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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  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.

Earrings and a wooden tray made by World War II soldiers

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.

Two tea towels

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.Examples of home-made dolls clothes

Christening gown made from wedding dress material








You can also read more about this conference on a Te Ara blog at 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 too attended the 9th annual symposium of the Costume and Textile Association of New Zealand ( and have been raving about this fantastic conference ever since. Thanks to Stella Lange, I learnt that knitters who stash their material use similar vocabulary to those of drug addicts. Apart from stash, there’s your (wool) dealers who assist in your habit as you become addicted in order to complete ‘just one more row’. I was also struck by the number of references to military history. From dresses worn at the time of the 1864 battle of Gate Pa, soldier dolls made for lost loves in the Great War, a souvenir doll of a ship later sunk in World War Two to moving accounts of families surviving during Nazi Germany, the theme of ‘hanging by a thread’ came through strongly. Creativity and more likely necessity saw outfits created from flags, curtains and other fabric remnants.

World War 2 tablecloth

World War 2 tablecloth

Rosemary McLeod’s talk about a post-World War Two hassock stuffed with over five kilograms of rags was a particular highlight. An examination of the contents revealed bits of lace curtains, stockings darned to death, children’s underwear made from adult’s clothing and embroidered doilies used as shoe polish rags. Like an archaeological survey, the reuse of items raises many questions about the changing circumstances of this family. Why did dainty embroideries become polishing rags? Did the 1930s depression followed by World War Two necessitate the careful reuse of fabric before finally consigning it as stuffing? Having once owned a similar hassock, I can only wonder about its contents.

The darning mushroom features the words 'Edith 1943'

A presentation about Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum’s forthcoming Australian Dress Register ( mentioned the inclusion of a tram destination-roll transformed into men’s underwear. References to underwear made from flour bags appears in an earlier Glorybox blog. (  The Australian Dress Register is due to be launched in September and Auckland designer Doris de Pont (http://www/ is developing an online New Zealand Fashion Museum.

Douglas Lloyd-Jenkins looked at the connection between knitwear and representation of gay men on television. From Glee to Ugly Betty, the wearing of jumpers tends to signal gay characters. We were then taken on a hilarious visual tour of knitting patterns and how men have been portrayed in some fairly hideous outfits. Inspired by Douglas’s talk, I found the following scary examples at a local op shop.

Knitting patterns

Patterns include 'Romantic Romano'

The presentations were enhanced by audience discussions particularly around context and conservation. Many historic outfits have been altered with little documentation about the  changes made, leading to speculation about the life cycle of a piece. The exquisite restoration of costumes for the National Gallery of Australia’s ( forthcoming Ballets Russes exhibition drew debate about whether repairs override the intentions of the designers who had made later modifications. Whatever your views are, this and the work of the Victoria Tapestry Workshop ( makes for compelling reasons to visit Australia. But before then, join the Costume and Textile Association of New Zealand ( so that you can become involved with a really interesting group of people.

It is nearly a week after my total submersion in the 9th annual symposium of the Costume & Textile Association of New Zealand, and I’m nearly decompressed.

There were 19 papers presented over the two days; I want to reflect on several of them that, for me, were about the role of garment textiles in maintaining the threads of personal and community identity.

Perversely, the first paper I want to mention, Jennifer Quérée’s “Ersatz – German paper textiles of World War I” was not about garment textiles. Jennifer told us about how the British blockade of raw materials into Germany from 1914 resulted in the development of paper textiles as an alternative to cotton. Samples of these eventually ended up in the Canterbury Museum, where Jennifer is Senior Curator of Decorative Arts. Apart from being fascinating in its own right, this paper set the scene for others which were about deprivation, adaptation, and making do.

Writer, collector and freelance curator Rosemary McLeod shared “The Hassock” with us. This object was almost literally thrust upon Rosemary by a stranger after the publication of Thrift to Fantasy in 2005. The hassock, described by some as a pouffe, was a tooled leather cover that had been stuffed with rags. The leatherwork could be dated as a World War 2 souvenir from the Middle East. Rosemary talked us through the nearly 5kg of rags that had been used as stuffing. The items spanned the 1920s to the early 1940s, and told the story of extreme poverty, or extraordinary thrift – depending on your level of optimism. They also showed that sewing ability does not come naturally. There were misshapen children’s rompers, a woman’s skirt made from menswear, and heavily mended stockings, vests and knickers. How uncomfortable were the people who wore the stockings and knickers with those lumpy darns and mends? What frame of mind was the woman in when she used the worn-out shreds of a dainty embroidered nightie to polish shoes, before washing it one last time and using it as stuffing? The hassock was a time-capsule of the mundane items that are seldom preserved (because they are literally threadbare) and rarely seen in collections.

Following this New Zealand story, Christine Keller took us back to Germany with “Lack and loss – an inspiration to fight for survival in WW2 and the post-war Germany”. This drew on Christine’s conversations with her family and excerpts from letters. We heard about the lengths people went to keep the clothes on their backs and to retain some semblance of dignity and normality, despite being clothed in curtains, flags, parachutes and sheeting. It was interesting to hear a German story of this period, and to see the impact of war on that civilian population. Christine is a Senior Lecturer at the Dunedin School of Art at Otago Polytechnic.

The role of garment textiles in creating identity was also explored in Douglas Lloyd Jenkins’ witty presentation “A nice gay jersey: masculinity and the knitting pattern”. Douglas made the point, amid gales of laughter, that the frisky male models on these patterns were examples of an alternative reality for a boy growing up gay at a time when homosexuality was otherwise invisible. Douglas is the Director of the Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery, and was elected President of the Costume & Textile Association at the AGM on Saturday.

The people’s choice award for most popular speaker went to Jacqueline Field for “A historic design archive saved and a carpet design recreated”. This was the story of Jacqueline’s involvement in researching the carpet lost from the hallway of the Victoria Mansion in the US. This led Jacqueline to Glasgow, in search of carpet makers Templeton & Co. In short, the company had been bought out, the new owners went into receivership, and the archive was in danger of being sold off. It all had a happy ending, with the archive now co-owned by the Glasgow University, Museum and School of Art. Jacqueline located an original employee of the firm, studied the archive, designed a replacement carpet, and showed the recreated piece in-situ. It was a very satisfying story. Jacqueline is retired from a career as a costume and textile historian and teacher and is particularly interested in the American silk industry.

It was a really interesting weekend, and I am already looking forward to the next symposium, likely to be held in Christchurch.

May 2018
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