Subversive Finds: Hidden Cross Stitched Messages from a Nazi POW

Craft & Design

This story is so close to my heart that it’s taken me a month to figure out how to write about it. It’s the story of Major Alexis Casdagli, a British soldier in WWII who began cross stitching secret subversive messages while in a Nazi prisoner of war camp. It’s the story of his son, Tony Casdagli, also a cross stitcher, and how he put together a book of his father’s work. And it’s also about the amazing show currently at the Victoria and Albert Museum in which includes work from both father and son.
So many people sent me the article that appeared in The Guardian, knowing it would be right up my alley. I was so enchanted with the story that I immediately ordered the book and then, to my great surprise and delight, was able to get in touch with Major Casdagli’s son via email and ask him a few questions.

First, the story of Major Alexis Casdagli, who was imprisoned by the Nazis from 1941 to 1945. To pass the time, he began stitching on scraps of canvas and bits of thread. The most outstanding piece is a seemingly innocent sampler with a border design – but the dots and dashes are actually Morse code that spell out “God Save the King” and “Fuck Hitler”.
The amazing thing about Major Casdagli’s work is that it was displayed in four separate camps where he was imprisoned, but his captors never caught on to the secretly stitched messages. He also ran a needlework school for 40 officers inside the camp. His work illustrated his thoughts and feelings, and was undoubtedly a major source of strength in surviving his four years as a POW.
In the book, A Stitch in Time: God Save the King? Fu*k Hitler!,Tony says of his father’s work during this time: “It used to give him pleasure when the Germans were doing their rounds. He would say after the war that the Red Cross saved his life but his embroidery saved his sanity. If you sit down and stitch you can forget about other things, and it’s very calming.”
This is such a truly subversive use of cross stitch – I was blown away by the story, it brought tears to my eyes. I had to know more, so I ordered the book (by Anthony Casdagli). The front cover shows the title stitched piece and the back cover shows the back side details of the work. Inside is a detailed synopsis of Major Casdagli’s time during the war, with accounts reprinted from his diary and several beautiful full-color photos of his work during these years.
Tony also enjoys cross stitching and even spent some time stitching together with his father while he was alive. Tony was born in 1932 and joined the Royal Navy as a cadet at the age of 13. He retired as a Captain in 1984.
Tony was a child when his father was captured by the Nazis and it was a month before he and his mother received the news, so they were left not knowing if he was dead or alive. After that, it took another year for Major Casdagli to be able to receive any letters or packages.
When Tony was 11, he received a stitched letter through the post. “It is 1,581 days since I saw you last but it will not be long now. Do you remember when I fell down the well? Look after Mummy till I get home again,” Casdagli laboriously spelled out with finely stitched letters.
Tony is self-deprecating about his work, but not self-conscious. He used to enjoy stitching while waiting at airports, but cannot any longer because his needles are banned airside. “I’d sit and do my needlework after going through the gate, and people would gradually move away from me,” he jokes. Now he tends to stitch in the evenings, when Sally is reading. Most of his works get sent to his five children, who live all around the world. Each grandchild receives a special piece; sons get the poem If by Rudyard Kipling. He is currently stitching one for his latest grandchild, Griffin, which depicts the mythical creature with the body of a lion and an eagle’s head and wings.
I asked Tony a few questions about his work and the show at the V&A:
Julie: Tell us a bit more about your work in general and the pieces in the show.
Tony: The embroideries in the show are Pa’s Fuck Hitler sampler and one of mine, The Tree of Life. The man who curated the exhibition Power Of Making, which runs until 2nd Jan 2012 in the Victoria and Albert Museum, was intrigued with my father’s first sampler as a POW and my own needlework and selected one of my recent pieces alongside Pa’s one as a ‘father and son’ object in this very exciting exhibition. In selecting objects his guiding principle was Why, HOW and what was the result of the objects (which range from an 8-foot gorilla made entirely from metal coat-hangers to an 48-cylinder motor bicycle, three-dimensional computers, etc. – 108 objects in total.)
Julie: How does your father’s work influence your own?
Tony: I started doing embroideries in my mid-teens but did not stick to it with any great dedication since I was in the Royal Navy and as a midshipman during the Korean War was kept quite busy – I have recently unearthed a number of ambitious but unfinished works! However I suppose I restarted needlework in my 30’s and since then have done it regularly – samplers to hang on the wall, cushion covers, book-marks, spectacle cases etc.
Julie: How do you see your work influencing the new craft movement?
Tony: I was introduced by the wife of one of my close naval friends to a sewing group of ladies who live in Chelsea – I am the only man! This is led by a magical lady called Joyce Conwy Evans, an interior designer who has taught at the Royal School of Needlework (who with amazing energy and skill has encouraged me to expand my efforts beyond sticking strictly to counted thread to a much more freehand style – which I find exciting but also much more demanding than before). Also, she has a natural gift for the use of colour.
Whether or not my work will in any way influence others I sincerely doubt, but I was asked to lead a workshop in the V&A on cross stitch as part of the current exhibition and we had a very encouraging turnout (I was told we had about 150 visitors). I am told there is a renewed interest by younger people in embroidery.
I am glad you enjoyed the book – my number 2 son (who works with computers) and I produced it a couple of years ago strictly for immediate family members. I laboriously made a few copies but was encouraged to get it published earlier this year with the help of a young graphic designer who modified the original, and hence we now have the book online. It has been great fun doing this and to our delight it seems to be proving popular.
Power of Making is at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London until January 2, 2012.
A Stitch in Time: God Save the King? Fu*k Hitler! by Captain A Casdagli, is available from lulu.
About the Author:
Julie Jackson is the creator of Subversive Cross Stitch and Kitty Wigs. She has also authored two books: Subversive Cross Stitch: 33 Designs for Your Surly Side and Glamourpuss: The Enchanting World of Kitty Wigs.

