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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Nellie Ray's stitching legacy

My mother's mother was born Nellie Bearcraft in 1892 in Minster, Sheppey, England and died Nellie Ray in Sydney, Australia in 1981. She married Albert Edward Ray in England in 1913 and migrated to Australia with their three children, arriving in December 1929.


This is a school photo of her two eldest surviving children just before they left England. Grace is wearing a dress that Nellie knitted.

Because of the post-war housing shortage in Sydney, my parents, brother and I lived with my grandparents until I was 6, so I have clear memories of Nellie. I remember her hooking rugs for our floors. My grandfather worked at a Dyers and Bleachers factory in Rosebery and brought home the ends of the rolls of fabric. Some of it was wool, but a lot was an early version of Viyella. The remnants usually had a line across them to mark the approaching end of the roll. My grandmother cut them into strips, about 2 cm wide and hooked them into rugs with large geometric patterns. We had those rugs in the kitchen, hall and bathroom.

One of Nell's first purchases in Australia, as soon as she could scrape together the deposit, was an electric sewing machine. She regarded it as an essential. It meant that she could improve her family's life by making clothing, furnishings and household linen. Nell did not 'sit by the window and sew a fine seam'. She made what her family needed to get out of poverty with her sewing machine and knitting needles.

When we lived with her, my mother did most of the sewing, leaving Nell to knit, which she did every afternoon and evening. Members of our extended family still comment that "Nell was always knitting".  She knitted most of our jumpers when we were kids, all of her husband's jumpers, cardigans and waistcoats("wesk'ts" as he would have said), and all her own. Her only knitting weakness was sewing up seams. The sleeve seams in particular, always came undone at the wrist and had to be oversewn.

She was always altering or making something. It wasn't always successful. When I was about 9 or 10 I remember her turning her flannellette nightdresses into 'pyjamas' by machine stitching them straight up middle to the crotch. She shuffled down the hall killing herself laughing. She crocheted me a dress when I was about 18 in quite a lovely apricot cotton. I wore it and liked it, but, like most unlined crocheted dresses, it refused to keep its shape.

I have a couple of examples of her crocheted baby clothes left.


She made hankerchiefs by crocheting edges on any white material she could scrounge, including men's shirts - and any cotton, often ordinary machine cotton.

Some of these handkerchiefs were softer than others. I still have a couple of dozen of these, including a few with her initial in ink in the corner.

She preferred, however, to knit and always said her daughter Grace was 'the one who could crochet'.

When I moved out of home into a flat in 1969, the year I began teaching, she was approaching 78. She presented me with over 30 coathangers she had covered using left-over pieces of material, some I had given her from clothes I had made myself. I still  use almost all those coathangers. They are peasant sewing rather than fine needlework, but, as she promised, they have not left shoulder marks in my clothes. They have also weathered 40+ years of constant use.

Around the same time she knitted me a cockatoo potholder that I have always liked too much to use.

I really like that, although she didn't want to leave England, always talked of England as 'home', and didn't like going out amongst strangers because of her accent, she was really interested in Australian flowers and birds. My grandfather would take her for drives on the weekends and she's make him stop the car so she could dive into the undergrowth and dig up a plant to take home to grow in her bush house .

When she asked what I would like for a wedding present, I asked her to crochet a tablecloth. However, she thought that was too much for her and bought me two crocheted lace tablecloths.

Even so, into her eighties she kept making things that took her  fancy. She learned to make yoyos and presented me with a clown that still hangs on my study door.

In a hostel for low-level care at 85 she still kept stitching . She made little bags to keep things in

 and a very crude needlebook.

It amazes and touches me that she kept on making tools for her sewing even when her eyes and hands didn't function well.

I inherited the few bits and pieces she had when she died in 1981.  I still use some of her knitting needles and buttons. Amongst her things were a pair of bedsocks she, ever adaptive, had made for herself by enlarging a bootee pattern.

