The Changi quilt: secrets and survival

The Changi quilt might look like an innocent craft project - but its patchwork squares tell a different story. It was created by a defiant group of women prisoners during the Second World War. Each square is packed with secret messages and hidden meanings.

Browse each square to reveal its secrets and find out the story of the Changi quilt.

The story of the Changi quilt

The story of the Changi quilt

On 15 February 1942, Singapore surrendered to the invading Japanese army.

Doctors, teachers, nurses, nuns, missionaries, police and their families from Allied Britain, Denmark, Australia and Canada were sent to camps at Changi prison on the east end of the island.

Children stayed with their mothers but men and women were separated. They were not allowed to communicate except during occasional organised meetings, supervised by the guards.

But that didn't stop these husbands and wives, friends and siblings sending secret messages any way they could.

Stitching secret messages

Life in the camp was crowded and stressful – and at times it was tedious. The captives were forced to live on rations, follow orders, do chores and work. However, they were also expected to organise themselves and they set up committees and activities such as concerts and gardening sessions.

In the first few weeks, to help the young girls cope, prisoners Elizabeth Ennis and Trudie van Roode set up a Girl Guide group. They taught the girls patchwork to keep them amused.

A brilliant idea

Then a woman called Ethel Mulvany had a brilliant idea. Many of the women at Changi had husbands and relatives in the nearby military camp. The women couldn't contact them to let them know they were alive.

But what if they made a set of patchwork quilts for the hospital in the military camp? Each woman could stitch a coded message or symbol into a patchwork square. When the men saw the quilt, they would know that their families were alive.

Each woman was given a six-inch-square of white material cut from a rice sack. She was asked to embroider her name and 'something of herself' into the square.

The finished squares were stitched together to make three quilts, each containing 66 squares. The Japanese authorities gave permission for the quilts to be sent to the military hospital at Changi barracks.

The quilts provided lists of women who were alive. The news spread through the hospital and beyond. For many men at the barracks, the quilts brought the first news their loved ones had survived.

Did your relative embroider a square of the Changi quilt? If so, we’d love to hear from you.