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Last week, Massey University’s MATTER research cluster and Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa held the ‘ Material Histories’ symposium that brought together historians, curators and a few keen amateur collectors. Participants were treated to a range of interesting speakers such as Beverly Lemire, University of Alberta and Founding Director of the Material Culture Institute who highlighted the histories of tobacco products and washing over the last few centuries. Indeed if anyone is looking for a project, Beverly suggested that there is an international history of laundry begging to be published.
Local speakers Kate Hunter, Victoria University and Kirstie Ross, Te Papa outlined their current research into New Zealand’s World War I effort through examples of material culture. Objects such as soldier dolls and fragments of military uniforms serve as reminders of lost lives. In addition, a number of soldiers recovering from their injuries took up creative activities from basket making to embroidery. An example by soldier Fred Hansen can be viewed on Te Papa’s website at http://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/objectdetails.aspx?oid=864100. Indeed this apron caught the eye of Queen Mary who was keen to acquire it but according to family history, it had been promised to Fred’s mother and was not given to the Royal Family.
Unfortunately I don’t have any examples of World War I objects but the following two pieces are examples of World War II pieces made by soldiers who were injuried in the conflict. The earrings were purchased by my grandmother shortly after World War II and the decorated wooden object was a recent find.
Freelance historian Bronwyn Dalley examined the popularity of historic material objects. From retro to cooking shows, granny-hunting to granny-chic, New Zealanders are keenly acquiring items from the past. During the course of her talk, Bronwyn introduced family pieces from linen table cloths to wooden cake stands that has been passed down the generations. Representing different eras, the family connection unifies them and shows how we engage with the personal and material past in both the real and digital worlds. The following tea towels were purchased at a vintage fair the very next day confirming that the acquisition of historic material objects is a regular activity for many including myself.
Another enjoyable session saw a panel of post-graduate students providing a brief overview of their research. Debbie Noon completed a MA thesis in the rise and rise of op shops. Debbie spoke of the many reasons for the increasing popularity of op shops – the chance to purchase unique items at affordable prices definitely resonated with me. Megan Watson’s MA thesis examined afternoon tea practices in the Manawatu region during the 1930s and 1950s. We learnt that there is difference between afternoon tea and Afternoon Tea (and it’s not just capitals).
Dinah Vincent is embarking upon a PhD on the meanings of girls’ sewing in the 1950s and 1960s and provided a fascinating introduction to the school curriculum which promoted the role of girls as future wives and home makers. It will be interesting to see what information Dinah uncovers over the course of her research. Certainly my family benefitted from my mother’s sewing skills which saw an array of dolls clothes made for us as well as christening gowns.
You can also read more about this conference on a Te Ara blog at http://blog.teara.govt.nz/2012/11/21/sad-stories-and-slightly-creepy-dolls/ and thanks to the organisers for a lively and affordable symposium. As I run around the op shops tomorrow, I now feel that I’m participating in the world of history as well as feeding my less noble consumerism habits.
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.
After 30 years working with cloth, I find myself increasingly drawn to wool in fibre form. I thought some research was in order, so trotted off to the craft magazines section at the Wellington public library. I was immediately drawn to the image of a rug made of little woollen squares. The article described the rug as being the product of a “Weave-It” loom, a hand-held wooden frame with metal pins along each edge. It also recalled the perfect comforting warmth provided by a such a rug – then ended by saying the looms are no longer made and nearly impossible to find in second hand stores.
I decided this was a wool fibre technique I had to try, so I turned to the internet to track down one of these looms. On www.masez.com I found an image of the sort of rug I had read about in the library, and a picture of the “famous hand loom”. So simple, frugal and functional, and last manufactured in the time before zip codes. The more remote my chances of acquiring such a loom became, the more my longing increased.
Then I found www.eloomanation.com, complete with .pdf files of 1936 pattern books for garments made from four inch squares. The site was running a competition; the prize: an original Weave-it loom set, with both four inch and two inch frames (and a Hello Kitty tin!).
Given the quality of the weaving on the site, I thought my chance of winning this prize was slim. Nothing for it but to trawl the shops. By now I had heard of plastic versions, and had seen ones with wooden and metal pins. I wasn’t entirely sure what to ask for. Hooray for Goldings Handcrafts, stockists of a recreation of the Weave-it loom, from the Lacis Company. It is fairly primitive: a square of high density polystyrene, a vial of metal pins, and a card of graph paper.
The packaging also included a most appealing little pamphlet with instructions for a matinee jacket and a doll, which felt more achievable than a swagger coat…
Following the ‘walk before you run’ principle, I made a cushion cover! I used two solid colours and one variegated in various combinations. My edges are not as neat as the ones illustrated, so I rediscovered the joys of the crochet hook as a means of firming things up.
And that crochet hook led me to thinking about vintage crochet patterns (having made a truly horrible scarf and a slightly misshapen beanie in the first flush of excitement). These are not as common as the knitting patterns so wittily celebrated by Douglas Lloyd-Jenkins at the Hanging by a Thread symposium (see Fran’s summary here), but equally fabulous.
Once I have woven enough four inch squares for a coat, I am threatening to crochet this suit.