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I’m Kerryn and I’m a vintage fabric-aholic. I visit op shops frequently. I get to jumble sales before the doors open. My heart leaps when I catch a glimpse of something promising amongst the dross. I’ve got a set of drawers and a filing cabinet crammed with the fruits of my addiction. Sound familiar?

While most of my stuff hibernates behind closed drawers most of the time, occasionally I’ll get a length out and consider what I can make with it. My collection is not quite an archive – while I’m unlikely to alter made-up pieces and definitely shy away from using my pristine vintage oven cloths for their intended purpose, I don’t consider pieces of fabric untouchable. Still, it’s hard to get the scissors out because there’s no going back once that first cut is made!

Cushions are a good way of using and displaying vintage fabric. They are easy to make and don’t require too many cuts, which is important if you’re loath to disturb the pattern of the fabric by cutting through it.

Some of these I’ve covered myself, others I’ve bought made-up. The colourful one in the middle was embroidered in wool by my very talented aunt Sheryl Faul. These are the ones I’ve made:

These are all barkcloth fabric. Another way of displaying vintage fabric without getting scissor-happy is to make a wall-hanging or to treat it as a canvas. I bought a large piece of very boyish ’70s barkcloth years ago and I’m really glad I held onto it because it makes an awesome addition to my young son’s bedroom wall.

This was one piece I couldn’t bear to cut. I commissioned my woodworker partner to make the recycled timber frame and he did an excellent job. The fabric is held fast onto the inside of the frame by thin lengths of timber so no stapling or gluing was required.

I just hope this imagery doesn’t seep into Amos’ unconsciousness and cause him to become a boy racer in later life! I’m not remotely interested in motorbikes but the gorgeous colours, well-realised pattern and great sense of movement won me over.

Amos can sit in style in this little metal-frame chair I made a new seat for. Cowboys and Indians are not in particularly good odour these days but let’s not impose our contemporary views on vintage!

Lightshades require more cutting and sewing, depending on the frame used. You’ve also got to be careful that your precious fabric doesn’t get too warm and go up in smoke! I imagine that ready-made lightshades are probably treated to make them heat resistant but (touch wood) I’ve not had any trouble in this department.

This is another barkcloth number. The pattern makes me think of kiwi feathers with a hint of peacock thrown in. Not sure of the date – my guess is 1950s. It’s made out of the same piece as one of the cushions above. I love this pattern and I stored the fabric for many years before I used it.

I made these lightshades for my open plan kitchen and lounge with uncovered frames I found at the tip shop in Wellington. I laid the frames onto some newspaper and made a pattern by drawing around one panel. I then cut out a series and sewed them together. I didn’t have enough fabric (or patience) to match the pattern up, and in any case the shape of the panels would have made this difficult. The pattern is an abstract one so I think I got away with joining unrelated pieces together. You could say I’m reinterpreting the pattern.

They are actually upside-down lamp shades which works really well – they hover beautifully and cast interesting light shapes on the ceiling. On the odd occasion I’m driving up our street at night I can see them through the windows floating like little spaceships.


Me and my mother in our hand-knitted winter woollies, 1964

My mother knitted all the time, for herself, for me and my sister, and probably for my dad, although I don’t remember. She was still knitting when she died of cancer in 1990, and in her knitting bag were several pieces – one still on the needles – of an unfinished jumper for a small child, a friend’s grandson, I think. I wrote that half-finished, never-to-be-finished knitting into ‘The Heart Sutra’, my story about two sisters clearing out their mother’s house after her death from cancer.

When my mother, a lifelong smoker, was in Te Omanga Hospice for the last week of her life, weak and confused and half-aphasic, she kept thinking she was smoking, and trying to climb out of bed to find an ashtray. In the story I made the mother believe she was knitting, and crawl out of bed, agitated, in search of scissors. The older sister tries to convince her she’s hallucinating, while the younger sister conjures up imaginary scissors to go with the imaginary knitting, and the mother calms down.

Crowns and wands, and me in my scratchy purple Aran jersey. My mother made us one each.

We must have thrown out her needles, thrown out the long vinyl zipped case they lived in, thrown out the row counters and cable needles and knitting bag with its cunning folding wooden frame. There must have been patterns, piles of them. There must have been half-used balls of wool. But we didn’t want them. We were in our twenties, messed-up girls with a mother who had been sick on and off for ten years, a mother who had been labelled, terrifyingly, terminally ill some 18 months earlier. What would we have done with knitting needles? We must have given them to the Sallies.

I’ve come back to knitting. It’s so soothing and peaceful and simple, a perfect occupation for a winter’s night when I’m too tired to think about anything much. It’s fashionable again too, seized on by riot grrls and punks who knit skulls and anarchy symbols into their scarves, used as a gentle, whimsical form of graffiti by young women who pretty up power poles with knitted leaves and flowers and birds, and add woollen hearts and comforting messages to the city’s chain-link fences. This is probably illegal, but only just; anyway, I doubt anyone’s going to chase a bunch of knitting women ‘taggers’ down the street and knife them. There are stitch ‘n’ bitch groups, knitters at the Southern Cross pub on a Monday night; there’s an International Knit in Public Day.

Snow, in Masterton! We definitely needed to wear wool. My sister's outfit appears to be a twinset.

I’m still an impatient knitter, losing interest in anything that takes longer than a few weeks. I can do scarves and hats, but the top I started last year is sitting, half-finished, in a plastic bag. I hate it when things go wrong: I make mistakes, and lose my temper, and when I drop a stitch down more than a couple of rows, I wish my mother was alive, so I could give it to her to fix.

My sister in a great little 80s number our mother knitted her.

August 2010
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