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I’ve written about things that have come to me from my Nan before. She was an expert keeper of things – not a hoarder (her house was far too tidy for that) but a preserver. Born in 1921, Nan was a child of the Great Depression and grew into young woman-hood during the Second World War. The things of hers that I now have and the way they have been carefully preserved speak of the cultures of thrift and conservation these times required. She never forgot them.

This is great for me of course. I am the beneficiary of Nan’s thrifty habits. The last time I visited my parents, who have stored the contents of her house for a few years now, I had another rummage. This time I came away with some old boxes with textile treasures within.

This is a very plain, battered old box. The lid is fixed to the base by a shoe-lace marked with rusty stains. Nan’s habit of labelling things means its contents are not a secret.

The box is filled with colourful embroidery threads, some used, some not. The threads still wrapped in their labels were manufactured by British firm Clark’s. Nan has cut out her own cards to keep the smaller lengths of thread on – all carefully labelled by colour code.

The real surprise is contained on the underside of the box lid:

This is a pencil-sketch of the cottage garden hollyhocks I have seen on so many vintage aprons, tea cosies and duchess sets. It’s a nice touch.

The next box is less shy about advertising its wares. I think it’s an old chocolate box. The lid must convey a Scottish landscape – would a New Zealand chocolate-box scene ever include gorse, a Scottish native which has long been the scourge of farmers throughout the country?

The chocolate’s long gone and the box now houses more embroidery threads. The warm glow of the gold foil on the underside of the lid makes this box feel like a treasure chest.

A wider range of manufacturers are represented here: more Clark’s, including the Anchor brand, J&P Coats and The Royal.

There are some Belgian threads in amongst the British ones, though they seem to have been repackaged for the Commonwealth and English-speaking market.

I laughed when I first opened the final box.

I will never be short of these useful sartorial items again.

That is pure thrift.

What am I going to do with all these embroidery threads, given that I am not an embroiderer and do not have the patience to become one? Actually, even if I was, I’d hesitate to use them. These boxes and their contents (perhaps the shoe-lace one aside) have become textile artifacts. I feel a sense of veneration for the boxes and threads as a complete package. Added to this is the family connection – all this stuff is my inheritance. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some, if not many, of these threads actually belonged to my Great Grandmother, Nan’s mother Florence. This suspicion only strengthens their value as heirlooms.

I think I’ll keep the threads in the boxes and place them on a shelf somewhere. Though I’m not continuing the family habit of embroidery, I am continuing the one of preservation.


I was intrigued by a feature in Otago University’s latest annual research publication, He Kitenga.  In the article ‘Every stitch has a story’ online at marketing lecturer, Dr. Shelagh Ferguson is undertaking research into clothes that people have held onto over the years.  

Filming people while they examine the contents of their wardrobe, this research project seeks to discover the emotions that drive clothing purchases and in turn items that we keenly hold onto.  These could be earlier items now worn to bad-taste parties or expensive items bought on a whim.  The research has revealed strong emotional connections to clothes with items often kept because of their association with happy memories.  Perhaps they made the wearer feel good or else the pieces were worn on special occasions.

Now while I won’t admit to moments of sheer bad taste, I do retain items that I would be very reluctant to discard.

Black dress with white details

There’s one of my first purchases, a black dress with a sailor-style details.  Moving beyond the family department stores, it was an exciting moment to buy a dress in a “proper” clothing shop.  It now looks rather plain but at that time, I thought it was the bee’s knees and loved wearing the outfit.

Shirt made by the Virus label

 Then there’s my Virus shirt featuring the image of Aleister Crowley, who was an influential English occultist and mystic. I had no idea who he was when buying the shirt but just adored his unhappy facial expression.  (Perhaps he had suffered from attending too many tedious meetings).  With years of use and abuse, the fabric is starting to fray around the edges but I could never throw this top out.

 School rugby jersey from the 1940s

I’ve even kept my father’s school boy rugby jersey which tragically once wore to a school dance.  While sport has never been a keen interest of mine, it’s great to have items of clothing that have belonged to other family members.

 As the Otago research has discovered, people are not always logical when it comes to buying or keeping clothes.  So what stories lurk from behind your wardrobe?  What pieces of clothing do you still clutch onto despite changing tastes, body shapes or even house locations?

February 2011
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