How writing groups work

The reaction to my last post on writing retreats was so positive — thank you everyone for your likes, retweets and reads—I thought I would continue the vibe and focus on writing groups.

I have been part of a writing group for three and half years now and it is a key part of my strategy for keeping the writing going between retreats. Some of the same elements of a retreat are carried over: good company, good food, and work in progress. What’s different is that it is disciplinary specific: we four are all historians. This provides a different kind of intensity and also a taken-for-granted understanding of what I am trying to do, which I really appreciate.

The group was initiated by another member who had a semester’s sabbatical and had to complete her book manuscript in that time. We decided that it was a great idea for all of us and had an initial meeting. What’s interesting for me about the constitution of the group is that it consists of a former colleague, my PhD supervisor and my MA supervisor, who are all now good friends. So we all knew each other and each other’s work well.

We decided that we would meet roughly every six weeks on a Monday evening for dinner at a wonderful local restaurant, and that we would eat, drink and talk about what we are currently working on and our progress to date. At the beginning of the year we usually share an annual writing plan and then we do a stock take at the December meeting of what we have achieved (or not).

A typical meeting consists of brief updates from us all and then we focus on one member’s work in particular. We might circulate abstracts and bits of drafts for reading beforehand, and the woman whose work is in focus might provide a fuller piece. We are meeting this Monday and I have part of a chapter to respond to in advance, from a larger book manuscript. Often we also talk about workplace issues or support we might want for thinking about our career. We try to keep moaning to a minimum! We also have a practice of bringing the artefacts, our publications, to the table, to be passed around and celebrated in person. Our collective productivity is really quite amazing.

For most of last year I felt as if I was always turning up with little to show for it. Yet it was always good to talk, to get reassurance and to get searching, productive, questions about what I was trying to do. Having to front up regularly was very good discipline. I also find that I learn as much from the other members and their wrestling with writing, as I do from what I am attempting to do. It is patently clear that I try to do too much and have a long, ambitious plan in February, when really I should just concentrate on the main thing on my list. So I have taken myself in hand. This year is much better in that respect.

In the first year we helped our colleague finish her book and she won two prizes for it. There has been one from another member since (gone to press due to be published in August) and the other two of us have nearly finished our ones. There have also been articles, chapters, online encyclopedia entries, and several conference papers each. In between meetings we text, email and phone encouragement (and empathy), and email new articles we have published to each other. It is just wonderful to know that my writing group members are always there for me.

Happily, I will be able to report on Monday that in the last six weeks or so I have delivered a keynote and an invited paper (in sequential weeks!). I have received feedback on my book manuscript from a good writer friend and the publisher, and completed the revision of the introduction, while at my writing retreat. I have also sorted out what I have to do to next on the book revisions and in what order. I have done lots of thinking and planning about my current and next projects. I have also commissioned the last contributor to an edited collection on material histories that I am preparing and received another abstract and paper in outline. Oh, and of course, I have started this blog!

The bliss of writing retreats

I am writing this from a desk looking over Lake Taupo, in the middle of the North Island of New Zealand. A well-stoked fire is roaring and six women are writing with me as we share space in a large hall. All is companionable silence.

This is the tenth year I have been coming to either a winter or spring retreat of ‘Women Writing Away’ at the Tauhara Retreat Centre. It has made all the difference to my productivity and also to my hopes and fears around writing. I would not have published as much scholarly work as I have, nor learned how to think, plan and organise around it, if I had not attended these retreats. They form precious bright spots in the year when I can leave everything else behind and focus. Yet, as other women have commented, at the same time it feels like a holiday because we have good company, good food, and as much sleep as we want to have!

ImageThe main building at Tauhara, image from website

The WWA retreats are organised by the incomparable Barbara Grant from Auckland University, who has written about them here. They follow a well-developed template of a mixture of writing time, work-in-progress sessions, group paragraph editing, optional workshops, and a collectively written murder mystery that often has a lot about university politics and bureaucracy thrown in for good measure!

The retreat centre at Tauhara is around the lake in Acacia Bay on semi-rural land. We supply our own breakfasts and coffee, and daily lunch and dinner, made from local produce, is provided for us. This takes the time and angst of meal preparation away and leaves ample time for writing.


