1900s for storage and Sue is painstakingly conserving a sailors woolie from the late 1800s!

To make sure the flag can be safely stored, Julie will need to stabilise the damaged corner of the flag by attaching a temporary patch. She has chosen to use a piece of silk, which is a protein based fabric with a similar weave to the original flag. To avoid further damage she’ll attach the patch with thread, using existing holes created by insect damage to thread her needle through.

The stabilised flag will be stored in the museum’s new textile storage system, along with over 3,000 other textile items including flags, uniforms, shoes, head wear, bedding, towels, and clothing.

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Julie adds a patch to stabilise the flag for storage

Our conservator Sue shows us a beautiful embroidery she has been conserving for a while now – it’s one of her favourite objects to work on. Originally in a wooden frame, she has carefully removed the artwork to conserve it as best she can.

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Sue uses a low suction vacuum to remove insect debris and dust from the sailor’s woolie.

As part of the conservation process Sue uses a low suction vacuum to remove insect debris and dust from the artwork. The wool and silk thread are extremley fragile and in some parts the thread has already snapped or been nibbled by insects.

On the underside of the embroidery you can see how vibrant the original thread was, before being damaged by the sun. It would have been a glorious piece of needlework!

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Julie shows the underside of the sailor’s woolie showing the original colour of the thread

Wool pictures (or ‘woolies’) like these were mostly produced between 1840 and 1900 by British sailors. This one was thought to be made in the late 1800s. They cover many subjects, but commonly show broadside views of ships, ‘patriotic’ flags, and samples of embroidered patterns such as flowers, demonstrating the skill of the embroiderer. They were almost never signed, and are usually naive in character, but the detail of the ships in woolworks indicates that they were the work of seamen. Sewing and sailmaking were important skills of seamen, and woolwork pictures show the expertise they brought to this engaging handcraft.

We’ve uploaded a few more photos of Julie and Sue in action on our Flickr and Facebook pages for you to check out. Otherwise, stay tuned for more behind the scenes posts this week!