Southlands, Scrapbooks and Sad Mittens

Yesterday I went on an Expotition to the Southlands archive at the University of Roehampton.  This was an enormous undertaking because Southlands is technically another college (I work at Digby Stuart and we have a cat called Digby).

Digby. Who is awesome.

Digby. Who is awesome.

Sometimes when I’m working in my office, Southlands seems enormously far away and getting there involves some hideous effort. You have to go past the duck-pond and everything.

Actually, it’s a walk of about a hundred yards.  And it’s worth it because of the archive.

Part of the archive is kept in a swish glass display case beside the senior common room. I’ve walked past part of the display dozens of times on my way to get tea but I’d never actually got to play with it until yesterday.

Like the other Roehampton colleges, Southlands started out as a teacher training college and many of the items in the archive relate to the kinds of things student teachers were expected to learn. There are some pretty strange things, including a miniature shirt from 1900 (I’m assuming the place was overrun with semi-clad homunculi because I couldn’t find any miniature trousers)

Tiny shirt

Tiny shirt

There are a couple of really lovely stitched samplers and portfolios.  Including a sampler dating back to the 1870s (one of the earliest items in the collection.

And a lovely little scrap-book collection of very fine crochet work.

At the Mary Lamb colloquium at the weekend there was a great discussion as to whether collections of stitchery and needlework portfolio like this one count as commonplace books.  I like the idea that they form a record of your work and that the little pieces might act as material ‘quotes’ that could be used in a larger piece of work.  I really like the idea that textiles can be texts – that both are narratives of a kind.

There are lots of narratives we can tell ourselves about things like this – the history of the production of each of the constituent materials, the dye, the thread, the silk, the cotton, the story about the person who made it, about the person who used it, and the stories about its making…

One of the things that caught my eye every time I passed the little cabinet was this pair of mittens:

They were made in the 1942 by N. Samuel. On closer inspection they appear to be made of an undyed 2-ply wool yarn (maybe fingering-weight but I figure 2-ply is more likely) with a pattern picked out in a slightly slubby brown wool (again I suspect in its natural undyed state).

N. Samuel was not an expert knitter.  And there is a clear difference between the two mittens – not so much in the tension, that’s pretty consistent, but in the tone and the assurance of the work. The cuff of the first mitten is not joined very securely in the round and you can see where N. has joined the round after a couple of back-and-forth rows.

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These were obviously a piece to learn on. The second mitten has a much neater cuff.

The same can be said of the intarsia work.  This is the first mitten.

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And here is the second:

WP_20141202_007On the second mitten N. has got the hang of colour dominance.

The thumbs improve too but it was really hard to get a photograph of them.

Basically, these mittens tell the story of N. learning how to knit.  They were never worn and they were never made to be worn and, to be honest, I feel a bit sorry for them languishing in their glass case with all the other things that must have taken students such time and effort.  It seems a bit sad that after all the work N. put into them, they were just left behind in the college.

It got me thinking about my own unloved early crafting efforts…the, frankly terrifying, Santa dolly I made in primary school that Mammy still put up with the Christmas decorations even though it look like it was trying to run away from its own face, the wonky pink headband that stretched out of shape in about two minutes, the hideous acrylic purple scarf with extra purple….my early crafting was rubbish.  But it sort of didn’t matter.  Because at the time they was the very best things I could have made.  If I find a picture of the terrible Santa dolly, I’ll post it.  Sometimes I suddenly remember it and burst out laughing.  Sometimes this happens when I’m on the bus or in the library.  This is not so good.

On Doilies

Today I discovered something that changed my life.  The scales have fallen from my eyes.  Mind blown.  Everything is changed, changed utterly.

I found out what doilies are for.

Doilies – [also  doileydoylydoyley, or even erroneously d’Oyleyd’oylie according to the OED] are weird lacy napkins-type things that look like soft tea-saucers.