The dining room, image from website

The aim of the week is to produce an article ready for publication or for a conference, or a chapter towards a book or PhD. We arrive for Sunday night for introductions, orientation, planning and decompression, followed by a shared dinner to which we all contribute. After the first, sometimes slow, day of writing on Monday night we do the mandatory group editing of a paragraph. This exercise is brilliant. We read a paragraph aloud sentence by sentence and respond to feedback on the appropriateness/accuracy of words and send, the rhythm and length. I always come away with a much punchier and convincing paragraph and it is amazing how reading aloud helps!

On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights we share work in progress. The idea is to bring an issue, a puzzle or a piece of draft writing to the group for reponses. Last time I got collective thinking about my schedule for finishing my book and we set up an email group that I agreed to check in with every two weeks. This time I am going to run an ‘elevator pitch’ for my book past the group so that my introduction has a consistent focus. At the moment it takes several goes at saying what the book is about!


My desk as I write this

After lunch most days there are optional workshops on getting writing going, first sentence exercises, writing book proposals, applying for grants or whatever someone nominates.

On Friday late afternoon we reconvene as a group to set some goals to keep the writing going when we return home. These are emailed to us afterwards so we can keep to our promises! Then on the last night we read aloud the Case of Missing Conclusion, our jointly written murder mystery.

I usually bring one main project and other subsidiary ones. When I first started attending, there was no WiFi, and we could really keep to the retreat nature of the week. Now I do a lot of (re)searching on line so I choose to pay for WiFi access for the week. I have managed in one week to draft out a whole article, but usually my aims are more modest. If find that I do as much research planning and strategising, as actual writing, as I have uninterrupted time to think. I find the week a useful stock-taking time.

I always make time to have an on-site massage. Self-care is a big part of the week.


Accommodation units, image from website

This year I plan to go in Spring as well, as my current large administrative role makes it more difficult for me to carve out writing time. This week it is revisions to my book manuscript, which has had more than one trip to this oasis on the edge of Lake Taupo. I’m optimistically hoping that it will be the last time I bring it!


The moving home front

I was delighted to be a keynote speaker at the recent Costume and Textile Assocation of New Zealand’s annual conference. In a previous post, I reviewed the conference and asked whether it was time to rethink ‘The Home Front’. In this post, I want to more directly write about the issues I raised in my keynote: ‘The Moving Home Front: Thinking With and Through Domestic Textiles. I used the opportunity to attempt to use domestic textiles as both a resource and a theoretical tool, by reconsidering and extending the notion and theme of the conference – the Home Front. I developed the notion of the Home Front as moving in, through and beyond domestic spaces and used the case of domestic textiles at home, at school, and beyond.

When we think about this topic, we immediately thing of all those socks.

Image                                Image

Her Excellency’s Knitting Book, 1915                 Warm socks Ticket, Te Papa

But there are other equally iconic objects, such as this Home Guard armband attributed to Donald Archibald McCurdy, who served in the Home Guard with C Company, Makara Battalion, in New Zealand, during the Second World War.


National Army Museum Te Mata Toa, Acc no: 2006.86

Then again, we might think of more prosaic home-knitted vests, jumpers and cardigans, of those who served in essential industries:


Photographer John Dobree Pascoe, Ref: 1/4-000619-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

But where does the Home Front begin and end? Is it self-contained or rather something that shifts geography, function and meaning according to time and context? After all, men carried all sorts of bits and pieces, including textiles, with them to the battle front, in effect recreating their own personal part of the home front. They did this, as authors Kate Hunter and Kirsty Ross suggest in a wonderful new book Holding on to Home ,[1] in order to collapse time and space. Soldiers carried all sorts of objects beside their military garb and equipment, as the cover of their book suggests, to ‘hold on to home’:


That made me think that The Home Front is really more like a contact zone, to use Mary Louise Pratt’s phrase which was enlarged upon usefully by James Clifford.[2] It is something geographical, and also cultural and conceptual. The term ‘contact zone’ was coined in the 1990s as an improvement on the familiar concept of the ‘colonial frontier’. Rather than the predominantly linear European expansionist perspective implied in ‘colonial frontier’, the contact zone refers to a more holistic approach towards studying the spatial, temporal, geographic, economic, political and bodily interactions that exists between people of culturally diverse backgrounds during historic initial encounters with one another.[3] Clifford employs this theory in a museum context to suggest that the relations between the west and indigenous people are not one way and one sided but interactive. I spoke about transferring this way of thinking to interactions between people and objects, in this case domestic textiles at home and beyond the home.

