Sunday, 10 March 2013

Family stories

It's Mothering Sunday (not quite the same as Mother's Day) here in the UK, and as I seem to have inherited the 'sewing gene' from my mum's side of the family, it seems appropriate to post a bit about where my love of all things needlework-related comes from.

(First of all I should mention that the women in my dad's side of the family tended to be good cooks, a trait I definitely haven't inherited, although a near total lack of circulation in my hands does mean I can make good pastry!)

First of all comes Great-granny T, my mum's dad's mother. Born in 1871, she worked as a lady's maid to the Countess of Kingston.

Great-granny T in 1951

A lady's maid did more than simply dress her mistress. She also had to know the correct and fashionable style of dress for any occasion, and be knowledgeable about hairdressing, millinery, making beauty preparations, laundering and stain removal. Because she accompanied her mistress on her travels, she also had to know how to pack properly. Great-granny T travelled to New York with her employer; that must have been a great adventure for a girl from an ordinary background in the late nineteenth century.

Of course, a lady's maid also had to be an expert at dressmaking, alterations and mending. When I'm engrossed in embroidering or beading a dress or a dance costume, I can sometimes imagine my great-grandmother doing something similar on one of the countess's gowns.

Granny T, my mum's mum, was born in 1900, not far from where I now live. This photograph, taken in 1922, shows her with her sister on the promenade at Blackpool. She died when I was very young so I never got to know her, but from what I do know of her I'm not surprised to see that she's got a book in her lap!

Granny T, on the right, with book

When my granny's own mother died her father remarried. Her stepmother was a milliner, and my granny and her sister not only had to work (for nothing) in her shop during the day, but also spend their evenings trimming hats for sale. This earlier and slightly blurred photograph shows the sisters outside the newly renamed shop, with a window full of late-teens era hats; all beautifully trimmed, of course.

Hats, and sisters

As well as knowing exactly how best to wear any hat, my granny made many of her own and her daughter's clothes, and taught my mum how to sew. During World War II, when clothing and material were rationed, like many women they both became adept at squeezing new garments out of very little fabric.

Mum continued to make many of her own clothes after she had left home, and there are many family photographs of her in her wonderful 1950s creations. The 'shell dress' (the fabric had off-white stripes and a pattern of stylized scallop shells on a grey background) in the picture below was a particular favourite of hers.

Mum in 1951

I have many childhood memories of watching Mum dressmaking, for herself or for me. Over four decades later, I can still clearly remember, in slightly worrying detail, the first time I decided to have a go myself.

Mum was making herself a dress out of a bonded crimpelene, which was plain coffee-coloured on the wrong side and a dark brown paisley pattern on an orange background on the right side (well, it was the late 60s/early 70s). I took a couple of remnants, hacked them into roughly rectangular shapes to make a dress for my doll, and 'sewed' them together. This consisted of one enormous stitch for each shoulder seam, and a few more, equally large, stitches for the side seams. I didn't have the motor skills to keep the thread in the eye of needle, and it kept coming unthreaded. Eventually I decided to knot the thread through the eye, which solved one problem, but unsurprisingly made it far harder to get the needle through the fabric.

Mum must have explained to me about sewing the pieces with the right sides together, as I can still picture what happened when I turned my creation right side out: the fabric was so stiff that formed a cylinder which stood up by itself!

Despite all this, I was very pleased with my efforts. Once it became apparent that I was interested in sewing, Mum taught me everything she knew, and I moved on from slightly more sophisticated dolls' dresses to making clothes for myself. As a student I even made loose covers for the slightly dingy armchair in my furnished flat by following the instructions she gave me on a trip home.

Thanks for everything, Mum!


  1. Oh Black Tulip!! What a wonderful heritage you have gained from your Grandmothers!! I have a similar story from my Grandmothers and I treasure the "genes" they passed on to me!! Thank you for allowing me to pin pictures of your loved ones to my 1920s board!! Huzzah!!! To be a ladies maid to a Countess, work in a millinery shop (too sad that it was for no pay) and to watch a daughter sew her first dolly dress (I totally giggles at the dress standing by itself)! The ladies in your family are quite a treasure! Thank you for sharing this lovely piece of your ancestory!


    1. Thank you Gina! I'm glad you liked the pictures.