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Paploma and Quilt: Uncovering Stories of Greek Australian Women

Uncovering Stories of Greek Australian Women

Current estimates put the number of Australians who either came from Greece or are of Greek descent at around 500,000 to 700,000. Put against these figures, the number of quilts registered to date, from Greek Australian women is miniscule. We can safely assume that there is still much ‘uncovering’ to be done, that there are quilts and stories hidden away all over Australia. Estimating the number of Greek Australian women around the country can be difficult. Those who have come from Greece, are of the Greek Orthodox faith and speak Greek at home are easy to find in the official statistics. After that, it becomes complicated – what about the women who have come from Egypt, Cyprus, Roumania and other Greek diaspora countries? And what about those born in Australia, who cite ‘Anglican’as their religion, because there were no Greek churches in the country towns where they grew up, and who speak English at home and Greek when they need to? Perhaps there should be another category in there somewhere – ‘ability to negotiate cross-cultural boundaries’!

For most of those which are included in the NQR, it has been my privilege to sit with the women, to record their memories and experiences, to try to understand their pain and share their gratitude for what their adopted country has given them. Most of the time the interviews have been on a one-to-one basis, but occasionally several women have come together as a group, bringing quilts, sharing stories and reminiscing about another life in another place. They have been special times for all of us.

Quilt Threads; Life Themes

Sometimes these themes form a large part of a woman’s life, like the central motif in a quilt pattern; sometimes they are more like the thread used for the quilting – disappearing into the middle layer of the quilt before emerging on the other side. Women’s hidden history. Strong life-themes emerge in the women’s stories; they all include something about migration, history, culture and tradition.

Patterns of Migration

Apart from the Aboriginal people who have always lived in this ancient land, every Australian, even with several generations in between, connects to some other part of the world. We could probably date the beginning of the ongoing relationship which Greek women have with Australia to 1835 when Katherine Crummer, nee Aikaterini Plessos, came here to live with her husband, James Henry Crummer, a captain in the British army. They had eleven children, only two of whom were still alive when Katherine died in 1907. She is buried in Sydney’s Waverley Cemetery.

The small numbers of Greek women migrating in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries increased gradually, and reached their peak in the great migration wave the 1950’s and 60’s. Indeed, it is not surprising that this is the period most represented in the quilts registered by Greek Australian women. This was the time of Australia’s vigorous migration program, in which Greece readily participated, having been left totally devastated by the German occupation of WW2 and then by a bitter civil war. Migration presented a very real opportunity to create a better life. The Australian government’s plan included a program to attract single Greek women, to help redress the imbalance in the large number of men who were already here.

Many of the women speak about the painful aspects of migration: leaving behind families and loved ones, and their beloved topos (place); the loneliness of Australia’s small country towns without the support of a Greek church and community; the discrimination shown by a country dominated by a ‘White Australia Policy’. But they also express much gratitude for the good life they have been able to make here and for what they have been able to achieve. In particular, the educational opportunities for their children – these would have been unthinkable had they remained in Greece. Indeed it has taken these last two generations or so for Greece to achieve economic and political stability, with the result that migration from Greece has now stopped almost completely. Large numbers of Greek Australians not only visit Greece regularly, but are renovating their old family houses or buying new ones which they and their families use – like a long-distance version of a ‘holiday house’.

Quilts belonging to Greek Australians are very often about Greek and Australian history. Greece’s turbulent and often tragic C20th history is highlighted by the quilt remnant belonging to Catherine Llewelyn-Smith of Sydney and the quilt owned by Chris Jones of Canberra. Both stories are about the ‘Great Catastophe’ of 1922 when, because of the hostilities between Greece and Turkey more than a million Greeks were forced to flee their homes in Asia Minor (present day Turkey). Those who survived found their way to Greece and eventually many came to Australia. Those of us who are the children and grandchildren of that generation, have grown up with stories, incomprehensible when we were young – of jewellery being hastily sewn into the hems of skirts, precious icons being wrapped up and hidden under shirts; houses and possessions being left behind, not to mention the terrible human slaughter.

Threads of History

More Greek history emerges through the stories of quilts from various parts of Greece, particularly the islands: Ikaria, Kephallonia, Mytilini, Rhodes, Samos. The tiny island of Kastellorizo has an important place in Greek Australian history as one of the main sources of early Greek migration. We can speculate that this may be the reason why the quilts registered by Greek Australian women of Kastellorizian origins have been made here in Australia (search under Conomos, Kazaglis, Kirke, Kyranis, Kyprios, Papalazaros, Penklis).

Australians will recognise the island of Limnos (or Lemnos), where at least four of the quilts were made. Limnos was used to launch the Gallipoli campaign of WW1, and where the British/Turkish armistice was signed. The Bonegilla Migrant Camp, near Albury NSW, is mentioned in at least two of the Greek quilt stories. Bonegilla was where thousands of now well-established Australians found themselves after WW2, having been driven from their homelands in central Europe.

Traditions and Transitions

Quilts owned by Greek Australian women represent a rich legacy of customs, culture and tradition; a legacy which remains largely unexplored, and sadly may be in danger of becoming lost, even in this time of renewed interest in women’s social history. Some of the quilt stories give us fascinating glimpses into how traditions and customs are not only maintained, but adapted to a completely new environment.