My childhood was haunted by doilies – specifically by the doilies that adorned my Auntie’s sitting room – every table, every chair, every solid surface had one – one long runner-one along the back of every armchair, one small round one on the arm of each chair, one underneath every ornament on the mahogany shelf, one in every place where you might conceivably put down a cup or rest your hand. Even the lampshade had lacy etched glass that look (to my young and foolish eyes) like a see-through doily. The only thing Auntie hadn’t got was a doily-shaped ceiling-cosy.  I’m pretty sure she would have got one too if she knew where to buy them.

I always thought they were pointless – worse, they were a nuisance.  They were always slipping onto the floor and crinkling up and then they’d have to be taken away and washed and fresh doilies, stiff from the hot press[1] would be laid down.  I hated them.  And the doilies hated me too.  I only had to look at them and they’d get grubby.  Then I’d get blamed.  When it all was the doilies’ fault.  Or, really, let’s be honest, Auntie’s fault.  She bought the doilies in the first place.

But then, today while doing some teaching prep[2]: a revelation. Once upon a time, doilies had a function.

[In the 19th century home] coal residue was omnipresent, both as dust when coals were carried to each fireplace and then, after the fires were lit, as soot thrown out by the fire, blackening whatever it touched.  The most common system of protection was to cover whatever could be cover, and wash the covers regularly. (Judith Flanders, The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed (2004), 10)

Doilies were part of a whole system for fighting against coal dust

 …housekeepers simply had to accept that soot and ‘blacks’ [flecks of coal dust] were part of their daily life.  Latches to doors – both street and inner doors – had a small plate or curtain fitted over the keyhole to keep out dirt.  Plants were kept on window sills to trap the dust as it flew in; or housewives nailed muslin across the windows to stop the soot […] tablecloths were laid just before a meal, as otherwise dust settled from the fire and they became dingy in a matter of hours. (Flanders, The Victorian House, 70-1)

Far from being totally useless, doilies are exactly as useful as houseplants.

Actually, there seems to have been a craze for putting aspidistras and doilies together.

aspidistra

There’s even a doily on the cover of Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying

GeorgeOrwellKeepTheAspidistraFlying

I think I’ll do a post about Aspidistras soon.  Flora Klickmann had some very severe opinions about them.  Maybe I’ll even design a doily based on an aspidistra.  Probably not though.

If you do decide to make a doily, there are some really beautiful patterns out there.  As well as crochet patterns for home-decorating doilies like the Crocus Doily from JoAnn and  this giant crochet rug made out of t-shirt yarn, there are lots of patterns for knitted lace shawls like the gorgeous Queen Anne’s Lace Shawl from Men Who Knit, Jared Flood’s lovely Hemlock Ring Blanket, and these doilies from Yarn Over. I’m sure any one of them could be adapted to make a fine ceiling-cosy.

I’m still slightly afraid of doilies so I won’t try making one anytime soon.  Maybe when I buy an aspidistra and need some to stand it on, I’ll give it a go.

This week, I’ve been mostly working on winter scarves  (woo! Layers!)

This one is based on Rose Anne’s Braidheart pattern.  I made one ages ago in a dark charcoal grey and I wear it all the time so I decided to make something of a similar weight and style.  I’ve also started working on a shawl pattern from the book I found in the bin.   It took me a while to decipher the handwriting and make sense of the pattern but I’m getting there…slowly.

 

[1] A hot press is like an airing cupboard but in Ireland.

[2] Real work, I swears it on the precious.

The Modern Old-Fashioned

Sometimes my research doesn’t really work out. I was looking forward to spending some time in the Bodleian with some old books this week.  I’d ordered up some copies of Stitchery [the craft supplement for the Girl’s Own Paper] and a contemporary American periodical, The Modern Priscilla.

