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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.

I’ve written about things that have come to me from my Nan before. She was an expert keeper of things – not a hoarder (her house was far too tidy for that) but a preserver. Born in 1921, Nan was a child of the Great Depression and grew into young woman-hood during the Second World War. The things of hers that I now have and the way they have been carefully preserved speak of the cultures of thrift and conservation these times required. She never forgot them.

This is great for me of course. I am the beneficiary of Nan’s thrifty habits. The last time I visited my parents, who have stored the contents of her house for a few years now, I had another rummage. This time I came away with some old boxes with textile treasures within.

This is a very plain, battered old box. The lid is fixed to the base by a shoe-lace marked with rusty stains. Nan’s habit of labelling things means its contents are not a secret.

The box is filled with colourful embroidery threads, some used, some not. The threads still wrapped in their labels were manufactured by British firm Clark’s. Nan has cut out her own cards to keep the smaller lengths of thread on – all carefully labelled by colour code.

The real surprise is contained on the underside of the box lid:

This is a pencil-sketch of the cottage garden hollyhocks I have seen on so many vintage aprons, tea cosies and duchess sets. It’s a nice touch.

The next box is less shy about advertising its wares. I think it’s an old chocolate box. The lid must convey a Scottish landscape – would a New Zealand chocolate-box scene ever include gorse, a Scottish native which has long been the scourge of farmers throughout the country?

The chocolate’s long gone and the box now houses more embroidery threads. The warm glow of the gold foil on the underside of the lid makes this box feel like a treasure chest.

A wider range of manufacturers are represented here: more Clark’s, including the Anchor brand, J&P Coats and The Royal.

There are some Belgian threads in amongst the British ones, though they seem to have been repackaged for the Commonwealth and English-speaking market.

I laughed when I first opened the final box.

I will never be short of these useful sartorial items again.

That is pure thrift.

What am I going to do with all these embroidery threads, given that I am not an embroiderer and do not have the patience to become one? Actually, even if I was, I’d hesitate to use them. These boxes and their contents (perhaps the shoe-lace one aside) have become textile artifacts. I feel a sense of veneration for the boxes and threads as a complete package. Added to this is the family connection – all this stuff is my inheritance. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some, if not many, of these threads actually belonged to my Great Grandmother, Nan’s mother Florence. This suspicion only strengthens their value as heirlooms.

I think I’ll keep the threads in the boxes and place them on a shelf somewhere. Though I’m not continuing the family habit of embroidery, I am continuing the one of preservation.

Sometimes, I find myself acquiring vintage textile objects that are not particularly attractive and possibly possess little in the way of craft merit. All the same, I can’t pass them up – vintage is not that common. One such item I have in my collection is an awkward and rather cumbersome cottage tea cosy.

This truly is the ugly duckling of my collection, and like that duckling, it has endearing qualities. The walls and chimney are constructed out of really thick, almost pelt-like, woolen fabric which looks kinda felted. The roof is textured upholstery fabric. The bottom is trimmed with woven wool and it’s lined inside with green polished cotton. It’s a sturdy little number and, I imagine, would do a very good job of keeping the tea pot insulated.

The front has a cute wee door at left and a picture window in the middle. The windows (there are three in total) are quite something – frilly lace around the inside, transparent plastic to stand in for glass and criss-cross cotton glazing bars. Cottage garden favourites hollyhocks and delphiniums grow up the wall. A large, almost bare tree growing next to the door curves around to the side wall.

Around the back, delphiniums are joined by sunflowers and other colourful blooms. No back door, just another picture window.

The fourth side is dominated by a slim, upright tree with yellow catkins dangling from its branches. Above the tree is a wee attic window – there should almost be a small face peaking out, though that would possibly be a little disturbing.

It’s far too chunky, the roof reminds me of a mushroom cap and the chimney sags alarmingly, but this cosy also has some very sweet features. I love the flowers and trees – in contrast to the clumsy attempt at grass and the dodgy glazing beads on the windows, some of these are very well done. The maker put a lot of time into this cosy. It’s an odd combination of amateurish and more accomplished work. I can’t help wondering whether more than one person made it. This ugly duckling won’t be turning into a swan anytime soon, but I’m still very fond of it.

Postscript

My fellow collector Fran McGowan has sent me a photo of her cottage tea cosy – it’s the knitted cousin to mine. The maker was very sensible and included a detachable lining, which must have made getting rid of tea stains much simpler.

Fran's cottage tea cosy

August 2017
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