How embroidery linked generations of one family from Australia to Scotland.

My Grandmother's Secret World

By Dawn Schaffer


I was telling my Dad I had been accepted to do a 2-year textile course at Kelvin Grove College, Brisbane Australia.  His response showered me with bewilderment.  “You are so like your Grandmother.  She had qualifications in embroidery.  I am not sure of the details though.”

This was totally new to me, but certainly set me a challenge to find out more.

I remembered my Grandmother as a very shy woman always embroidering a piece of ‘fancy work’.  I knew her family home was East Wemyss where my Dad was born.  My Grandfather, Robert Burt, had worked in the Michael Colliery and after the many miners' strikes decided to come to Australia.  In 1921, when Dad was four, they left East Wemyss and came to Ipswich, Queensland where Granddad again worked in the coal mines.  

My Grandmother rarely mentioned Scotland and had never spoken of her embroidery skills. So, I set myself the task to find out more.  I wrote to as many institutions in Scotland as I could find who I thought might have some information regarding training in Embroidery.  I received some replies wishing me well on my endeavours but had no knowledge of the information I was seeking.

It became a family challenge.  My brothers Robert and David also agree she had said little to them about Wemyss and Scotland.  Robert only recalls Grandma saying they would travel back to Scotland one day.  She never did, but in 1996 Robert visited Wemyss.  He met Bella, a friend of Grandmas, who told him of our Great Grandmother describing her physically, where they lived and even what she wore to church.  She also told him of the weaving loom they had in their house for producing linen.  Our family history was beginning to come alive.  

Imagine my surprise when he rang to tell me he was standing in front of the Wemyss School of Needlework.  He had just seen Grandmas photo on the wall and her name in the roll books.  He had meet Mary Birrell who filled us in with the history of the school.  The mystery had been solved and little did we know this was just the beginning of our ongoing connection with the school.

In 1999, it was my turn to visit Scotland.  The emotion I felt as I visited different areas was surprisingly intense, many times with tears running down my cheeks but none more so than in East Wemyss and I found it difficult to breath as I walked into the school and met Mary.  Here I was in my Grandmother's secret world.   

In 2006 David visited the school who also had the same overwhelming reaction to being in Grandma's world, seeing the patterns and the historical embroideries.  So now it was that we had all returned to this small building that had played such a huge part in our Grandma’s life.

I enjoyed learning many textile skills during my 2 years of study.  Years after I continued using my 4-shaft floor loom and spent many enjoyable hours weaving.  However, I found I was always pulled back to embroidery to the extent I sold my loom.  

It was embroidery for me, always with Grandmas story in the back of my mind.   So, I combined the two and told our story in a series of 5 panels.   

  1. Grandma’s leaving her family and country
  2. Her family growing up in Australia
  3. My interest and studies in embroidery 
  4. My returning to East Wemyss
  5. Our connection through embroidery

These panels incorporate many forms of textile work including crazy patch work signifying the coal of Scotland and Australia.  Samples of my Grandma’s fine cutwork as well as my spinning, weaving and embroidery.

The panels have been exhibited at patchwork symposiums as well as genealogy displays as an alternative way of telling your family history and also used as a teaching tool.  Each display has been accompanied by a talk combining the story of the school with my family’s story.

My husband and I were fortunate to be able to travel again to Scotland in 2008.  It was good to be back at the school and especially to be able to spend time with Mary again.  However, there was a sadness leaving this time.  Scotland is such a long way, I thought I would not be back.  I was also concerned about the school’s future.

In 2015, I was given a wonderful opportunity.  I had the greatest gift and privilege to be able to take my daughter Rebecca, her husband and children Flynn, then 9 and Lauren Charlotte then 12 to East Wemyss.  What a special time as the family, three generations, walked into the school and met Fiona.

Before we left Australia, Lauren organized us to embroider our family tree to take back to the school.  All of us including Flynn did a small part of this project with many laughs as those who were not inclined to embroidery tried their hardest.  Lauren also wrote a letter to Fiona summing up how we all felt in thanking Fiona for saving our family history.

The panels of our story have been used again recently as I am giving monthly talks based on the history of different embroidery techniques and modern-day adaptions of these techniques.

Next time you visit the school find Charlotte Elizabeth Gordon Welsh in the roll books and look at the class photo.  Charlotte is sitting at the end on the right-hand side of the front row.  Think of us so far away from our beginnings, yet so proud of our Charlotte and so thankful for the work Fiona and the staff have put into the preservation of the school and in doing so, saving our family history.