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Dolly Varden

A comment in an earlier blog about demure crinoline-and-bonnet women has inspired this blog. Rummaging through the collection, produced numerous examples of linen featuring women’s faces completely covered by bonnets.

Dolly Varden in orange

Example of a Dolly Varden on a linen piece

In her book Thrift to Fantasy, Rosemary McLeod devotes a chapter to Dolly Varden and refers to other names such as Sunbonnet Sue or the Crinoline Lady.  The ‘Dolly Varden’ name originates from the Charles Dicken’s novel, Barnaby Rudge.  The common image of Dolly Varden features her in profile wearing a large bonnet tied with a ribbon.  Rosemary suggests that apart from stylist reasons, it is much easier to embrodier an image of a bonnet rather than dealing with tricky facial features.

Dolly Varden and tree

Detail taken from a tablecloth

Detail from a table-cloth which features the same design in each of the corners. Here Dolly is seen tending to a tree.

Dolly Varden

Dolly Varden in front of her house

A tea cosy cover features Dolly in her garden with a house in the background.  There is also a hint of hair poking though her bonnet.  The of dream of home ownership extended towards gardens and we see idealized images of perfectly maintained gardens. Dolly is externally youthful and in these pieces, women’s lives as seen as playful rather than grimly real.

Dolly Varden

Detail of Dolly watering her garden

In this design Dolly is actually seen watering her gardening, looking after the ever-popular gladiolli blooms.

Dolly Varden

Part of an unfinished apron design

Part of an unfinished apron showing Dolly again in action with a watering can.

Dolly Varden

Examples from a set of Dolly Varden pieces

Set of Dolly Varden pieces including tray cloths, an egg cup holder and two mystery pieces.  All pieces are beautifully done with tattering around the borders but I have no idea the purpose of the two smaller items. Any clues are welcomed!

Dolly Varden

A faceless Dolly Varden

And finally, one of my favourites items where traces of blonde hair are spotted but the bonnet dominates the head, almost looking like a headless character in a horror film.

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My latest TradeMe find came in the post a couple of days ago, and it’s a goodie – a linen tablecloth with a deep crocheted edging. In each corner, each embroidered in a different colour scheme using blocks of satin stitch, is a Dutch couple, complete with clogs, bonnet, tulips and a windmill in the distance. The woman’s eyes are modestly downcast; the pairs of figures might even be dancing.


I particularly like embroidery that features people (and animals, but I’ll come to that another time). I love the carefree expression on the face of this lass (somehow the right word!) on a swing.

Like many embroidered women, she holds flowers – but unlike many others, she has a relatively contemporary look about her, with shortish hair and what appears to be a ’50s dress.

Many embroidered women sport crinolines and bonnets. Below, one woman gives flowers to another (a prelude to a 19th-century lesbian romance, I expect).

This wildly glamorous woman with her haughty expression and red nails is on an apron, probably from the 1930s – it’s somehow ironic that the apron hasn’t been cared for, and is spattered with paint.

Is this unfinished (but beautifully embroidered) apron, below, meant to be Marie Antoinette? I love it that the embroiderer has given her a beauty spot while leaving other parts uncompleted. These highly decorated aprons were typically intended for special occasions, not for everyday use.

While I appreciate elegant work (most of it from kits), I’ve also got a particular fondness for more homely, awkward pieces, which may have been designed by the maker. This girl (again on an apron) seems to be gazing just off-screen with an expression of horror as she clutches her bouquet. The tight rows of chain stitch used for her skin and dress also make her look slightly… well… diseased. This apron has no neck strap, and would have been worn pinned to the wearer’s dress or blouse.

And I love this perky madam – a woman who knows her own mind, I reckon. Look at those eyes. Her flowers are particularly colourful.

But one of my favourite pieces is this unassuming little dressing-table mat featuring two Māori wāhine. No flowers here, but flax bushes or bulrushes/raupō. Both women are barefoot, wearing cloaks, and with feathers in their hair.

