So there I was, enjoying a nice, slow, leisurely re-read of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and pondering all things Tudor, when I took a break to visit other blogs, and discovered Lynne at Dove Grey Reader was reading The Button Box: Lifting the Lid on Women’s Lives by Lynn Knight. She wrote a lovely post about it here, focusing very much on her own memories, and mentioning all sorts of sewing-related things, including embroidered tray cloths, Cash’s name tapes, haberdashery and, obviously, buttons (what else would you expect in a piece about a book called The Button Box?).
It conjured up so many memories of my own childhood, and sounded so wonderful I just HAD to have it. And, since instant gratification was the order of the day, I downloaded it on to the Kindle, which turned out to be a Very Good Thing, because this was a couple of months ago, just before I dashed off to Mum when she was ill. Now Wolf Hall is brilliant, but it’s a bit too much of a chunkster to be a good travelling companion, whereas the Kindle, being small and slim, is ideal for journeys. So I left Master Cromwell chatting to Jane Seymour while he awaits my return, and I headed for The Button Box, which was every bit as good as I had hoped.
Lest you should think a book about buttons sounds boring, let me assure you it is not – and it’s not just about buttons. Lynn (the writer) selects buttons from her collection to reveal stories about her family’s past, but she also uses them to channel a wealth of information about social history, with the emphasis on women’s clothing and the way it reflects the changing roles of women in society, from Victorian times through to the present day.
Alongside tales of her grandmother Annie (a skilled amateur dressmaker), great-aunt Eva (a smart dresser if ever there was), and her mother in her fashionable cocktail dresses, are accounts of Victorian mourning rituals, adopted babies (or foundlings, as they were once known), Suffragettes and their fight for the vote, working women on limited budgets, middle class women with their clothing allowances, and the vital tasks undertaken by women during two world wars. Knight also explores the lives of the women who made clothes – the dressmakers who stitched their days away, often for very little money, so other women could live out their dreams. And, of course, she describes her buttons, and explores the button making industry, which became established in the UK in the middle of the 19th century and was, for many years, based in Birmingham.
I loved this book and ended up following much the same route as Lynne (the blogger), because as I dipped in and out of the pages I kept stopping to rootle around in Mum’s sewing box (above), and chat to her about the various clothes and household items she stitched over the years, and the things I sewed and embroidered (and still do). When I was a child I loved playing with the sewing box, and it’s still a treasure trove of goodies – even more so now, perhaps, because of the memories it holds. For a start, there’s this:
It’s the wooden darning mushroom Mum used to darn Dad’s socks (he always put his big toes through the ends). The socks were slipped over the mushroom, to hold them firmly in shape while stitching. Does anyone still use them I wonder? Are they even manufactured any longer? And can you still get cards wound around with wool to match the colours of socks? And what about the fine, flesh-coloured filaments of nylon which Mum once used to mend holes and runs in stockings? It seems so pointless now, when cheap tights are readily available but, as Mum says, stockings were virtually unobtainable during the war, and were still in short supply afterwards, so women did their best to make them last a little bit longer. The habit of looking after things, and keeping scraps and oddments in case they came in useful, became second nature, she explains. It was all part of that of the ‘make do and mend’ culture generated by the war. When I think about it I’m surprised at how the needlework equipment reflects personal and general history. Knight is spot on with her approach because these things, unused by Mum for a number of years, could be considered worthless, yet they reveal layer upon layer of history.
There are reels of thread, some of them old wooden spools – my father used an empty reel to make me a knitting dolly, with four nails banged around the central hole, and I produced yards and yards of tubular French knitting from oddments of wool. Mum’s also squirreled away hooks and eyes, press studs and zips, many of them carefully removed from old clothes. There’s dress maker’s chalk, thimbles, scissors, and all sorts of needles. We’re both fascinated by the curved monsters in the photo below. One of them appears to be listed as a sailmaker’s needle, and Mum certainly never made any sails! Her memory is not what it was, but thinks these may have been some kind of upholstery. Whatever their use, they were considered to be essential items in the workbox.
I also open up her sewing machine. It’s an electric Singer, a shiny black cast iron beauty, with golden decorations, housed in a solid wood table, with a covering top that swings open to form a work surface. She and Dad bought it 1953, when they went shopping for a kitchen cabinet! It says much for my father’s good nature that they returned home with a magnificent top-of-the-range sewing machine, priced at £60 11s 6d (old money – this was well before decimalisation). They bought it on hire purchase, and the interest pushed the total cost up to £69 4s 6d (Mum still has all the original paperwork for the machine, including the HP agreement).
Tracking down the equivalent value today proved tricky: one site I looked at suggested £1,347, while another came up with £1,791.80. So to try and put things in perspective I read an old Guardian article, and discovered the average weekly take-home pay in 1953 was £9 5s, so the sewing machine was unbelievably expensive, and Mum was the envy of all her friends – a real trendsetter! It was, she says, money well spent. She made all sorts of clothes on it, for herself, and for my brother and I – everything from thick woollen coats to the flimsy net tutus I wore for ballet, as well as curtains, cushions, bed covers and dolls’ clothes. One year for Christmas she made me a doll’s cradle out of a wooden fruit or vegetable box. She padded it with an old blanket, then covered it inside and out with remnants of embroidered white silks and satins left over from a wedding dress made by the dressmaker who lived in the flat above my uncle…. There was a matching pillow and eiderdown (who remembers eiderdowns?) and everything was trimmed with gathered lace edgings (also donated by the dressmaker). It was stitched in secret, after I’d gone to bed, and must have taken her weeks and weeks, and it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Sadly, there is no photograph of it, but it lives on in my memory, a testament not just to Mum’s skill as a seamstress, but to her love for me.
Oh dear, I seem to have digressed, and this post is getting longer and longer, and I haven’t even mentioned my own button tin, but The Button Box is that kind of book. It invites memories and meanderings, and you could take any chapter and write reams about it. but I really must wind things up.
So here goes. It’s all too easy to dismiss sewing and women’s fashion as frivolous and unimportant, but Knight made me realise how much fashion reflects social customs and women’s position in society. Her book is very readable, and well well researched (she acknowledges her sources in an extensive bibliography, which is nice to see), and she shows the importance of innovations like home sewing machines, off-the-peg clothing, lightweight easy-to-wash materials, electric steam irons, and modern fastenings. They seem so simple yet, according to Knight, not only did they give ordinary women the chance to be well-dressed, but they freed women from time consuming tasks like washing and hand-stitching, changing lives and opening up new opportunities outside the home.