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.

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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