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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.

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

It is nearly a week after my total submersion in the 9th annual symposium of the Costume & Textile Association of New Zealand, and I’m nearly decompressed.

There were 19 papers presented over the two days; I want to reflect on several of them that, for me, were about the role of garment textiles in maintaining the threads of personal and community identity.

Perversely, the first paper I want to mention, Jennifer Quérée’s “Ersatz – German paper textiles of World War I” was not about garment textiles. Jennifer told us about how the British blockade of raw materials into Germany from 1914 resulted in the development of paper textiles as an alternative to cotton. Samples of these eventually ended up in the Canterbury Museum, where Jennifer is Senior Curator of Decorative Arts. Apart from being fascinating in its own right, this paper set the scene for others which were about deprivation, adaptation, and making do.

Writer, collector and freelance curator Rosemary McLeod shared “The Hassock” with us. This object was almost literally thrust upon Rosemary by a stranger after the publication of Thrift to Fantasy in 2005. The hassock, described by some as a pouffe, was a tooled leather cover that had been stuffed with rags. The leatherwork could be dated as a World War 2 souvenir from the Middle East. Rosemary talked us through the nearly 5kg of rags that had been used as stuffing. The items spanned the 1920s to the early 1940s, and told the story of extreme poverty, or extraordinary thrift – depending on your level of optimism. They also showed that sewing ability does not come naturally. There were misshapen children’s rompers, a woman’s skirt made from menswear, and heavily mended stockings, vests and knickers. How uncomfortable were the people who wore the stockings and knickers with those lumpy darns and mends? What frame of mind was the woman in when she used the worn-out shreds of a dainty embroidered nightie to polish shoes, before washing it one last time and using it as stuffing? The hassock was a time-capsule of the mundane items that are seldom preserved (because they are literally threadbare) and rarely seen in collections.

Following this New Zealand story, Christine Keller took us back to Germany with “Lack and loss – an inspiration to fight for survival in WW2 and the post-war Germany”. This drew on Christine’s conversations with her family and excerpts from letters. We heard about the lengths people went to keep the clothes on their backs and to retain some semblance of dignity and normality, despite being clothed in curtains, flags, parachutes and sheeting. It was interesting to hear a German story of this period, and to see the impact of war on that civilian population. Christine is a Senior Lecturer at the Dunedin School of Art at Otago Polytechnic.

The role of garment textiles in creating identity was also explored in Douglas Lloyd Jenkins’ witty presentation “A nice gay jersey: masculinity and the knitting pattern”. Douglas made the point, amid gales of laughter, that the frisky male models on these patterns were examples of an alternative reality for a boy growing up gay at a time when homosexuality was otherwise invisible. Douglas is the Director of the Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery, and was elected President of the Costume & Textile Association at the AGM on Saturday.

The people’s choice award for most popular speaker went to Jacqueline Field for “A historic design archive saved and a carpet design recreated”. This was the story of Jacqueline’s involvement in researching the carpet lost from the hallway of the Victoria Mansion in the US. This led Jacqueline to Glasgow, in search of carpet makers Templeton & Co. In short, the company had been bought out, the new owners went into receivership, and the archive was in danger of being sold off. It all had a happy ending, with the archive now co-owned by the Glasgow University, Museum and School of Art. Jacqueline located an original employee of the firm, studied the archive, designed a replacement carpet, and showed the recreated piece in-situ. It was a very satisfying story. Jacqueline is retired from a career as a costume and textile historian and teacher and is particularly interested in the American silk industry.

It was a really interesting weekend, and I am already looking forward to the next symposium, likely to be held in Christchurch.

June 2017
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