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Hilda G Lacey, Sime Road Singapore, embroidered sheet, IWM, Eustace Wood Sampler, 1947, Embroiderers’ Guild

Machine stitched regimental badges came to mean far more than mere military insignia. Like flags, these badges became an almost talismanic symbol of home and country and were stitched by men in prisoner of war camps, or in the temporary respite of rest camps. ‘Penelope’ kept up a supply of lightweight embroidered badge kits to ship overseas, and at home, women proudly and anxiously embroidered their men’s badges onto home furnishings and their pyjamas.

But for others, stitching became a secret and dangerous lifeline. The Imperial War Museum houses two pieces of embroidery created in prison camps. In both cases the act of making was a threat to their creator’s survival: discovery by the prison guards would have been catastrophic. Hilda G. Lacey of the Malayan Nursing Service was interned for three years in Sime Road, Singapore. In that time she created a memorial to surviving prisoners and those who did not survive, and a testament to the tenacity of life in a place of appalling cruelty. On the sheet she embroidered the signature of every inmate radiating from the centre, with illustrations around the edge.

The second was worked by Day, short for Daisy Sage, later Day Joyce. An unmistakeably subversive energy spills out as this embroidery is unfolded. Day Joyce used her sheet as a diary, using coded words, signs, symbols and colours. She also kept a written diary – published as The Second World War Memoirs of Mrs Day Joyce – of her three years and eight months as a prisoner of the Japanese. She wrote: “(with the) withdrawal of our bodies from the war our minds took over a yet fiercer part; and every nerve-end was singed in an agony of yearning over our loved ones and our country. One had to be firm with oneself.” She used embroidery as “a hand-steadying, mind-employing, secret thought recorder”. Exhaustion and lack of opportunity made it possible to add just two or three stitches at a time. Rarely have stitches cost so much in effort and danger and meant so much to those that created them.

On the “Home Front” ingenuity was also tested to its limits to maintain a semblance of normality. The slogan “Make Do and Mend” is well remembered today but the women of Britain also responded magnificently to commands to keep morale selvedge.org

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