A bag of useful things

This is the Rajah Quilt (1841), made by women convicts during their transportation to Tasmania. It is very large, made out of 2815 pieces. The quality of the stitching is varied as it was made by many hands. In some places there are specks of blood, where less-skilled needlewomen accidentally pricked their fingers. In the making of this quilt, needlework was understood to be a redemptive act.

In the 19thC convict women were transported from Great Britain to the antipodes for petty crimes. Under the direction of Elizabeth Fry, the British Ladies Society sought to help the women use their time well on the ships, and during the voyage make something which would show their skills on arrival. To this end each woman was given ‘a bag of useful things’: four balls of white cotton sewing thread, a ball each of black, red and blue thread, black wool, 24 hanks of coloured thread, a thimble, 100 needles, pins, scissors, two pounds of patchwork pieces (or almost ten meters of fabric), and a knife, fork, and spoon.

The Rajah Quilt has a panel that records the thanks of the women on the Rajah to the women of the British Ladies Society.

The Rajah had 180 women convicts and 10 children on board, including Mary Sim from Peterhead, and Christine McLeod from Edinburgh. They were accompanied by a ‘matron’ called Kezia Hayter (who probably organised the making of this quilt). Kezia fell in love with, and later married, the captain of the Rajah, Charles Ferguson, with whom she had seven children.


 In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas); she was always doing good and helping the poor. About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room.  Lydda was near Joppa; so when the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, “Please come at once!”

 Peter went with them, and when he arrived he was taken upstairs to the room. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them.

 Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called for the believers, especially the widows, and presented her to them alive.

Acts 9:36-41


Don’t put up my Thread and Needle—
I’ll begin to Sew
When the Birds begin to whistle—
Better Stitches—so—

These were bent—my sight got crooked—
When my mind—is plain
I’ll do seams—a Queen’s endeavor
Would not blush to own—

Hems—too fine for Lady’s tracing
To the sightless Knot—
Tucks—of dainty interspersion—
Like a dotted Dot—

Leave my Needle in the furrow—
Where I put it down—
I can make the zigzag stitches
Straight—when I am strong—

Till then—dreaming I am sewing
Fetch the seam I missed—
Closer—so I—at my sleeping—
Still surmise I stitch—

Emily Dickinson


Dear Lord, Bless these needles that they stay strong and light
so they don’t tire the hands that wield them;
Bless this yarn with strength and softness
that it will form a cloth of warmth and comfort;
Bless these hands with strength and skill
so they may make well-crafted gifts;
Bless this heart with strength and perseverance
so I will see this work through to bring comfort to those in need;
But most of all dear Lord,
Bless the wearer of this cloth with strength and comfort
that their burdens may be lightened
and their hearts with the realization that they are loved.

from Stitch and Prayer