 

 

I was both delighted and disappointed by them both. While both publications purport to include patterns and tutorials for all kinds of needlecraft and fancy-work in reality it seems that readers were expected to read the informative articles about how to make these things and send away for the patterns by post.  So there weren’t nearly as many tutorials and things as I had hoped.  Most of the patterns are for tatting work (not among my skills) or Irish Crochet (the patterns are basically gobbledygook to me because I’m so useless at crochet).  I was really hoping to find a pattern for a shirt-waist so I could spend the rest of the week dressed up as a Gibson Girl and lounging under a sun-dappled tree with my correspondence and a badminton racket.

gibson 2

I admit I can’t see a badminton racket here. But I’m sure she has one. Or a croquet mallet or something.

 

Alas, I think my chances of finding some of those original paper patterns are rather slim. But what the publications lacked in useful patterns they made up for in bonkers advertisements and editorials.  I was kind of expecting this with Stitchery – after all it was edited by Flora Klickmann, matriarch of British craft publications, prolific author and expert at telling people what’s wrong with their furniture.

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Flora Klickmann: not to be trifled with

 

But The Modern Priscilla is a whole new kind of bizarre. What were they thinking? In the first instance, the name makes no sense.

Priscilla  fem. proper name, from Latin, fem. of Priscillus, diminutive of Priscus, from priscus “antique, old-fashioned, old, ancient, primitive, venerable;” related to prior (see prior (adj.)).

So if “Priscilla” means “old” or “antique” then the name of the magazine is “The Modern Old-Fashioned” which is a bit strange. And the whole thing seems to strike this weird balance between the deeply modern (with all the fashion plates and advice on the latest gadgets) and the profoundly old-fashioned.  Look at the covers:

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If anything, the cover suggests that this is the kind of magazine you share with your granny.  Or share with your granddaughter. And the pair of you will sit merrily making lace until you’re both half-blind. But then you turn the pages and all the crazy comes out in a rush.   The Modern Priscilla presents some of the most singularly unattractive patterns I have ever laid eyes on…

But the majority of the magazine is taken up with advertisements.  Astounding, wonderful, baffling advertisements including…

Detailed editorials on the health and beauty benefits of vibration!

Racy novels!

And she was a nice girl too...

And she was a nice girl too…

Terrifying tools!

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Birds that sound like violins!

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Craft courses!

Your friends will certainly be surprised...

Your friends will certainly be surprised…

 

But every now and then the adverts are interrupted by tutorials for the most useless and unnecessary trifles ever…

 

 

Who needs a crochet coin-holder? Why not just tie a knot in your handkerchief and save all that effort and faff? What were you thinking, Mrs F.L. Merritt?

Who needs a crochet coin-holder? Why not just tie a knot in your handkerchief and save all that effort and faff? What were you thinking, Mrs F.L. Merritt?

Once I’d stopped laughing (and for a time I was afraid I might never stop) I thought that there must be a logic behind it all…

Maybe the editors were being arch and ironic?

Maybe they were so snarky that they knew EXACTLY what they meant by “modern old-fashioned”… Maybe they were hipsters – effortfully quirky, painfully postured, sneeringly, ironically chic.  Maybe this was a blackly-comic and subversive publication that, while presenting itself as a nice little guide to managing your household and embroidering every available surface with flowers and ducks, was in fact a dark howl of enraged domesticity. If a nice lady decorates things then surely a really nice lady decorates all the things!  Pile on the chintz!  More ruffles!  More cross-stitch!  More useless and delicate items for the home!  Make whisk-brush holders, lacy shelf-edgings, doilies for every available surface.  Above all, decorate yourself and any small people you happen to be in charge of.

Though, actually,  probably not…

So, in honour of Mrs. F.L Merritt and the ladies of The Modern Priscilla I give you a rescued vintage pattern for a Crochet Rose from the Coin Handkerchief…

Crochet Rose

As this is the first time I’ve ever made something in crochet, I decided to test it out in big yarn to get the hand of things.

It was a lot easier than I expected though my stitches are a bit squiffy.  I will get hold of a wee delicate little crochet hook and see if that makes a difference. Who knows…maybe I’ll be able to surprise all my friends this Christmas with coin hankies…