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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.

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Home crafts intended for use in the kitchen bother me once they are seen as vintage items. The kitchen has to be one of the messiest places in the house and most of these things were meant to get a little messy – but once they’ve acquired vintage status (don’t ask me at what stage that happens….) I’m reluctant to let them anywhere near the kitchen bench. Do I actually want to get scorch marks or pudding mixture on my gorgeous 1950s oven cloth? Hell no! But weren’t these things made with the expectation that they’d get messy? Probably, but because they’ve survived the ravages of time and the kitchen they’ve become objects to admire rather than use. This is not to say I don’t use my vintage stuff, but some things are just too precious or cool to risk soiling.

Even if this cute wee mat wasn’t embroidered in a way that clearly states its purpose, we’d know what it was intended for because it’s marked by a pretty obvious pot-shaped scorch mark. I love it that the maker just had to give the pot luscious red lips and kewpie doll eyelashes.

These oven gloves are so pretty but I’m not convinced that they are entirely fit for purpose. All that separates the hand from the hot dish is two layers of linen – I think I’d be after something a little thicker….

These oven cloths are a lot sturdier. Most of them have not been used much, if at all, which makes me feel better about elevating them from humble kitchen items to vintage untouchables. This one is nearly too 1960s for me – just as well it’s all cotton & no polyester!

This one has the same pattern on the other side, only it’s mainly purple.

This is a simple, rectangular oven cloth. What I best like about it is the price tag, which is still attached – 2 shillings, so it was obviously made before NZ’s currency was decimalized in 1967. Even without the price tag I’d know this had never been used. It’s in perfect nick.

Someone’s gone to a lot of trouble making this wee number. I don’t think it’s seen a day’s work in the kitchen.

This one certainly has been used – it’s history as a workhorse is evident in staining and fraying. I love it – the lime green binding around the edges is gorgeous and the different fabrics which comprise the floral centre work so nicely with it. Respect to this cloth’s creator!

My last kitchen-esque piece is a bit silly, but very cute. Nobody wants to dip their soldiers into a cold egg do they?

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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