Embroidery was a popular pastime for women. Young girls learnt needle skills as early as 5 and by their teenage years would be accomplished enough to make furnishings and clothing. In Australia needlework began to be practised around the middle of the nineteenth century, Marion Fletcher writes that: 'There are few references to needlework as a pastime or an occupation ...' (1.) before this time.
While home embroidery is still a popular hobby or artistic pursuit today, its popularity has declined over the last one hundred years. Some reasons for this decline are that more women are in paid employment, women have a wider choice of leisure activities, there are mass-produced textiles and learning needlework skills at school is not encouraged for female students.
Embroidery often reflects the times or interests of their makers. This embroidery depicts an early coat of arms with Australian symbols. The Commonwealth of Australia was formed on January 1, 1901 when the six Australian colonies were federated. Australia was granted its first official coat of arms in 1908 by King Edward VII, which was superseded by another coat of arms in 1912 by a Royal Warrant from King George V. The Commonwealth of Australia's coat of arms was granted according to the Laws of Arms and is granted by a Royal Warrant. It serves as a sign of identity and authority.
The 1908 official coat of arms bears some resemblance to the one on the Museum's embroidery. Both are marked 'Advance Australia', have a shield with a cross and an emu and a kangaroo. Before Australia had an official coat of arms the colonies used a range of unofficial arms, seals and badges, like the one depicted on this sampler. They were utilised on medallions, coin tokens and public buildings. The oldest known example of the 'Advance Australia' coat of Arms comes from 1821 and was: 'reputedly painted for Thomas Silk, the son of the Captain of the Prince of Orange, a convict ship that visited Sydney in 1821.' (2.) It was presented to the Captain when he arrived in Sydney.
From the 1880s there was a growing sense of Australian nationalism shown through the artwork and literature of the time and the debates surrounding Federation. While there were still strong links with Britain, by 1881 more than 60 percent of Australians were born in Australia. It is not known why Mary Richards made this embroidery or why she used this coat of arms, it could be concluded that she wanted to use Australian symbols such as the kangaroo and emu, rather than a lion that was a British symbol, to depict an Australian coat of arms.
This embroidery was a proud symbol for the maker as it has been framed and adorned with Australian leather flowers. It was passed to a family member where it was proudly displayed in their home. It is a significant example of past leisure activities for women that are less popular today. The content of the embroidery reflects common attitudes of the time it was made, depicting Australian symbols that were used to create an Australian sense of identity.
(1.) Fletcher, Marion, 'Needlework in Australia: A History of the Development of Embroidery', Australia: Oxford University Press, 1989, p.3.
(2.) Heritage Council of New South Wales, 'The earliest Advance Australia Arms, presented to Captain Silk c.1821' www.heritage.nsw.gov.au/10_subnav_08_01_12.htm , Viewed 21/03/2007.