 I thought, at the time of her death, how sad these remains of a woman's life were. I now think they are  strong and triumphant, those threads and stitches that are left to show the struggle and endurance of one woman's life - the tools she used to survive, fend and provide for her family and the manifestation of her contribution and gift to future generations,.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Little Smocked Pirate

After my Kogin cushion I needed a quick and simple project as a bit of a transition to something more ambitious, so I used the piece of black cotton I had pleated at my pleating class last year to make the picture-smocked pirate from Australian Smocking and Embroidery 92( Treasure Trove by Kathleen Barak).
He is very perky and was fun to make.

The AS&E article has instructions for putting him on a open-necked top and yesterday I managed to find a suitable one at Cotton On Kids. I was in two minds as to whether to follow the instructions and cut a hole in the top, or just try to create and add a patch. In the past I have always avoided actually cutting a ready-made garment. It feels like vandalism.

In the end I took the plunge and cut.

Fortunately, it worked quite well. It was hard to stay perfectly straight, as the fabric has so much give in it, but it is also manipulable.

The end result looks quite good and seems strong and durable.

Thank goodness!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Vivienne's Blouse Cushion.

Do you have a shirt that you really love,
One that you feel so groovy in?
You don't even mind if it starts to fade,
That only makes it nicer still.

This is my friend Vivienne wearing a favourite blouse on a holiday in Bali.

Vivienne has taken the plunge and turned this favourite blouse into a cushion.

The blouse was worn on some important occasions.

Now it has a new role and appearance

and will be recognisably part of family life for many years.

I asked Vivienne to lend her story to this blog for a number of reasons: we have been friends for well over fifty years and I empathise with the story; it manifests the satisfaction and reward I feel when recycling. Vivienne didn't just think about it- she actually did it; she didn't put off the day till the blouse fell apart, she did it while the fabric was worth using and she told the story - for now and the future.

What's more, it's a really nicely designed and executed cushion.
How good is that? Thanks Vivienne, for letting me use the story and photos.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Storage bag

I have been trying to organise my stash of fabric to make it easier to search and find. I have managed to reclaim a few cubicals in the Ikea storage unit we set up to hold mainly toys and things used by our grandchildren when at our place and bought some rafia baskets to fit the cubicals.

I was one basket short, so, inspired by a patchwork one I saw at Hetty's Patch, I decided to make a large square storage bag to fit a cubicle. I didn't want to take the time to do patchwork (the coasters have satisfied my immediate yen to use little squares!) so I cut 10 x 36cm squares, interfaced four of the squares and joined them into 2 bags of four sides  and a bottom (one bag interfaced).

The spotty inside fabric comes from my mother's stash. It would look terrific in a child's dress, but unfortunately it fades dramatically when washed. While the bag might get washed, it won't be so frequent as to cause great problem.

The outside fabric is from a cotton Indonesian ikat scarf. It is lovely fabric, but I don't tend to use cotton scarves. This way it will get seen a lot more.

This is the laden bag in situ.

A very satisfying little project.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Easy-peasy coasters

My 5" Moda squares arrived this week from the One Stop Fabric Shop and I turned them into coasters. Easy-peasy,.

I lined the 40 squares up on a piece of black iron-on interfacing, wrong side of square to adhesive side of the interfacing and ironed them on. I then cut the interfacing between pairs of squares, folded the pair with interfacing on the outside and machine-stitched three sides. Turning these little pockets to the right side, I machine stitched all around the outside edge.

Voila! Twenty reversible coasters.

I'm glad I made the edged set, especially the embroidered ones, ( ) but when you can get pre-cut, interesting fabric, at a good price - way to go.

This is the Moda Harmony collection by Jan Patek.

Thank you One Stop Fabric Shop!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Kogin Chair pad

iI have been working on a Kogin chair pad from Inspirations 62. I loved it as soon as I saw it. The kit has been waiting for me to have a few clear weeks to work on it as it requires some concentration and quite a few hours.

Kogin is a Japanese needlework technique used to strengthen fabric for heavy domestic use. It employs geometric designs and thick thread, traditionally white thread on blue fabric. It fits into the 'pattern darning' needlework category.

