Eliza’s crochet quilt: women’s work and a mother’s love

by Judith Hickson, Curator, Queensland Stories

Many of us have handmade quilts that were lovingly made and handed down by our mothers and grandmothers. Perhaps we too have made quilts for our children and grandchildren.

As markers of life’s most important milestones, quilts are made for babies, brides and coming-of-age celebrations, as articles of warmth for elderly parents, as gifts for friends and loved ones and, sometimes, as payment for goods and services which could not otherwise be afforded. Shot through with the love, resilience and strength of the women who made them, quilts reflect back to us stories of families, communities and society.

Because handmade items are either treasured and passed down through generations as family heirlooms, or tossed out or given away when older generations pass away, quilts, like this century –old crochet quilt made by Eliza Pratten, rarely survive to become part of museum collections.

Made of silk and a fine example of Edwardian crochet design, Eliza’s quilt is elaborate in both texture and stitching. But beyond its aesthetic appeal and meticulous craftsmanship, Eliza’s quilt is also a storehouse of family memory – pieced together through historical records and through the recollections of her granddaughter, Desley – revealing a loving and devoted mother and woman of courage and strength.

Eliza Pratten quilt.

Born in 1885 on her father’s property, ‘Danewood Vale’, near Kilcoy, Eliza was the daughter of Peter Fredriksen, a Danish-born immigrant and one of the earliest European pioneers of the Kilcoy district, and his German-born wife, Ernestine.  Ernestine had been married previously and had three small children. With Peter, she went on to give birth to seven more, however, like many pioneering bush families, the Fredricksens experienced their share of tragedy with the death of a daughter, Lily, in 1895, aged one, and the drowning death of August while swimming in Sheep Station Creek with his brothers in 1897, aged 7. 

‘Danewood Vale’ Residence of Mr Peter Fredriksen, Sheep-Station Creek, Kilcoy. Fox’s History of Queensland, page 943.
Ernestine and Peter Fredricksen. Image courtesy of Desley Sanidas.

Formerly the traditional home and cultural landscape of the Jinibara peoples, the surrounding countryside of Kilcoy is dominated by the mountains of the Conondale Range[1]. With her remaining brothers and sisters, Eliza grew up in a landscape whose beauty and natural rhythms provided later inspiration for the poetry of a family descendent, noted Australian bush poet, Graham Fredriksen. Eliza and her four siblings, William, John, Hannah and Ethel, are all recorded on the roll of the Kilcoy Provisional School No.440 which opened in 1884 but later changed its name to Sheep Station Creek Provisional School No.440 in 1893.

Kilcoy Provisional School, 1898. Courtesy of John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

In 1909, Eliza Fredriksen’s life changed forever when she met and married Ernest Theodore Pratten.

Ernest and Eliza Pratten 1909. Image courtesy of Desley Sanidas.

An immigrant from Sussex, England, who had taken up property in the Mt. Kilcoy district, Ernest named his property ‘Lindfield’ after his family village. On his newly-acquired antipodean run of ‘620 acres of well—grassed ridges coming close down to the creek’,[2] Ernest commenced a dairying enterprise.

With the opening of the Hancock & Gore timber mill in 1924  and resulting exponential growth in the timber industry and in Kilcoy township and surrounding areas, Ernest took advantage of the naturally timbered country he had purchased and and had bullock and horse teams which he used to haul timber – work that required him to work away from the farm for long periods. (It is believed that at one time there were a hundred bullock teams worked between Kilcoy and Caboolture.) [3]

Ernest Pratten’s bullock team near Kilcoy, ca. 1912. John Oxley Library. State Library of Queensland.

Like other farm wives, while her husband was away, Eliza took charge of running ‘Lindfield’. Starting before dawn and finishing late in the evenings, Eliza’s daily chores included baking bread, milking cows, churning butter, cleaning, cooking and sewing for the household, including farmworkers. At one time during her husband’s absence, Eliza, while in labour, caught and saddled a horse and rode from ‘Lindfield’ to Kilcoy to give birth to her child– a distance of over twenty kilometres. When the evening milking was over, people fed, dough set to rise and the kitchen put to rights, Eliza would do her embroidery and crochet by kerosene lamp light.

With the earliest known patterns being printed in a magazine, Penélopé, in Holland in 1824, the history of crochet is relatively recent, but became increasingly popular through the nineteenth century with the production of pattern books and widespread publication of patterns in women’s magazines.

While crochet began as a purely decorative art that sought to imitate more complicated forms of lace-making, by the early twentieth century crochet began to be used in the production of practical, household items.  Intricate designs were adapted for larger items such as bed covers, lamp shades, cushions, curtains and table decorations as can be seen in this illustration from a 1926 French publication by Cartier Bresson.

‘Gros crochet pour ameublement’ (Crochet for household furnishings). 2nd Album. Cartier Bresson.
G. de Malherbe et Cie, Paris & Liège,1926. Creative Commons.

After World War I and during the depression years that followed, far fewer patterns were published, requiring women to record and share patterns, as evidenced by this public appeal for crochet instructions through ‘The Housewives’ Exchange’ column in Brisbane’s Daily Mail in 1924.

Some women, like Eliza, were able to draft their own patterns. Eliza’s daughter, Eileen, described how Eliza drew graphs on brown paper to plot intricate patterns and would then crochet late into the night. Each quilt must have taken many hours to complete. 

Particularly in the case of farmer’s wives, the fragmented nature of their lives and constant demands on their time and energy meant that craft and needlework projects were usually relegated to the late evening hours. However, as tangible evidence of an existence beyond the daily grind of endless chores, projects like Eliza’s quilt were a means of creative expression which served to give meaning and substance to their lives.

As material representations of the kinds of objects that women made to beautify their homes and as gifts for their families, crochet items like Eliza’s quilt are today perceived by many as kitsch or representative of outdated interior décor.  However, as Eliza’s quilt so eloquently communicates, these objects not only speak to the gendered nature of women’s work and to the everyday ‘ordinariness’ of their lives, they also urge us to listen, as Susan Griffin[4] wrote in Women and Nature:

‘for the stories of their lives … for old stories retold… We hear again the story of the clean house, we heard the story of the kitchen, the story of mending, the story of the soiled clothes, the cries of birthing’… 

Through these stories we learn of work, sacrifice, of making do, of suffering and struggle. Like Eliza’s and like many women’s stories, they are not written, but have been passed down orally through generations – from grandmother, to daughter, to granddaughter.

During her forty-year marriage, Eliza gave birth to seven children – four girls and three boys – of whom Eileen was the youngest. Of Eliza’s four daughters, it is known that she made quilts for at least three of them with this quilt being the only one to survive. Lovingly treasured by her daughter and granddaughter, the quilt is now part of Queensland Museum’s social history collection where it will be cared for and Eliza’s story preserved and retold for generations to come.  

[1] ‘Kilcoy’, World Heritage Encyclopaedia. URL:  http://self.gutenberg.org/articles/eng/Kilcoy

[2] ‘Up Kilcoy Creek’, Queensland Country Life, 1 July 1905, page 17.

[3]  ‘Kilcoy’, World Heritage Encyclopaedia. URL:  http://self.gutenberg.org/articles/eng/Kilcoy

[4] Griffin, S, 2015, Woman and nature: the roaring inside her, cited in Aptheker, B 1989, Tapestries of life: women’s work, women’s consciousness, and the meaning of daily experience, University of Massachusetts Press, p. 40.