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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.


Handkerchiefs were at once homely domestic objects and fashion accessories. They were intended for a life of hard work or decoration only – many were both. Thanks to the introduction of tissues from the mid-20th century, hankies are no longer part of every woman, man and child’s wardrobe, which is why I talk about them in the past tense, though I’m sure they are still regularly used by some.

I have a collection of 70-odd hankies, which I inherited after my Nan moved into a retirement village. I’d never studied them properly until I decided to write a blog post on them.

My handkerchief collection

Most are linen, some are cotton. A small number are silk, chiffon or acetate. Many have simple embellishments, some are heavily decorated and others are very plain indeed. White and cream predominates. All have a light, beautiful, powdery scent which probably comes from a drawer liner.

They were all folded into small squares, which presented me with a dilemma – do I unfold them? This may sound silly, but for all I knew they had been like this for decades. Some were beautifully folded. I was loath to disturb them for this reason.

Some folded examples - note the multiple pleats on the bottom right one

I decided to unfold most and keep some folded as examples (see above). I also carefully ironed them. I’m glad I did, because I would never have discovered that many of these hankies probably belonged not to my nan Betty, but to her mother Florence (Flossie). Both were middle-class homemakers.

Flossie's name

I realised this when I found her name – F Madill – written in fountain pen on a simple linen hanky. This one was obviously for every day use but nevertheless not to be lost!  A couple also have the letter F appliqued on them.

Appliqued F above drawn work decoration

Drawn work is the most common embellishment on these hankies. This is when small holes are made close together and tied at the ends to keep the squares open. It’s very pretty, delicate work. Here are some examples.

Decorative drawn work on linen

Cotton drawn work on one corner with tatted border

Silk hanky with a simple drawn work border - or is this pulled work?

Another group are decorated with netting borders. Like some of the more decorative drawn work hankies, these were for decoration or extremely light work only.

Light cotton hanky with soft net border

Light cotton hanky with coarse net border

Another one not designed for a woman with a cold is this beautiful and delicate organza hanky. The camera has played havoc with it I’m afraid – the centre’s gone a bit haywire.

Organza hanky

Some of the hankies are very plain, with no borders or just one line of drawn work around the edges. Most though have decorative borders, which lift them from the mundane.

Linen hanky with a crochet border

Linen hanky with a lace border

Linen hanky with a tatted border

Lest you think my womenfolk were wholly conservative, demure ladies who never strayed beyond tasteful white or cream, here are some patterned examples.

Green and yellow tartan cotton hanky

Red and blue acetate hanky. Note the hand-sewn rolled hem.

God save the Queen - souvenir hanky commemorating the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

Many of the hankies are embroidered, mainly in white and cream threads. This one is a departure from this theme.

Blue linen embroidered hanky

Some still have labels precariously affixed to them.

This is probably a price tag or stock number

All pure Northern Irish linen

No. J911 Goods all cotton. Made in England

A Grafton handkerchief. New Zealand made

More pure Irish linen

My favourite label. It's peerless

Like the items Fran wrote about in her last blog (, hankies were often kept in special boxes or bags. This small organza hanky bag also came to me by Nan – I think it was probably Flossie’s. My camera doesn’t like organza!

Organza hanky bag

Some women kept clean and dirty hankies in bags that looked like small shirts. There’s one in Rosemary McLeod’s book Thrift to fantasy. These typed labels were intended for these – I wonder if any got made? It’s very twee.

Many of these hankies were used but some were clearly not. Flossie’s English cousin Jessie Batson sent her a birthday card which reads ‘These were bought in Switzerland – just a small token to show I have not forgotten this landmark’. The landmark is Flossie’s birthday. A stiff linen drawn work hanky is folded inside the card. It has a label which reads ‘hand work’ and could well be Swiss.  I wonder if she used one and kept the other in the card for sentimental reasons?

Another gifted hanky remains in its cellophane wrapper, complete with Christmas card. I don’t know who the giver Margaret was.

Men are not entirely absent from this collection. There’s a few large, stained cotton hankies embroidered with the letter B – that’s my poppa Bruce. One is still in it’s wrapper, forever pristine.

What shall I do with all these hankies? They sat folded in my linen drawer for a few years until now. Recently I considered piecing some together to create an apron, but after looking at them properly I realised I don’t want to re-purpose them. Hankies they were, hankies they will stay. I do know that I won’t be using them to wipe tears, snot or brows. I may however, tuck one in a pocket for decorative effect every now and then.

I’ve been thinking about the talk Lilian Mutsaers gave to the Glorybox group on her MA thesis, where she talked about the potential and promise of uncut cloth, and the cupboards, boxes and suitcases filled with pieces that may never lose their selvedges.  I have a cupboard like this myself.  Interestingly, several of the most extravagant pieces in it have been given to me, having been bought and stored for a number of years by someone else.  No-one has ever told me specifically what they were going to do with these pieces; I am free to invent new possibilities.

My interest in textiles is focused on clothing, especially home-made clothing.  I have also been thinking about how we learn to sew, both at home and in the school curriculum, and to what purpose.  For me, as you will see below, sewing was as much part of family life as cooking or gardening.  We celebrated home sewing as a demonstration of skill, thrift, and creativity, with the bonus being you got clothes that fitted you.

My sister and I grew up with my mother’s family. My maternal grandmother made clothes for her three daughters.  This picture is of my mother in a dress made by her mother for the 1959/60 ‘season’.  It was bronze peau de soie, shot with black, lined in taffeta.

Alison at a dance in 1960

This glamorous look was accessorised with high heeled, pointy toed, sling back shoes in matching satin.  While those were over the counter shoes, accessorising could also be a family game: I have a vivid memory of granddad sitting on the back porch using Harmony shoe dye to match shoes to a dress for one of my aunties.

My paternal grandmother was apprenticed in the Levy factory when she was 14.  Long after she stopped working in clothing factories she had an industrial sewing machine at home for ‘piece work’ as a means of making extra money.  Not much cloth lay un-cut in her house, especially if she could get two colour ways of the same fabric.  Bingo!  My sister and I got matching outfits.  We were walking billboards for her expertise.

These vest and skirt outfits (left) were in denim, with shiny metal buttons, made for Christmas 1968 (I think).  The polo necks were ‘dickies’, and just sat inside the neckline.  I remember being very perplexed by this item of clothing – perhaps because it was not home-made!

The smock dresses (below) were made from thick cotton fabric, almost like cretonne. They were knee-length with Peter Pan collars.  Check out the curtains, the gleaming formica table, and intricately iced cake – another demonstration of skill.

I am keen to hear stories of learning to sew, and the fabric and pattern buying habits of different households.  In future posts I plan to reminisce (and hopefully elicit information) about the glory-days of fabric shops and button counters in Wellington – the favourite haunts of home-sewers.

May 2018
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