29 Sisters by Anne Kelly

Mixed media textile from reclaimed and vintage fabric

The Story of ’29 Sisters’

I was teaching in Australia in 2017 for FibreArts Australia and a few other workshop providers, staying with Anne Kempton of Timeless Textile Gallery in Newcastle, Australia. She was curating and organising an exhibition for the ‘Lock Up’ a contemporary art gallery created from a disused police station in the town centre with artist Wilma Simmons.

“The initial concept for the STITCHED UP project came from a chance discovery that some of the girls had been detained in the Newcastle lock up (now home to The Lock-Up and Timeless Textile Gallery) after short-lived escapes from the school.”

Anne Kempton

Following discussions with Dr Ann Hardy of the Coal River Working Party, Anne and Wilma were immediately captivated by the life stories of the young girls of the Newcastle Industrial School. The research and writings of Jane Ison and subsequently Canberra based anthropologist, David Eastburn and Bernadette Sheahan have inspired this project to engage worldwide interest in this fascinating part of Newcastle’s history.

24 internationally renowned fibre artists from Canada, Hungary, the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Denmark and nationally across Australia have contributed the project. The pieces include a large quilt as a comforter; dolls to compensate for lost childhood; cloth books for story-telling; shadow threadworks; and visual poetry. Adding further dimension and community participation in the project, 30 women from The Wednesday Maker’s group at Timeless Textiles Gallery stitched embroidered narratives of each of the girls’ lives, working for two years on the project and resulting in seven volumes of cloth books, each page dedicated to one of the girls or a family of sisters.

“We have lived with these girls for almost two years. We have been moved to tears, and even horror at times, by the depth and suffering. We have learned to love and protect them, as most never were in life. Through this exhibition, we have to give a voice finally to these lost girls and their extraordinary stories.”

Co-curator Wilma Simmons.

I did some research into the lists of names of the girls at the lock up and found out that there were 29 sisters incarcerated there, and decided to use that as the title for my piece. I made the piece in Australia, using found materials and textiles from my trawls of ‘Op Shops’ (charity shops).The dresses were printed with the girls’ first names as a memorial to them, on pieces of cotton from a vintage tablecloth. Once the piece was assembled, it was over stitched on a borrowed Bernina using my signature edging stitch and then attached to a backing cloth, which is a printed sewing template. The piece has been widely exhibited in Australia, France and the UK. This year it was part of the ‘Collections’ stand at the Embroiderers Guild display at the Knitting and Stitching Shows in London and Harrogate.

I am happy to donate it to the Embroiderers Guild collection and delighted that they have accepted my offer.

Anne Kelly, December 2022