Paploma and Prika

Many of the women say in their stories that ‘no prika is complete without a paploma’. The Greek word prika encompasses the meanings of the two English words, dowry – real estate, money or goods given at marriage, and trousseau – the collection of clothes and household items which most girls had in some form: handworked, embroidered, and crocheted pieces, tablecloths, towels, bedlinen, decorative bedcovers, and at least one paploma (quilt). Traditionally, young Greek girls and indeed thousands of Greek Australians, have grown up learning to embroider, crochet and sew items for their prikaat a very young age. In the photo below, taken in the NSW country town of Cootamundra, circa 1956 Niki, Stavroula and Hariklea are all embroidering items for their prika . Niki and Hariklea had recently arrived from Greece, Stavroula was born and grew up in Cootamundra.

In the photo below, as well as her quilt from Cyprus, we see Stavroula Iouannou’s crocheted bedspread made for her by her mother, Efpraxia. Stavroula, in turn, has made an identical one for her daughter-in-law, Stamatina. In this way, craft skills are passed down through the generations.

Migration often forces change to cultural practices, so in Australia many women, usually forced by their circumstances, made their own quilts. The quilt stories from Christiana Kazaglis and Ann Kyranis both reveal the resourcefulness and practicality which were such strong hallmarks of early Australian women. These two photos capture the transforming processes which migration has wrought in the lives of so many Greek Australian women. Maria Efstathis in her traditional costume on the island of Kastellorizo, 1933, and then with her family outside their typical ‘Queenslander’ house in 1951.But not so through quilt-making in Greece. To date, most of the registered quilts made in Greece have been made by a man, the local quiltmaker in the village, or in a nearby town. Several women recall the paplomatas coming to their house to make their quilts and give interesting descriptions of adoxari, an implement used to fluff up the raw cotton used as wadding in the quilts. Many of these quiltmakers also came to Australia, bringing their skills with them, and thus assisting many women here with the problem of acquiring appropriate quilts for their daughters.

The subject of quilt styles is a very interesting one, which one day will probably invite further examination. Without exception, all registered quilts which have come from Greece are wholecloth, that is with one single fabric piece forming the top of the quilt. The majority of quilts are of richly coloured satin or cotton, with the pattern being formed by the quilting (stitching). The women who used this style when making their quilts here in Australia, have all come from Greece. The only example, so far, of a quilt influenced in style by Anglo-Australian traditions, is the one made by Australian-born Helen Varoxis. As seen in this photo, her patchwork quilt is made from the velvet squares taken from a sample book of furniture fabric, a practice common in Australia, particularly in the more frugal times of the Depression and war.Quilt Styles

Giving and Taking

There is one quilt from Greece which tells a story through its quilting pattern. Sophia Haskas’ quilt shows aspects of Rhodes, the well-known Greek island. The deer is the island’s symbol while the squares in the fill-pattern represent the stonework of the medieval city.

The huge contribution made by Greek people to Australian life is well-represented through the stories from Greek Australian women. The now well-documented occupations are all there: owning cafes, restaurants, and other food shops; but also there are those who worked in the sugar-cane fields, in the lead-smelters, who did dressmaking , owned barber-shops, worked on the docks, and in the building trades. The hard work and sacrifice of these earlier generations have resulted in Greek Australians, women and men, now being present in just about every facet of Australian life, including academia, arts and culture, the judiciary, law, politics, medicine, teaching and other professions, and sport.

Quilts from Greek Australian women have found their way into the National Quilt Register using the time-honoured method of women’s networking skills, women talking to women. No other selection process was used. Indeed very few of the women have actually read the NQR’s information flier, which says: ‘old quilts have always been about memories and women’s hidden, often unspoken, language. They carry stories about our history and about needlework and provide a rich insight into women’s lives.’ Their stories fit this description with wonderful accuracy. They make an outstanding contribution to our understanding of being Australian.

For the National Quilt Register Lula (Stavroula) Saunders 2001


Alexakis, E and Janiszewski, L. In Their Own Image Greek Australians. Hale and Ironmonger, Sydney, 1998

Boyatzis, P. E. and Pappas, N.G. Embers On The Sea. Halstead Press, Sydney 1995

Gilchrist, H. Australians and Greeks Vol 1: The Early Years. Halstead Press, Sydney 1992

Jupp, J. Australian Retrospectives: Immigration. SUP in association with OUP, Melbourne1991

Photo Credits:

Katherine Crummer (nee Aikaterini G. Plessos), Port Macquarie, NSW 1864. Courtesy R and P Crummer, from the ‘Greek- Australians: In Their Own Image’ National Project Archives.

‘The Smyrna Catastrophe’, Smyrna, Asia Minor, 1922. Courtesy B Burman, from the ‘Greek- Australians: In Their Own Image’ National Project Archives

A ‘bride ship’ the ‘Begona’ 1957. Courtesy N. Pirtidis, from the ‘Greek- Australians: In Their Own Image’ National Project Archives.

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