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.
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?