Apart from the notion of contact zones, I was also interested in discussing the agency of these objects. After all, it is not just people who make the decisions or create opportunities. Using a material history lens also means thinking about the way that objects and textiles have agency, not just the people who make, wear or use them.

One way of defining agency in this sense means ‘providing affordances and constraints for thoughts and actions’.[4] Through its qualities (tactile, visual, olfactory), and its properties (which may be shifting and changeable), an object affords certain responses and constrains others from being possible. Responses might go all the way from ‘thoughts and actions’ to include perceptions and possibly provoked memories. So that wearing certain garments creates the possibilities for particular interactions, effects and opportunities and constraints for certain actions. An obvious example here is the school uniform, or indeed any uniform, that creates and provokes certain actions and interactions, such as Khaki.


Young Ladies’ Contingent’ uniform, made by E. Osborn in Wellington in 1900, Bequest of the Edwin Family, 1966, PC001299, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. It was worn by one of the Edwin sisters, both of whom were part of the ‘Wellington Amazons’ Ladies’ Khaki Corps. Girls’ and Ladies’ Khaki Corps (or Contingents) were organised throughout the country during 1900 to raise funds for New Zealand’s South African War effort. 

Rationing and the shortages and accompanying practices of war time extended well into peacetime. Petrol was rationed right until 1950. The war cast a long shadow. The contact zones and agency of certain objects continued well into the next decades. Domestic textiles were, and are, often kept for a long time, reused or recycled, and, moreover, old and new sat side by side. I wanted to emphasise how home-made and domestic textiles, such as covers, tablecloths or doilies, while being made at home, might be carried out with a plate of food to an afternoon tea or function. A knitted or sewn garment is worn out into the world: at school, at work, at play. The elements that constitute a garment or textile – pattern, fabric, cotton, buttons, etc – were brought from the external world into the domestic arena and out again.

There are a range of domestic textiles at home and at school:

  • blankets; household linen; carpet; upholstery furnishings; and a peg apron.
  • school uniforms, particularly in an era when jerseys and cardigans at least, were home-made.
  • ‘manual training’ or learning to sew at school

Blankets often went into the new cars bought in this period and to the park and beach long with picnics. Household linen, especially of the ‘best’ kind (which carried a particular kind go agency, affordances and constraints, might accompany food and other goodies to functions, be seen in the formal dining room or lounge, rather than just in the kitchen. And tea towels seem to accompany just about everything at this time! Carpets and domestic upholstery went from shop to home and might end up in churches, social halls, schools and other places beside the home. Peg aprons and all the paraphernalia that went with being at home ‘outdoors’ occupied quite liminal spaces. They were seen over the back fence or in the front garden. They were domestic, but not contained. Most girls were taught to sew by their mothers or women relations well into the late 20th century. Schools also instructed girls as part of ‘manual training’. As with knitting, at times boys were also taught to sew. Aprons, rompers, skirts and later more adventurous and difficult garments were produced in their thousands and worn outside home or school.

But what about beyond home and school? What other zones are domestic textiles a part of and where else do they have agency?


Te Ara Encylopedia of New Zealand, photograph by Marguerite Hill

This visual representation of afternoon tea, reminds us that recreation and hobbies are where domestic textiles are to be found in abundance. And even on rations, women saved up coupons to make special dresses and other textiles during war-time. Sewing and knitting were the most common forms of domestic craft for women in the 1950s and 60s. Cardigans, jerseys, hats, scarves, baby clothes, and all manner of things have been produced in their thousands. Novice knitters, who would usually start with a scarf, spent many hours undoing knitting with baggy tension or incorrect stitching. Being able to sew and knit was viewed as a thrifty, sensible was of clothing families.