Although my project is only cushion size, it is very intense thread coverage - and a lot of counting!

I began it before Christmas, but made an error of scale. When working with aida fabric my brain equates squares on the chart with squares on the fabric, so I counted squares when I should have counted lines. After six diamonds I  realised my error and put the work aside until I had time to start again. In late February I unpicked the work I had done, reread the instructions and started again.

This is one full run of the pattern (with a second run beginning at the top). On rereading the instructions I realised that this should have been embroidered right across, from one side to another by repeating the pattern across each row. Instead, I have embroidered it in vertical bands. I'm not too sorry about that. Both in terms of interest and focus, I think I am progressing well.
I am making progress - now filling the gaps.                                                                                                   

The finished embroidery washed and drying on a towel.

The cushion making went reasonably well. It wasn't very clear when the lining was added, but the instructions for joining the ends of the cording were terrific. Hope I remember next time I have to do it. The join is nearly invisible. 

I doubled the thread in the twisted cord. The amount in the instructions didn't look as thick as the picture.

I am very pleased with the result. It is a chair pad, rather than a cushion - which is what a dining chair needs.

I do not, however, think I will make another seven to create a set. I don't like or need padding on my chair, so Jim can have this one and guests can have cushions if they want them!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Zen and the Art of Needlecraft

I have just finished reading Sandra Detrixhe's book, published by Adams Media, Avon, Massachusetts in 2005. It is now, I think, out of print, but I found a copy on Abebooks.

The first thing about this book is that it feels terrific in your hand. It is very light and a great shape - just slightly wider than a normal paperback. The cover is very smooth, and the pages quite thick.

Detrixhe takes the three goals of Zen Buddhism, to balance the mind, enlightenment ("superalertness") and enlightenment-in-our-daily-lives and applies them to needlecraft. While her writing is chatty, homely and centred in her own life it is rarely condescending. Her application of the Zen concept of  'beginner's mind'  (the ability to experience everything as if for the first time) was helpful and would be useful to anyone teaching needlework.

She goes on to explore the eight pathways to overcoming suffering: right understanding, right purpose, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right alertness and right concentration. Along the way are many stories about historical roles of sewing, the role of sewing in her own and other women's lives and stories about sewing in literature.

I found this a very comforting book. I empathise with many of the author's attitudes and experiences. For me, too, needlework is focus, de-stressing and deeply satisfying. It is good to take the time to reflect on why this might be so.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Dressing Gown

When I made the nightdresses ( I realised that given their lightness and thinness, it would be good to make the matching dressing gown.

I also made bags for the nightdresses to be kept in. I remember having a couple such bags for pyjamas when I was a girl. I'm sure they had a name, which I can no longer remember. 'Sachet' is the word that comes to mind, but it isn't quite right. The smocked nightdresses deserved such bags.

The first was relatively straightforward, using an iron-on transfer from my mother's stash and a monogram from Susan O'Connor's book Monograms: the Art of Embroidering Letters. I outlined and filled the B with stem-stitch, then satin stitched over the top.

The second one was slightly trickier. I always collect the little pieces of smocking cut off to form armholes after the smocking is complete, thinking they must be useful for something. This seemed like an opportunity to experiment, so I used the off-cuts from the nightdresses to form decorative corners on the second bag.

Each corner is two offcuts handstitched together. It worked OK. The B in this one is in stemstitch.

The Victorian Dream for Girls pattern I used for the nightdresses has a gown pattern with it, so I purchased more fabric from Country Bumpkin, this time in a slightly heavier cotton. It pleated and stitched nicely.

 The sleeves have an overlap rather than an underarm seam - quite easy to do. I edged the sleeves and bottom with a cotton/polyester lace left over from the second christening dress for the twins. It is a very easy way of edging - just lace edge wrong side to fabric edge  right side with a fine zigzag, then turn down and straight stitch around on the right side.

I was unsure about the length, but I decided to stitch a pleat around the bottom if it was too long - which it wasn't. Since taking the photo I have added a small pocket and a tag inside the back for hanging on a hook.