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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.
When people think of fragile heirlooms passed through the generations, I suspect a cloth bacon bag doesn’t readily spring to mind. However recently I was presented with several muslin bags that belonged to my great-grandmother.
Through a winning combination of thrift and hoarding, these bags have survived generations of multiple house moves. I wonder how these and other similar pieces of fabric would have been used in the past once the bags had served their original purpose.
Perhaps these bags date from the 1930s, the era of the Great Depression where recycling was a way of life in order to keep households running. Did these experiences ensure people kept these cloth bags for fear of throwing away items that could be reused?
Did they become backing cloths for curtains, quilts or rugs? Perhaps they were turned into oven mitts, aprons or laundry bags for holding stockings or dusters? Whatever the answer is, I found myself drawn to collecting these pieces of linen. Here are some favourite pieces picked up at vintage fabric events.
Vegetarians won’t agree that you can ‘eatwell’ with bacon.
A lot of flag waving for rolled oats.
Snow appears to be popular in some brand names.
I’m Kerryn and I’m a vintage fabric-aholic. I visit op shops frequently. I get to jumble sales before the doors open. My heart leaps when I catch a glimpse of something promising amongst the dross. I’ve got a set of drawers and a filing cabinet crammed with the fruits of my addiction. Sound familiar?
While most of my stuff hibernates behind closed drawers most of the time, occasionally I’ll get a length out and consider what I can make with it. My collection is not quite an archive – while I’m unlikely to alter made-up pieces and definitely shy away from using my pristine vintage oven cloths for their intended purpose, I don’t consider pieces of fabric untouchable. Still, it’s hard to get the scissors out because there’s no going back once that first cut is made!
Cushions are a good way of using and displaying vintage fabric. They are easy to make and don’t require too many cuts, which is important if you’re loath to disturb the pattern of the fabric by cutting through it.
Some of these I’ve covered myself, others I’ve bought made-up. The colourful one in the middle was embroidered in wool by my very talented aunt Sheryl Faul. These are the ones I’ve made:
These are all barkcloth fabric. Another way of displaying vintage fabric without getting scissor-happy is to make a wall-hanging or to treat it as a canvas. I bought a large piece of very boyish ’70s barkcloth years ago and I’m really glad I held onto it because it makes an awesome addition to my young son’s bedroom wall.
This was one piece I couldn’t bear to cut. I commissioned my woodworker partner to make the recycled timber frame and he did an excellent job. The fabric is held fast onto the inside of the frame by thin lengths of timber so no stapling or gluing was required.
I just hope this imagery doesn’t seep into Amos’ unconsciousness and cause him to become a boy racer in later life! I’m not remotely interested in motorbikes but the gorgeous colours, well-realised pattern and great sense of movement won me over.
Amos can sit in style in this little metal-frame chair I made a new seat for. Cowboys and Indians are not in particularly good odour these days but let’s not impose our contemporary views on vintage!
Lightshades require more cutting and sewing, depending on the frame used. You’ve also got to be careful that your precious fabric doesn’t get too warm and go up in smoke! I imagine that ready-made lightshades are probably treated to make them heat resistant but (touch wood) I’ve not had any trouble in this department.
This is another barkcloth number. The pattern makes me think of kiwi feathers with a hint of peacock thrown in. Not sure of the date – my guess is 1950s. It’s made out of the same piece as one of the cushions above. I love this pattern and I stored the fabric for many years before I used it.
I made these lightshades for my open plan kitchen and lounge with uncovered frames I found at the tip shop in Wellington. I laid the frames onto some newspaper and made a pattern by drawing around one panel. I then cut out a series and sewed them together. I didn’t have enough fabric (or patience) to match the pattern up, and in any case the shape of the panels would have made this difficult. The pattern is an abstract one so I think I got away with joining unrelated pieces together. You could say I’m reinterpreting the pattern.
They are actually upside-down lamp shades which works really well – they hover beautifully and cast interesting light shapes on the ceiling. On the odd occasion I’m driving up our street at night I can see them through the windows floating like little spaceships.