Historic quilt returns after over 100 years

Southland Mayor Rob Scott (left) and Otautau RSA president Andre Bekhuis reveal a World War 1...
Southland Mayor Rob Scott (left) and Otautau RSA president Andre Bekhuis reveal a World War 1 quilt returned to the South. PHOTO: SOUTHLAND DISTRICT COUNCIL
A piece of Otautau’s history has come home after being away for more than 100 years.

A large quilt made by members of the Otautau community near the end of World War 1 was formally presented to the district this week.

A quilt was made in 1918 during World War 1 by Otautau residents as a fundraiser for the Red Cross to send practical aid to New Zealand soldiers. Residents of Otautau and surrounding areas bought squares of calico and red embroidery cotton. They then hand-embroidered names, quotes and imagery representing Otautau.

The war was basically over by the time it was sent away. It changed hands several times in the years following the war and it would be more than a century before it found its way home to Otautau.

The quilt was raffled in a charity fundraiser when the New Zealand soldiers had already left for home. The individual who won the quilt died due to war, and the quilt was left to his mother. After being reminded of the terrors of war, the mother then put the quilt back up for sale and it came into the hands of the Ambler family in Cumbernauld, Scotland.

Mr Ambler wrote to media in Southland in the mid-1970s seeking further history of the Otautau quilt.

Then in the middle of this year, the Otautau quilt was put up for auction by Gildings Auctioneers in Leicestershire.

The Otautau RSA got wind of the auction and decided to put in a formal bid.

Otautau RSA president Andre Bekhuis said the committee all chipped in and there was a real sense of excitement when the auction started — at 1am NZ time.

"The old adrenaline was pumping and it got quite exciting. The man organising the auction was really good to us and said if he lost us he wouldn’t do anything until we came back in," he said.

But the connection was sound and the Southland group ended up buying the quilt. The committee had agreed to not reveal how much they paid for the quilt.

Now the beautiful handmade Red Cross quilt is safely back in its place of origin, where some questions about local family history have been answered.

"There’s a lot of history in it we didn’t know about," RSA member Peter Gutsell said.

"It’s only since it’s come home that we recognise a lot of it."

The quilt features 76 hand-stitched calico panels, featuring many names of Otautau families, a British bulldog with a Union Jack flag, a life preserver ring, good luck horseshoes, the greeting "kia ora" and encouraging words and phrases.

The intention is to have the quilt and the letters documenting the quilt’s provenance professionally framed, so it can be displayed in the Otautau RSA. The quilt will be brought out at special events such as Anzac Day and there are plans to offer the quilt for display at the Southland Museum for special occasions.