Smaller children were often dressed in garments which were made from the good parts of bigger clothes or in the same fabric as their mother’s dresses. Young woman sewed dresses in the latest fashions from Simplicity, Butterick and Vogue paper patterns that were increasingly available. Mothers, aunts and grandmothers made doll clothes from the many knitting and sewing patterns available from dainty 1950s florals right through to 1960s retro brights. Not all girls and women had the aptitude and many tears were shed as garments turned out badly or were unwearable. Patterns, measuring tapes, cotton reels, pins, elastic, tailor’s chalk, and sewing machines were all part of daily life, which were carried and used beyond the kitchen table.

Thinking with and through domestic textiles in the ways I have outlined is useful because it helps us move beyond a static interpretation. As well as helping us think further about materials and meanings, it helps us reinterpret historical periods, as well as historical activities and events. A moving Home Front brings into focus how domestic textiles move in and out of home, school and beyond.


[1] Kate Hunter and Kirstie Ross, Holding on to Home: New Zealand Stories and Objects of the First World War (Te Papa Press, 2014)

[2] Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (Routledge, 2008); James Clifford, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, 1997)

[3] Usefully glossed in Sabine Du Bourbannnais’ webpage at, The Importance of  Contact Zones in Studying History

[4] Christopher Tilley, ‘Materiality in Materials’, Archeological Dialogues, 14:1, 2007, pp. 16-20

The importance of a name

Just as I was casually googling ‘material histories’ I saw it. How did this happen? I asked myself, dumbfounded. I had found another blog entitled Material Histories. To cut a long, agonising, story short, I have decided to rename my one, out of respect and courtesy.

Then the second hard part of this saga began. With so many good blogs on this subject (as my blog roll attests) what new, memorable, apt name could I conjure out of my consciousness? I finally decided on MATTER. It refers, of course, to the content of materiality, stuff, and material histories. But it also, I think, is a nice play on what matters, and the matter in hand. So I have changed the masthead as you can see.

MATTER was also the name of a short-lived but active, research cluster I directed in my former school in the College of Creative Arts at Massey University from 2009-2012. Now that the School of Visual and Material Culture has been restructured out of existence, and I shifted to the School of Design the cluster went into hibernation. The cluster was very productive. As well as running seminar series and housing postgraduate students it also produced:

A delegate blogged on the Material Histories conference and I am in the process of editing some of the papers for publication.

I continue to be fascinated by, and to tussle in my research with, objects, people, histories and the spaces in between. They are an endless variety of forms of matter, they are the matter in hand and they are what matters to be in my research life.

Time to rethink ‘The Home Front’?

What does ‘The Home Front’ really mean? I have been pondering this question after being at a lively gathering discussing this theme. Over Queen’s Birthday weekend I attended the annual Costume and Textile Association of New Zealand symposium at the Auckland Museum. It had been several years since I had been to a meeting and it was just great to catch up with old friends and meet new ones. What I learned all over again, was that this was where historians of dress and textiles really gathered. There were museum professionals, artists, designers, sewers, students and academics all beavering away at their respective topics – some directly related to the conference theme and some more tangential. In such a small community of researchers, many of whom aren’t linked up to the academy, these meetings are essential and precious.

Image Banner theme from the CTANZ website

The best panel was the first one of the first day, and the war didn’t really get a look in. Jane Malthus and Moira White from the Otago Museum have been investigating a truly spectacular acquisition of textiles made by Frances Barker-Eames in Dunedin. During the 1950s and 60s she was often bed-ridden and her physiotherapist daughter looked after her while she made patchwork pieces and garments, all things that could be done in bed and by hand. Frances recycled garment fabric scraps and old sample book pieces into curtains, tablecloths, bedspreads, table cloths, toilet bags, skirts and dressing gowns. She also made hooked rugs and soft toys. Her home was literally furnished with patchwork and this made it a very therapeutic ‘home front’.