This woman, below, carries her baby in the traditional style, on her back, tucked under her cloak – the only embroidered depiction of motherhood that I’ve come across anywhere. It’s interesting that representations of parenting or heterosexuality (of men, in fact!) are almost entirely absent from these embroideries, most of which depict a rather dreamlike, female-only world of elegant dresses, flowers and hair done in ringlets (!) – a fantasy of escape from daily drudgery? Men and babies appear only on the Dutch-themed tablecloth and Māori-themed mat. Perhaps the ‘exotic’ nature of other ethnicities (I’m assuming a Pākehā embroiderer, which may or may not be right) added a little glamour, or at least distance, to what would otherwise have seemed mundane or everyday.

Apologies for the many months of blog post silence  – not much excuse really, other than that the room I keep my stuff and the computer in is cold in winter and spring, so I’ve been hibernating. Now that summer is here the posts should flow.

Anyway, on to the topic at hand. Over the last few years I’ve become less interested in clutter and more interested in space and simplicity. This is not at all reflected in my vintage textiles collection (or in my life either!). Most of my stuff is highly decorated and brightly colored. I decided to go through it and pull out some items which could be classed as simple. I didn’t find many, but here are some which fit this description.

Sugar bowl cover

This is a cute but sadly stained crocheted sugar bowl cover. As you can see, the word ‘SUGAR’ is crocheted in the middle, leaving the user with no doubt as to its purpose. Its basic design and appearance is only subtly relieved by the small peachy beads around the edges. It’s made of good, sturdy cotton and would certainly still repel any unwanted flies from the sugar bowl.

I bought this linen cloth recently – not sure what it is, as it’s an usual size. Perhaps it was made for a particular table. It’s clearly intended to accompany morning or afternoon tea, as the beautifully simple embroidery shows.

Embroidered linen table cloth

It’s not the most expertly-embroidered piece – the lines are kinda wobbly and the pattern marks show in places. This doesn’t bother me, I think it’s really charming. The embroidery is in the bottom left corner, which I find nicely restrained. Red on linen is such a nice combination. The linen is really stiff and hard to iron, hence the ugly creases. I really dislike seeing creases in photographs of vintage textiles but this cloth requires far too long at the ironing board for my liking!

Next is a detail from a very plain, work-a-day, thick, calico-like cotton apron I bought at an opshop in Marton (Rangitikei region). It’s a full wide apron but with a narrow bib and very short attached string for the neck . I can barely get it over my head. It has a nice, big pocket on the front. It was probably intended for every-day wear but is in reasonable knick with few stains. What makes this simple apron interesting in the name written in ink on the bottom hem – Winnie (?) Cornfoot. A few second’s research on google tells me that a Mrs Agnes Cornfoot of Halcombe (near Fielding, which is not far from Marton) signed the famous New Zealand women’s suffrage petition, which was submitted to Parliament in 1893. I feel sure they must be related! It’s very handy when one’s historical subject has a distinctive surname.

Name on apron

I’m not sure I’ve got the first name right, so please feel free to suggest alternatives to Winnie.

My next simple item departs from white & cream, but is nonetheless very straightforward. It’s a felt stationary case with simple felt flowers attached to the top right corner. On the inside is a large pocket for pens and things and two strips of felt at top and bottom to hold writing paper. The front left edge has been cut with pinking shears. I’m very fond of this and I was inspired to make my partner a sketchbook case similar to this out of a light woolen fabric and vintage satin for christmas.

Felt stationary case

I bought this at a vintage linen fair in Upper Hutt a good few years ago. This annual event was a vintage lover’s dream (though there was always a mad, slightly unpleasant stampede when the doors opened) but I haven’t seen it advertised for the past two years, so maybe it’s not on anymore.

The last piece is what I presume to be a cotton stationary or writing case. It’s a flimsy number – the writing paper is what would have given it some solidity. A big ‘W’ is embroidered on one side, and simple squares and stars on the back.  Similar to the felt case, it has pockets and strips on the inside. It looks to me like something a child might have made.

Embroidered cotton writing case

As much as I still love colorful embroidery and patterns, there’s something refreshing about these items. The makers didn’t feel the need to go to town with the decoration, maybe because they were amateur makers or perhaps because they liked simple things.

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