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By guest blogger Jacqui Wagstaff (

My Grandma Hazel grew up in suburban Melbourne in the 1920s and 1930s.

In Hazel’s world, girls from well off and genteel families stayed at home until they were married, spending their time learning the womanly arts of painting, sewing, embroidery and writing. They filled their glory boxes with dainty doilies and stitched items.

Hazel and her sister Leila were taught their skills entirely by their mother, and by all accounts they enjoyed the challenge of fine fillet crochet and delicate embroidery very well.

Hazel as a child of about two dressed up for the photo

They also learned ballet and Irish and Highland dancing, as was the custom for girls of the middle classes in Melbourne at that time.

Leila went off to art school in the early thirties and Hazel herself was apprenticed to a dressmaker, which is quite remarkable, given that Melbourne would have still been in the grip of the Depression at that time.

My Grandma Hazel holding my sister Johanna in her country Victoria garden in 1970. I am sitting beside her.

Hazel married William in 1936, and he turned out not to be your average handsome prince. He was probably oblivious to the contents of such a glory box. William was a rough diamond, a man’s man, and not terribly interested in Hazel pursuing any womanly arts – bar child bearing and running a household on very little money in the backwoods of country Victoria. The doilies and the pretty things became superfluous, as did the time to produce any more. Hazel’s skills were taken up with sewing and knitting clothes for her family: mending, darning and making do.

William went off to war in 1939, leaving Hazel in charge of two little boys and a girl born in 1940 (my Mum). She moved from Melbourne to a small country town at that stage, as she had some family support there, and thought it would be safer for the children. She took in washing and ironing, and thoroughly enjoyed her independence by all accounts.

Hazel continued to knit and sew and make things for the home and her children. Although the pretties were forgotten and left in the glory box, she continued to pass on the skills to her own daughters.

My Mum tells the story of her first knitting lesson, in which she was forced to endure an agony of anticipation while Hazel made the trip to the bottom of the garden to the outside ‘dunny’. It was essential to do this before any knitting was commenced.

The wool was cherry red, probably left over from somebody’s jumper, and the young Valmai was so proud of it. She was about eight years old at the time, so I think it’s a miracle that she finished it, but finish it she did. She remembers it being nothing less than perfect; but in reality it must have been riddled with dropped stitches. I suspect Hazel fixed up the mistakes when Valmai had gone to bed, so that it was all as good as new the next day!

Meanwhile Leila was single and at art school in Melbourne. She spent her life perfecting her art, and making beautiful things, marrying much later in life. She became a very accomplished painter, as did my mother. Leila’s handwork is wonderful, and of course there is so much more of it, because Hazel didn’t have time for it ever again really. She had seven children in all, and her life was completely taken up with domestic routines and feeding and clothing children.

They had few clothes, wash day was Monday, and in the winter the clothes were dried inside by the range.  Hazel did make beautifully embroidered pinnies for the young Valmai to wear over her clothes when she came home from school.

During the war, Hazel made underwear from flour bags, washed and turned inside out. Apparently about as comfortable as undies could be!

There was a desperate shortage of material at that time, so Leila made the beautiful embroidered tablecloth in the picture from calico. It’s the loveliest quality and texture; nothing like what we know as calico today.

I am so grateful that so many of my Grandma’s and Great Aunt’s pretties have survived. I have this gorgeous doily in my bedroom, milk jug covers for my tea parties, and tray cloths; and access to various other lovelies on a rotational basis from my Mum. We have a kind of a permanent loan thing going on with Grandma and Auntie Leila’s lovelies, Leila’s comfy armchair and great Grandma’s painting of Loch Lomond.

I feel blessed to have them in my life and proud of the way these women produced such beauty in times of such adversity.


My aha moment was staring at the magnificent array of textiles from Rosemary McLeod’s collection at Lower Hutt’s Dowse Gallery.  Initial thoughts of dreary linen were quickly replaced by total entrancement in the exquisite detailing.  Raving later to my mother about these textile treasures, I was delighted when she gave me various family pieces.

The first example was embroidered by my maternal great-grandmother during the 1940s.  It was later displayed near my desk in the futile attempt to imbibe the cheery “Good Morning” message as a new workplace mantra.  While this thought didn’t last, there is still something special about holding a piece of linen that has been worked on by past generations.  I’m grateful to my maternal grandmother for retrieving this and other pieces that could have easily been thrown out.

The above tea cosy was embroidered by my paternal grandmother.  I remember her as a fantastic knitter but never knew about her other needlework talents.  She also did the tatting for these two 1940s doilies embroidered by my great-aunt.  Destined for the op shop, a random conversation about recent linen purchases lead to them being presented to me instead.  It makes me wonder what other textiles are lurking around in family cupboards!

The last piece is part of a tablecloth embroidered by my mother who for many years has rescued unfinished pieces dumped in op shop material bins.  Now completed, the tatting was done by an elderly neighbour who has since passed away.

 I’m very appreciative to all of these women who have created such lovely work and memories.

May 2018
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