17 thoughts on “Subversive Finds: Hidden Cross Stitched Messages from a Nazi POW

  1. Skye Elizabeth says:

    The Major sounds like a strong and resilent man, who found hope in a craft. And in secret messages. I am glad to have read this story

  2. Angie Brooks says:

    This is an amazing story Julie and I thank you for sharing it with me. I dont think my cross stitched bad words will ever, ever be as poignant as this man. It was truly inspriational. Thank you.

  3. Julie Jackson says:

    Thank you – I’ve shared the comments with Tony Casdagli. I don’t think he fully realizes how much this story means to the craft community. I’m floored.

  4. Speck says:

    I have read this story in several places over the last few months and it has never quite touched my heart the way it has here. This is an incredible man who has created an admirable legacy. I can only hope that I would be as resilient and subversive under similar circumstances.

  5. Julie Jackson says:

    I just heard from Anthony Casdagli that the “Power of Making” show at the V&A had 317,000 visitors (they had predicted 100,000) and that it was the second most popular exhibition in the last 10 years! Congratulations!

  6. sally wheeldon (nee Carnegie) says:

    I was so interested in reading this. Tony won’t remember a young, green wren who joined him and i think Neil Durden Smith for a theatre visit in the late 50’s. I was a friend of Tony Barnden .. Tony and I worked on Exercise Fairlead at Greenwich .. However, the interesting thing is that my mother was trained at the Royal School of Needlework and she passed her love of embroidery and tapestry on to me. Since I retired from teaching I have completed many tapestries for family and friends. Have also been stopped from sewing prior to and during flights. I now live in the south of France with my husband. I love the story of the tapestries done by Tony’s father – what an example to all of us.

  7. Act #14 of 48 Acts of Historical Craftivism, Alexis Casdagli’s F*ck Hitler Cross Stitch! | craftivism. says:

    […] The amazing thing about Major Casdagli’s work is that it was displayed in four separate camps wher… […]

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