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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.

I’m Kerryn and I’m a vintage fabric-aholic. I visit op shops frequently. I get to jumble sales before the doors open. My heart leaps when I catch a glimpse of something promising amongst the dross. I’ve got a set of drawers and a filing cabinet crammed with the fruits of my addiction. Sound familiar?

While most of my stuff hibernates behind closed drawers most of the time, occasionally I’ll get a length out and consider what I can make with it. My collection is not quite an archive – while I’m unlikely to alter made-up pieces and definitely shy away from using my pristine vintage oven cloths for their intended purpose, I don’t consider pieces of fabric untouchable. Still, it’s hard to get the scissors out because there’s no going back once that first cut is made!

Cushions are a good way of using and displaying vintage fabric. They are easy to make and don’t require too many cuts, which is important if you’re loath to disturb the pattern of the fabric by cutting through it.

Some of these I’ve covered myself, others I’ve bought made-up. The colourful one in the middle was embroidered in wool by my very talented aunt Sheryl Faul. These are the ones I’ve made:

These are all barkcloth fabric. Another way of displaying vintage fabric without getting scissor-happy is to make a wall-hanging or to treat it as a canvas. I bought a large piece of very boyish ’70s barkcloth years ago and I’m really glad I held onto it because it makes an awesome addition to my young son’s bedroom wall.

This was one piece I couldn’t bear to cut. I commissioned my woodworker partner to make the recycled timber frame and he did an excellent job. The fabric is held fast onto the inside of the frame by thin lengths of timber so no stapling or gluing was required.

I just hope this imagery doesn’t seep into Amos’ unconsciousness and cause him to become a boy racer in later life! I’m not remotely interested in motorbikes but the gorgeous colours, well-realised pattern and great sense of movement won me over.

Amos can sit in style in this little metal-frame chair I made a new seat for. Cowboys and Indians are not in particularly good odour these days but let’s not impose our contemporary views on vintage!

Lightshades require more cutting and sewing, depending on the frame used. You’ve also got to be careful that your precious fabric doesn’t get too warm and go up in smoke! I imagine that ready-made lightshades are probably treated to make them heat resistant but (touch wood) I’ve not had any trouble in this department.

This is another barkcloth number. The pattern makes me think of kiwi feathers with a hint of peacock thrown in. Not sure of the date – my guess is 1950s. It’s made out of the same piece as one of the cushions above. I love this pattern and I stored the fabric for many years before I used it.

I made these lightshades for my open plan kitchen and lounge with uncovered frames I found at the tip shop in Wellington. I laid the frames onto some newspaper and made a pattern by drawing around one panel. I then cut out a series and sewed them together. I didn’t have enough fabric (or patience) to match the pattern up, and in any case the shape of the panels would have made this difficult. The pattern is an abstract one so I think I got away with joining unrelated pieces together. You could say I’m reinterpreting the pattern.

They are actually upside-down lamp shades which works really well – they hover beautifully and cast interesting light shapes on the ceiling. On the odd occasion I’m driving up our street at night I can see them through the windows floating like little spaceships.

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