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Maria Norma Rolland (1905–1999)

by Dorothy Erickson

This article was published online in 2023

Norma Rolland, c.1990

Norma Rolland, c.1990

family collection

Maria Norma Rolland (1906–1999), embroiderer and weaver, was born on 19 March 1906 at Subiaco, Perth, elder daughter of Scottish-born Robert Anthony Rolland, civil engineer and surveyor, and his west Australian-born wife Norma Gertrude, née Pearse. The couple had married on Rottnest Island (Wadjemup) where the bride’s father, Frederick Pearse, was the superintendent of the prison (1898–1905). Young Norma’s parents settled in Perth and she was educated at Girls’ Grammar School, West Perth, and Presbyterian Ladies’ College (PLC), Peppermint Grove, which she attended as a weekly boarder (1919–23). A keen gardener and conscientious student who struggled with poor numeracy, she completed her Junior certificate in 1921, subsequently serving as a prefect before graduating with the principal’s prize for public spirit in 1923.

As a young woman with connections to Perth society, Rolland made her debut at Government House in early 1924. In addition to her involvement with PLC’s Old Collegians’ Association, the young socialite attended tennis parties, bridge evenings, and dances as a member of Perth’s Younger Set, while helping to manage her family’s household affairs. In the early 1920s she also studied with Beatrice Darbyshire, a star pupil of the etcher Henri Van Raalte. After Darbyshire’s departure for England in 1924, Rolland enrolled in an art needlework class under Loui Benham at the Perth Technical School, where she obtained a credit pass in 1925. The following year, as well as serving as captain of the 2nd West Perth Company of Girl Guides (1926–28), she continued her studies with Benham privately while caring for her ailing father.

In July 1932, a year after her father’s death, Rolland travelled to the eastern States for nine months. Soon after returning to Perth, she departed for Britain with her mother in March 1935. Big and little Norma, as the two were affectionately known by family, visited Rolland’s younger sister and her husband, George Arthur Kelsall, in Edinburgh. She also studied at the Royal School of Needlework at South Kensington, London, indulged ‘her tastes for artistic treasures’ (Halstead 1936, 7), and embarked on a sixteen-day tour to Hungary with the National Union of Students. The two Normas returned to Perth in October 1936.

Rolland trained with the West Perth No. 507 Voluntary Aid Detachment in 1938, and when World War II broke out the following year, she became involved with the Perth branch of the Victoria League of Western Australia, where she was general secretary from May 1941. Later that year, according to family sources, her sweetheart died in the sinking of HMAS Sydney. During the early years of the war she was also selected for cipher work in Fremantle, a role she served in until the fall of Singapore in February 1942. She later spent several months in Sydney in 1945 and, while there, was believed to have given birth to a child.

During her time in Sydney, Rolland also became interested in weaving after visiting her friend Margaret Richmond, who taught the craft at Frensham School, Mittagong. She subsequently studied dyeing, weaving, and materials preparation in Sydney, taking lessons with the painter and weaver Jessica Booth. In 1946 she returned to Perth via Melbourne where she had further lessons. The newly inspired artist brought a thirty-six-inch loom and woollen yarns home with her and set up a studio. There, she wove tweeds, lampshades, bright-coloured woollen knee-rugs, vividly coloured linen tablemats, guest towels, and various fabric lengths. Largely self-taught, she developed an approach to weaving that usually involved a year of steady work on several items that were then sold at one or two annual exhibitions.

Soon after her return to Perth, Rolland, with five other Perth women, formed an exhibiting group and sales collective known as the Society of Hand Weavers. At annual exhibitions at the King Edward Hotel from 1946 to 1953 they exhibited their crafts alongside the pottery of the Italian interior designer Maria Dent. Rolland became known for her speciality in weaving suit-lengths in tweed of fine quality and tasteful colour patterns from yarn manufactured at a Sydney woollen mill. She also experimented with spinning wool from merino and cross-breed fleeces.

Rolland travelled to Brunei in late 1953 to visit friends and study traditional Malay weaving methods. Journeying to the water village of Kampong Ayer, she visited the weavers who made cloth for the Sultan and his court, later confessing: ‘I came away little the wiser, but their weaving will always remain a dream for me’ (Daily News 1954, 12). On her return to Perth she delivered lectures about her time abroad to several women’s organisations.

In 1954 Rolland joined the Australian Red Cross Society, with which she taught weaving until 1966. She subsequently enjoyed a sociable retirement in Perth, spending the last years of her life at the Salvation Army’s Hollywood Aged Care Village at Nedlands. On 3 October 1999 she died at Subiaco, Perth, and was cremated. Elegant and beautiful, with a tendency towards bluntness softened by an affinity with children, her life typified that of many unmarried women of her class and generation. Discovering the satisfaction of war work, even as she faced heartbreak and the trials of pregnancy and childbirth out of wedlock, she redirected her energy to weaving in the postwar years as part of a wider revival in handmade textile production.

Research edited by Emily Gallagher

Select Bibliography

  • Erickson, Dorothy. Art and Design in Western Australia: Perth Technical College 1900–2000. Perth: Central Metropolitan College of TAFE, 2000
  • Erickson, Dorothy. Inspired by Light and Land: Designers and Makers in Western Australia 1829–1969. Perth: Western Australian Museum, 2014
  • Erickson, Dorothy. ‘Three Western Australian Weavers: Norma Rolland, Marie Miller and Judy Weedon.’ Craftwest (Perth), Summer 1992, 6–7
  • Daily News (Perth). ‘Diane’s Diary.’ 1 May 1954, 12
  • ‘Halstead.’ ‘Roundabout: People and Events.’ West Australian, 23 October 1936, 7
  • Kelsall, David. Personal communication, December 2022. Copy held on ADB file
  • Rolland, Norma. Interview by Anne Tarulli, 1992. Presbyterian Ladies’ College Archives

Citation details

Dorothy Erickson, 'Rolland, Maria Norma (1905–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2023, accessed online 26 May 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Norma Rolland, c.1990

Norma Rolland, c.1990

family collection

Life Summary [details]


19 March, 1905
Subiaco, Perth, Western Australia, Australia


3 October, 1999 (aged 94)
Subiaco, Perth, Western Australia, Australia

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