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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,.


Anonymous said...

I loved reading this story and seeing all the lovely things Nellie has made etc. You have some real treasures here and such a wonderful story. I didn't have any contact with my grandparents since my grandfather died in 1978, I was only 8 years old. He was a wonderful man that enjoyed handcrafting toys for the toyruns that used to be around then. Never really knew the women of the family. But really loved my Pa and the carpentry has rubbed off through him to my father and on to me. I'll turn my hand to most things.

Jillian said...

Living with my grandparents for the first seven years of their marriage was hard on my parents, especially my mother, who was at home all day. I think, however, it was a lucky thing for me, growing up in an extended family and knowing my grandparents.

Being able to turn your hand to most things is a great asset, I think. We are the inheritors of a very valuable tradition of resilience - and hope.

jillyb said...

I love this story and especially love the cockatoo! So glad you didn't use it Jillian! My mother is in her early 80s and is no longer able to do the fine needlework she loves. Instead she has taken up knitting again. For Christmas she presented the women in my two sons' lives with handknitted socks and matching gumboots. Even though they were dressed in their party clothes, the girls put on their knee length woollen socks straight away and pulled on their gumboots. There were both smiling and marvelling at the gorgeous socks. Just right for the farm and tending the horses in the paddock!

Jillian said...

The cockatoo is worth displaying, isn't it? Glad you like it too.

What a great idea to give gumboots with the socks. I've bought a book called "I can't believe I'm knitting socks!" and hope to try knitting a couple of pairs this winter.