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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 too attended the 9th annual symposium of the Costume and Textile Association of New Zealand (http://www.costumeandtextile.co.nz/) and have been raving about this fantastic conference ever since. Thanks to Stella Lange, I learnt that knitters who stash their material use similar vocabulary to those of drug addicts. Apart from stash, there’s your (wool) dealers who assist in your habit as you become addicted in order to complete ‘just one more row’. I was also struck by the number of references to military history. From dresses worn at the time of the 1864 battle of Gate Pa, soldier dolls made for lost loves in the Great War, a souvenir doll of a ship later sunk in World War Two to moving accounts of families surviving during Nazi Germany, the theme of ‘hanging by a thread’ came through strongly. Creativity and more likely necessity saw outfits created from flags, curtains and other fabric remnants.

World War 2 tablecloth

World War 2 tablecloth

Rosemary McLeod’s talk about a post-World War Two hassock stuffed with over five kilograms of rags was a particular highlight. An examination of the contents revealed bits of lace curtains, stockings darned to death, children’s underwear made from adult’s clothing and embroidered doilies used as shoe polish rags. Like an archaeological survey, the reuse of items raises many questions about the changing circumstances of this family. Why did dainty embroideries become polishing rags? Did the 1930s depression followed by World War Two necessitate the careful reuse of fabric before finally consigning it as stuffing? Having once owned a similar hassock, I can only wonder about its contents.

The darning mushroom features the words 'Edith 1943'

A presentation about Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum’s forthcoming Australian Dress Register (http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/dressregister/) mentioned the inclusion of a tram destination-roll transformed into men’s underwear. References to underwear made from flour bags appears in an earlier Glorybox blog. (https://gloryboxtextiles.wordpress.com/2010/06/09/a-tale-of-two-sisters/).  The Australian Dress Register is due to be launched in September and Auckland designer Doris de Pont (http://www/fashionmuseum.org.nz) is developing an online New Zealand Fashion Museum.

Douglas Lloyd-Jenkins looked at the connection between knitwear and representation of gay men on television. From Glee to Ugly Betty, the wearing of jumpers tends to signal gay characters. We were then taken on a hilarious visual tour of knitting patterns and how men have been portrayed in some fairly hideous outfits. Inspired by Douglas’s talk, I found the following scary examples at a local op shop.

Knitting patterns

Patterns include 'Romantic Romano'

The presentations were enhanced by audience discussions particularly around context and conservation. Many historic outfits have been altered with little documentation about the  changes made, leading to speculation about the life cycle of a piece. The exquisite restoration of costumes for the National Gallery of Australia’s (http://nga.gov.au/Home/Default.cfm) forthcoming Ballets Russes exhibition drew debate about whether repairs override the intentions of the designers who had made later modifications. Whatever your views are, this and the work of the Victoria Tapestry Workshop (http://www.victapestry.com.au/news_index.aspx) makes for compelling reasons to visit Australia. But before then, join the Costume and Textile Association of New Zealand (http://www.costumeandtextile.co.nz) so that you can become involved with a really interesting group of people.

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.

June 2017
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