Unpick this, Renée

Thrift to Fantasy: Home Textile Crafts of the 1930s-1950s
Rosemary McLeod
HarperCollins, $59.95,
ISBN 1869505093

Rosemary McLeod is an intelligent, witty and acerbic columnist who does us the favour of saying the things we’d like to say out loud, if we had the guts. She has written this history of three decades of handcrafts with the same skills, plus the lively insights and passion of a true collector. As all history books should but seldom do, Thrift to Fantasy takes us from the personal to the universal. I took ages to read it because I kept getting (happily) diverted by the photographs and their informative and engaging captions. Even when I decided to read it again and not allow my eyes to linger on anything except the narrative, it was hopeless – inexorably I would find myself reading the captions, gazing at the embroidery designs, trying to recall when it was I attempted that particular design.

I started off my handcraft career with an oven cloth. An oblong of sugarbag, cross-stitched in a design on one end then folded and joined so the inevitable ugly knots or the backs of badly worked stitches would be well hidden. My cross-stitching was the worst in the class and got dirtier and dirtier, dampened with sweat and tears. It was at this time I had a great insight: school life was exactly like home life; it wasn’t fair. I had my first of many experiences of what is now called “reverse stitching” but which Miss Sugar (surely the most inappropriate name ever given to someone who had vinegar instead of blood in her veins) called “unpicking”. “Unpick this, Renée” was the chorus that punctuated every sewing class, as she held my oven cloth at arm’s length between two fingers, face turned away from the botched (and probably smelly) article.

I got no sympathy at home. Mum was a pragmatic woman who’d early made up her mind that it was knitting that would provide jerseys for her kids, blue for Val, red for Renée, brown, grey or green for Jim, so why would you do anything else? She could earn sixpence an hour weeding carrots, wool was sixpence a skein and she had child labour to wind it into balls. Perfect. As McLeod says, when something got too small or was past darning, you unpicked it, wound it back into skeins, tied them at strategic points, washed them by hand and then hung them on the line. When dry they were wound into balls and knitted up again.

In Mum’s view, cross-stitching a sugarbag was a waste of wool and a waste of time. Everything that wasn’t work was a waste of time. My reading every spare minute was a waste of time. “If you don’t get your head out of a book and into your knitting you’re going to end up on Queer Street,” she told me.  More than once. Yes, well.

Thrift to Fantasy records not only the handcrafts of a certain period but also the lives of Rosemary McLeod’s great-grandmother Alice, grandmother Lucy, and mother Joyce. While the handcrafts the women sewed served a practical as well as a romantic and inspiring purpose, in Joyce’s case, sadly, the romance didn’t last long. Her husband, an enigmatic character not cut out to stand up to his autocratic parents, nevertheless manages to create an affectionate presence in his daughter’s life after the marriage ends.

Handcrafts could be a respite from large or small anxieties, concentration on getting a stitch absolutely right took minds away from daily cares, allowed the sewer to feel in control of something, and the embroidery, knitting or crochet design had a beginning and an end. There was a sense of accomplishment about finishing such a work. It could attract approval and perhaps bring achievement and success, two things that might have been in short supply. Alternatively, the finished pieces might not show outstanding skill or even competence but, as McLeod points out, it was often the enjoyment of the work itself that brought lasting pleasure.

The advent of the birth control pill signalled changes, one of which was the downgrading of embroidery, crochet and knitting. It became a furtive pastime indulged in by us closet knitters and embroiderers. It is only in relatively recent times in Western countries that these skills have been revived and used to embroider works capable of attracting hundreds to exhibitions, whether they are wall hangings, quilts or garments. Wearable art often displays stunning examples. Magazines devoted to one or other form of handcraft have burgeoned. McLeod explores both the world inside and outside the house, and graphically demonstrates how handcrafts of the time reflected individual and community attitudes and ideas about Maori.

Thrift to Fantasy is divided into parts, each with various sections. The (often grim) historical context is set against the antidote which embroidery offered. The writer asks whether these handcrafts of women were truly inferior to the culture of male enterprise, or rather a parallel culture that should be viewed as important in itself. The book answers this question in the affirmative, but it does more than that. While it shows understanding and empathy for the quandaries and confinements of women’s lot during those decades, it also, by presenting the story of previous generations’ lives, shows us how prevalent and indeed desperate at times was the search for that elusive happy ending they’d all been taught would one day be their lot.

The tray cloths and doilies, either worked by the glory-box owner or a relative, the oven cloths and tea-cosies, the handkerchief and nightdress cases are all there in the photographs. And the aprons – ah, the aprons. There were two classes of apron. One was the embroidered, small-pocketed fancy number with a crocheted edging. This you wore to be caught in by visitors in the afternoon. The other was a pinny made from a sugar sack. You wore your pinny in the morning to do the housework, milk the cows, feed the chooks, do the washing. It hung on a hook by the coal range and in times of crisis could be used as an oven cloth.

The fancy one, starched to within an inch of its life, worn after all the chores were done and before the hordes came home for tea. You wore your apron when you sat on the verandah pretending to be a woman of leisure, some embroidery, knitting or crochet keeping your fingers busy. Those were the days when we were our own labour-saving devices but spent a lot of time pretending it all happened by magic.

I was one of the nearly 40,000 people who went to the Dowse Museum to see the exhibition of handcrafts curated by Rosemary McLeod from her own collection. I was one of many who went back more than once. I wasn’t the only one with tears in my eyes as we reflected on the lives of these, to us, anonymous women.

Thrift to Fantasy is lucid, entertaining and totally absorbing (one slip the editor should have picked up – the Labour Party became the government in 1935, not 1938). The wonderfully produced photographs of the works and embroidery designs illustrate the text perfectly and trigger many memories. All of these qualities are enriched by the respect and love the writer has for her subject and which shine through on every page. Alice, Lucy and Joyce would be proud of her.


Renée’s latest novel Kissing Shadows will be published soon by Huia. Her play Wednesday to Come about the sugarbag years was revived earlier this year by Downstage.


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