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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.


By guest blogger Karen Ross

From a very early age I was aware of the importance and place crafting garments had in my family. My mother was always sewing, mending, planning and piecing together garments for her brood of six.

As she worked in the dress fabric section of the once grand department store DIC she always had the pick of remnants and interesting cuts of fabric. My sisters and I were extremely well clothed and few guessed they were all made at home.  During the 60s clothes were simple: bright shifts and long A-line skirts. I share my mother’s love of fabric and sewing, though sadly none of my siblings do.

During this period I was vaguely aware of the family gown that was laid out for each baptism, but as it did not concern me I forgot about it. Only when I started to have children of my own did I ask my mother where it had got to.  At first it could not be uncovered, so when my son was baptised he had to have a new garment trimmed with fabric from my wedding gown and adorned with a deep trim constructed for the gown by a very close friend.

It was only after my daughter was born that the family gown surfaced. She wore that to the church and the more functional ‘newer’ one at home.  As they are 17 and 25 years respectively now the ‘newer’ garment in soft cream viyella is getting on, a little.

Family gown (left) and new gown (right)

After this I started to uncover the story of the family gown. Word had it that it was completed onboard ship to New Zealand,  which dates it to around the late 1860s.  I am not sure if this is true, and am trying to reconstruct its story at present.

It is made from very plain material but is all hand sewn and demonstrates exquisite craftsmanship in the trim and central panel.

Over the years many babies have been baptised in the gown. As part of unravelling its history I am making an undergarment for the gown.  Around the hem of this garment I am going to embroider, where possible, the names and baptism dates of the babies who wore the gown. I will keep you posted on my progress.

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.

May 2018
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