The fabric of the mission: Women's work and textiles in Benedictine life (408)
In May 1937 Escolastica Martinez stitched across the corner of the letter she was sending from Drysdale River in the far-north of Western Australia to the Abbot of New Norcia near Perth with the mission’s new treadle sewing machine. The stitching that ordered pages of wandering handwriting is a resonant symbol of her life in the community of Benedictine women who worked with Aboriginal women and children at New Norcia and in the Kimberley between 1904 and 1974. The community had no typewriter, and Aboriginal women were no longer trained in telegraphy or office work as they had been in the previous century. Instead, dressmaking and traditions of fine embroidery, alongside heavy work in the laundry, dominated the work shared by the missionaries and the Aboriginal women.
This paper puts the sewing machine, the sewing room and the laundry at the centre of analysis of the dynamics of the Benedictine mission. It foregrounds interactions about clothing and its production as occasions of both conflict and collaboration through the twentieth century. It explores the intersection of both gender and race with assumptions about the spiritual value of work, not for productivity or prestige, but as a dimension of religious commitment.