Uncovering Stories of Greek Australian Women
by Lula (Stavroula) Saunders
Brisbane women at a 'Paploma' morning tea.
L - R: Ann Kyranis, Helen Licourinos, Nina Conomos, Maria Kirke, Theresa Economou. Click
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 d.phpora 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'!
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.
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
Katherine Crummer (nee Aikaterini G. Plessos), Port Macquarie, NSW
1864.* Click to enlarge.
Strong life-themes emerge in the women's stories; they all include something about
migration, history, culture and tradition.
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
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 devasted 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.
A 'bride ship' the 'Begona' 1957* Click to enlarge.
Della Savvas outside her recently
renovated house, Aghia Paraskevi, Mytilini, Greece
Many of the women speak about the painful.phpects 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'.
'The Smyrna Catastrophe', Smyrna, Asia Minor, 1922*. Click to enlarge.
Threads of History
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
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.
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
prika at 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.
Maria and Eleftheri Efstathis at their
engagement in Kastellorizo, 1933. Maria is wearing the traditional
Efstathis family outside their 'Queenslander'
house, 1950's. L - R: Vlasis, Stathis, Eleftherios, Maria,
Ann, Jack Kyranis (Ann's fiance), Christine
Niki, Stavroula, Hariklea
Stavroula Iouannou's quilt and bedcover
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 a doxari, 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.
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.
Helen Varoxis with her quilt
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.
Sophia Haskas' quilt. Click to enlarge.
Bronze deer on column, Rhodes harbour. Click to enlarge.
There is one quilt from Greece which tells a story through its quilting pattern. Sophia
Haskas' quilt shows.phpects 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
Giving and Taking
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
Three Generations. Sisters - Irini Repaci and Nellie Magloveris,
with Nellie's mother-in-law Alexandra Magloveris in centre. Christine, in front is
Nellie's daughter. Click to enlarge.
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
Jupp, J. Australian Retrospectives: Immigration. SUP in association with OUP,
Katherine Crummer (nee Aikaterini G. Plessos), Port Macquarie, NSW 1864.
Courtesy R and P Crummer, from the 'Greek- Australians: In Their Own Image' National
'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.