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.


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.

With the upcoming Diamond Jubilee celebration of HM Queen Elizabeth II and a long weekend for New Zealanders, thought I’d display a few royal pieces of linen.

1953 Table cloth

Table cloth marking the 1953-54 tour of New Zealand

The first is a particular favourite – although too scared to use it just in case there is spillage.  The table cloth was produced for the Queen’s first tour of New Zealand in 1953-54.  As quoted on’s excellent online feature at

“Those who were children at the time recall the BIG Day, marked for months in the calendar, when they dressed in their posh clothes, pinned a royal tour medallion to their chests, collected a butter box to stand on, a Union Jack to wave, and perhaps a periscope to look through, and set out to ‘see’ the Queen”.

There was a frenzy of commemorative products ranging from wooden rulers, drinking glasses and lots of china.  Plates are easy to find but examples of linen marking this significant tour which ran from 23 December 1953 to 31 January 1954 is a little bit more challenging.

The Queen’s earlier Coronation in June 1953 produced a frenzy of items including the following two scarves.

1953 scarf

Scarf produced as part of the 1953 Coronation celebrations

 This larger and more colourful example was found recently at a stall.  

1953 scarf

A number of china plates produced for the Coronation were later sold for the New Zealand tour with new tour stamps added on the back of the plates.  Would have been a different and more difficult situation to re-brand the older linen products.

Also the proud owner of the following delightful milk jug cover which is completed with red and blue beads.

Milk jug cover

1953 milk jug cover

Lace curtain produced for the 1977 Jubilee

This example of Silver Jubilee lace was given to me by a colleague – don’t you love receiving unwanted treasures from others?  Will be interesting to see if any linen commemorative pieces are produced for the Diamond Jubilee.  Have spotted lots of china plates, figurines and even corgis but still looking for a classic tea towel to mark the occassion.

June 2018
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