Buttons and Threads

Button Box

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.

Buttons from my button tin.

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:

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Mum’s wooden darning mushroom and the thread she used to mend holes in Dad’s socks.

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.

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Nylon ladder mendings…. For mending ladders in nylon stockings.

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.

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These are the hugest needles I’ve ever seen.

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).

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I learned to sew on this machine, and it’s the best ever. It stitches its way through any fabric, without having to keep altering the  tension or changing needles, and it it has a lovely even stitch, and is absolutely ace at hems. But the rubber wiring is beginning to perish, so I guess the electrics need looking at.

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.

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It folds away like this, and the worktop bit flaps back over to turn it into a table…
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… Like this. The foot control should be stowed away inside, but I put it here just for the photo, to show how it compares to modern ones. And if you look closely you can see that the wiring looks a bit dodgy.

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.


Short Story Sunday: A Seaside Holiday

It’s Week Five of my Short Story Adventure, and I’m on the fourth tale in The Persephone Book of Short Stories. Holiday Group, by the wonderful EM Delafield (of Provincial Lady fame, hereand here), shows how summer breaks, however eagerly anticipated they may be, do not always live up to expectations, especially for harassed mothers who face a whole heap of extra work and worry, with no help or consideration.
Sunbathing and sea air were considered beneficial. Trains were
 a popular method of travel. This London Midland  and Scottish
Railway poster for holidays  in Saltcoats  was produced in 1935,
a few years after Holiday Group was written.

A legacy enables the Reverend Herbert Cliff-Hay to take a ‘real holiday’, a second honeymoon as he calls it – though his wife Julia is quick to point out that they will be accompanied by their three young children, Martin, Theodore and Constance. You quickly catch the flavour of relationships within the Rev H C-H household:

When twelve o’clock on the 15th of July came, the packing was done, the suitcase and portmanteau belonging to Herbert, and a small tin trunk containing the effects of Julia and the three children, were locked and labelled, the basket, with sandwiches and bananas in it, stood ready. The village Ford that was to take them to the station was due in twenty minutes – and Herbert, Julia and their two elder children waited anxiously for the infant Theodore to wake from his morning sleep, so that the pram could be put into its sacking and its label tied to the handle.
Midland & Glasgow & South Western
Railways used this poster, extolling the virtues
of holidays on the West Coast of Scotland
in 1910, 

Julia worries that if the baby is woken he will be cross all the way down; Herbert worries that they will miss the train, and Constance wants a spade. However, they reach their destination without mishap, and head for Eventide, which is to be their home for the next two weeks.  There plain buns (which sound very unexciting if I may say so) await them, and it appears that landlady Mrs Parker offers few services and no assistance, although she does provide early morning tea, which I think would be wonderful – having a cup of tea brought to you in bed is my idea of luxury, and should never be taken for granted.

Bathing belles on the beach at Shanklin on the Isle of White.
These are the outfits fashionable young women would have
worn in 1926 when Delefield’s short story was published, 

As the days pass poor tired Julia shops (there are always things to be bought for the children) and mends (there are always clothes to be repaired). She gets the children up, puts them to bed, supervises them on the beach and in the sea, and produces cold food and hot drinks – in defiance of the landlady’s ‘no cooking at night’ rule she has brought a spirit stove with them so they can boil water and be independent. She does all this without her usual help, since Ethel, the family’s servant, has been left behind to look after the house.

Julia was intolerably sleepy. She was often sleepy at home, too, since she had never been without a baby in her room after the firsty ear of her marriage, and was always awakened early in the morning…
Delafield mentions bathing machines, which had largely fallen out
of favour by the mid-20s, but perhaps she was thinking of
something like these stripey wheeled huts, pictured at
St Leonard’s-on-Sea in 1895.

And there’s not much in the way of practical support from Herbert although, as usual, he is ‘goodness itself’ and ‘as kind as ever’, always willing to offer Julia advice on what she should and shouldn’t do. He cannot understand why she is even more tired than usual, or why she finds it so difficult to get up in the morning when she is awake directly if one of the children so much as turns over in the night.

Julia wondered, but did not like to ask, if that was the reason she was so sleepy now. She said feebly that she thought there was an instinct which woke mothers on behalf of their children. ‘When we get home,’ she said hopefully, ‘and I know that Martin and Constance are in their nursery with Ethel next door, I shan’t wake so early in the mornings, and then I shan’t be so tired at night. Besides, it’s this wonderful sea air. It’s – doing – wonders.’
Julia may not be convinced that the holiday is a good thing, but her husband has no such doubts.
‘Now that we’ve got this legacy, Julia dearest, and that our debts are all paid, I want to afford a holiday every year,’ said the Reverend Herbert, adding with unwanted effusiveness, for was a reserved man, ‘You and I, and little Martin and Constance and the baby – and perhaps other little ones if we should be blessed with them. To get right away from home cares and worries and responsibilities, and have a thorough rest and change. I value it even more on your account than on my own.’
EM Delafield

Julia yearns for a good night’s sleep and is nostalgic for childhood, when she was still Julia and hadn’t become ‘Mamma’, and holidays were spent with her own Mamma and Papa in a nice hotel, where no-one was bothered about ‘extras’ on the bill, and they all enjoyed a real meal at the end of the day, rather than cold ham, bread and cheese, with cocoa made over the spirit lamp. However, she says nothing. Instead:

… her eyes – her tired eyes – filled with the easy tears of utter contentment. She thought, as she had often thought before, that she was a very fortunate woman. Her heart swelled with gratitude as she thought of her kind husband, her splendid children, and the wonderful holiday that they had all had together.
Mmm, I thought, who is she kidding? That’s self-delusion on a grand scale and, as with some other stories in this anthology, there’s a degree of ambiguity. I know this was written in 1926, when women’s roles and expectations were very different to what they are today, but even so Julia seems to be remarkably listless, apathetic, and thoroughly downtrodden, and is completely submerged by the children, her own personality sunk without a trace. I’m not even sure that she really likes them all that much: she seems to use them as a barrier to keep the rest of the world – and her husband – at a distance. She would be quite happy, I think, to let baby Theodore carry on sleeping, so the pram cannot be packed, and if she misses the train and can’t go on holiday it won’t be her fault.
I couldn’t decide if there’s an element of complicity in her acceptance of a role as domestic martyr, or whether married life has squashed the life out of her. Perhaps she’s simply decided that life is easier if she takes the line of least resistance, which is understandable, because Herbert is what I would call a steamroller man, trampling over other people’s dreams and aspirations without ever realising that they have hopes and fears, likes and dislikes which are very different to his own.
All the photos in this post, with the exception of the portrait of EM Delafield, came from Place and Leisure, Book 4, AA 100 The Arts Past and Present, published by the Open University.