Sunday, May 6, 2012

A History Of Sewing Women

My grandmother died on Sunday. She was 96 years old.

It wasn't wholly unexpected - she'd been living in a nursing home for the last four years and she pretty much just stopped eating some two weeks ago. When we went to visit her, she always wanted to sleep. She told my sister she was old and tired.

She's gone home to her Saviour. And we're sad for ourselves, but relieved that she's out of pain and in a better place.

She got me into art and painting - it was my mother who inducted me into sewing, and an aunt who set me on the quilting path. But it seems my grandmother was a bit of a sewer herself, making her own clothes from bright bits of cloth. My strongest memories of her are a thin, birdlike woman with a hunch, who told outrageous stories, and gave trinket gifts.

I'm not so relieved at the prospect of cleaning out her house, though. It's a lovely old house in a wealthy suburb in Sydney, which has been left to run down. It's pretty much been left exactly as it was since she moved out, with things shuffled around but not really cleaned or tidied up.

And she almost never threw anything out.

The result being that we made a few finds while going through the house.

A jewellery box with an embroidered lid of Chinese silk: the delicate, hand-sewn type.

Chinese silk-sewn jewellery

Isn't it exquisite? (The colour's more vivid in the photo - it's a lot more faded and muted in RL.) It needs cleaning - very careful cleaning! And the box itself is falling apart, but that's just a matter of glue and re-upholstery.

Box cover detail 2

I may have to take up a little silk embroidery myself to fix some of the bits that are falling apart. Not sure where to start for that. (Other than the internet: "Google is your friend.")

Then there's the China silk swatches I discovered in a box of my grandfather's stuff.

Silk swatches

My grandfather ran an import business of Chinese smallgoods into Australia from the late 1930s until he was somewhere in his 70s. He died in 1996, and my grandmother pretty much just put all his stuff into the 'spare bedroom' and didn't sort through any of it. (Gran wasn't one for organisation.)

Silk swatches : label

Tussah silk is presumably the silk produced by the Chinese Tussah Moth, which is a wild silkworm, as compared to the Bombyx mori which is the customary commercial silkworm.

The texture is exquisite! And the colours! (And the fact that they're pretty much precuts!)

Silk swatches: close up

Why yes, I do believe that is the sound of a quilt being planned inside the confines of my skull. Why do you ask?

Of course, some of them need to be cleaned.

And then, of course, they all need to be ironed. Which I can do with the Very Old Iron I found and kidnapped. Pretty much perfect condition! Of course, I'll have to remember not to leave it face down on the fabric, because this vintage of iron doesn't have an 'auto-off'...


There were sackfuls of fabric in the spare room. Which I'll have to find time/space to go through.

Other discoveries in the house include this length of cotton in what looks very much like 'sari' colours:

Cotton sari fabric?

An embroidered tablecloth - cross-stitched Chinese junks:

Cross stitched tablecloth

And a Ginger Meggs sweater that my dad reckons he used to wear as a kid. Ginger Meggs is an Australian icon - a larrikin kid who got into trouble as facilely as he got out of it.

Ginger Meggs Sweater detail

And the big find: a Hordernia sewing treadle machine! Condition unknown!

Hordenia treadle sewing machine

Still in its cabinet, although the belt connecting the pedal to the wheel is long gone and the treadle is all rusty.

Hordenia treadle sewing machine

I shall have to see if it's repairable - even if all one can do is sew a plain, straight stitch on's certainly a small piece of history - my history - a family heirloom!

Goodbye, Mah-Mah. I will miss your hand gestures and your cackle, your stories and the fondness in your eyes. I will miss the horror of powdered milk and chokos boiled until they were mushy, chocolate that had a use-by date of 1983, and tins of food so old that the contents had fermented, boiling out the ends of the can like bloated aluminium aliens. I will miss your quoting of your favourite bible verses, the slow musing over old pictures of family and friends, and my eccentric, entertaining, loving grandma.

Rest In Peace, Mah-Mah, and I'll see you someday when I'm called home.


  1. Blessings as you remember your grandma....

  2. What treasures to help you treasure your grandparents when you can no longer visit them!
    Your "new" Hordernia will clean up just fine. The leather treadle belts are readily available (here in the US they retail for $8-$10). The rust will clean up fine. And, lucky you, it's in a parlor cabinet. Those machines were built to be used for well over 100 years! (And when you're ready to get it going, there's a great little list [actually, it's not so little] called "Treadle On" as well as a website: with really helpful members.


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