Another patchwork dressing gown by Marjorie Hunter, PA2012.086, Puke Ariki

Dinah Vincent (my PhD student!) shared her research in the pages of the New Zealand Women’s Weekly from 1945-65. She examined the extent to which readers were encouraged to practice thrift and economy in relation to textiles and clothing. She entertained us with the pattern service, handy hints pages, letters and questions pages. Throughout the 1950s readers were expected to make and remodel all kinds of garments, and to waterproof and dye fearlessly. By 1965 it was acknowledged that readers might be novices and basic techniques were offered.

The third panellist was Lizzie Wratislave. She took me back in time to Semco Art Needlework. They produced instruction books on smocking, embroidery transfers and ready-traced table covers, pillow shams and children’s garments. Popular throughout Australasia in the first half of the twentieth century, theirs was a form of kit-set craft with an extensive range of products. They also ran hugely popular annual competitions. The Hawkes Bay Museum, where she works, has acquired an unfinished child’s dress complete with transfer. The firm also contributed to the war effort.

I can’t mention everyone but other speakers provided much food for thought about, amongst other things:

  • how samplers might speak to a daughter’s attempt to connect vicariously with the memory of her father, killed during the First World War (Vivienne Caughley)
  • fundraising, knitting and sewing, and singing songs for those troops sent to the South African (Boer) War and the representation and memory of these in stunning contemporary textile artworks (Desi Liversage)
  • how a piupiu (woven flax skirt) ended up being worn by a captain of the Royal Navy as his ship went into action (Patricia Te Arapo Wallace)
  • contemporary crafting in a poorer community, including a wonderful tapestry about Whangarei made by the community on a proper loom! (Catherine Davies-Colley)
  • Auckland fabric artists and World of Wearable Arts winner Susan Holmes who also used what was at hand in terms of materials and skills as creative fuel (Cerys Davidson)




Dress made from 1941 parachute material, Susan Holmes, late1970s

On the second morning, Rosie Taylor-Davies gave a keynote with the intriguing title of ‘Looking after Tommy or What to do with 9,650 nightingales?’ She returned us to the First World War and spoke about the remarkable martialling work of Queen Mary’s Needlework Guild in England, making comforts, paper patterns for woven garments, including bed slippers, and instructions for knitted essentials. She emphasised modification, innovation, and initiative with wonderful images.

There was some repetition between the papers as socks, knitting, mending and making do, uniforms, and the key role of civilian women, appeared in a number of papers. Yet, taken together, the papers said much that went beyond the conventional notion of ‘The Home Front’. As we ‘march’ towards the centenary of the First World War and the many and varied commemorations and publication that are about to be unleashed, I am wondering why there is not more about the Home Front and its various incarnations, not least in terms of dress and textiles. There is a lot more to be said, seen, read, and pondered.

My keynote, which I will discuss in a separate post, was designed to shake things up along these lines. I used a range of domestic textiles to extend the notion of ‘The Home Front’ both conceptually, spatially and chronologically. I have nearly finished a book on living in the 1950s and 1960s and it seems to me that with rationing continuing and other shortages and privations, the Second World War cast a long shadow. Homes —and I would suggest ‘Home Fronts’— meant then, and now, many different things to many different people.

I’m interested in your thoughts on ‘The Home Front’. What interpretive tools would you bring to bear on the concept and usage?



More about the photo for this site

This image combines two of my obsessions: fashion and museums. It is a from a photo shoot for New Zealand Vogue (yes there was one!) which took place in the Maori Hall of the Dominion Museum in Wellington, New Zealand in the October 1958 and was taken by the local newspaper photography. It is a rather strange and unsettling juxtaposition but quite common at the time. Here is the reference:

Three unidentified women modelling outfits including hats in the Dominion Museum, Wellington. Negatives of the Evening  Post newspaper. Ref: EP/1958/3417F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.    

Fashion shoots were also undertaken at the Auckland Museum as this photo shows:

Farmers fashion Auckland Museum

Eph-C-RETAIL-Farmers-1956-01-front. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.


Hullo world!

In a few days I will post my first blog about the annual conference of the Costume and Textile Association of New Zealand, held at the Auckland Museum. I was a keynote speaker but there was so much more…. thanks to the organisers for a superb event. More to follow, including a review of the rest of the programme and an overview of my keynote.