“Fabric does not make exquisite dresses. It is the stitches”

Treasure Stitches

For thousands of years, almost everything we owned, we created ourselves. We grew our own food, sewed and mended our own clothes. We built our own houses, churned our own butter and salted our own meat. When things became broken, they were mended until they couldn’t be mended anymore. Tables were fixed, socks darned, dresses patched, and skirts let down; windows were puttied, pots were patched, herbs were dried and greens pickled. All these things, which can now be accessed by running your hand along a supermarket shelf, were very precious, and even the very idea of waste was not something that came up that often in passing conversation.

Somewhere through the years, on pages of history now too faded to read, the world grew up and these things changed. It became the norm to throw out a pair of ripped pants, rather than mend them at home. If a dress became too short, a new one was bought and the old one thrown into the bin and forgotten about. The traditions of churning butter, growing our own food and especially making and mending our own clothes blew away on the wind, and became characters in stories our grandparents would tell us. Especially if they thought we needed to be reminded that the things we take for granted were once considered luxurious. 

These traditions, while distant and transparent to most of us now, where everyday tasks that most people didn’t think about. One of these traditions were Sewing Groups, which started around kitchen fires in the middle of winter, and eventually became something much, much bigger. 

These groups were common around the time of both world wars. Not only were they creatively productive, they were a chance for the woman to come together, to craft and brave the waves of grief of being left behind. While the women weren’t allowed to fight, they found ways to put their skills to use to do their bit. One of these examples was the sewing done for the Red Cross.

The Australian branch of the British Red Cross, founded by Lady Edeline Strickland, who was the wife of the Governor of New South Wales, held the first meeting her in drawing room in Melbourne a week after WW1 broke out. Like its British and American sisters, the Australian Red Cross specialised in many various efforts that assisted men, women, children and victims of war and one of these efforts were the sewing and knitting groups, which were organized to benefit the soldiers out on the front. Socks were knitted, shirts, pants and pyjamas were sewed, and quilts were pieced and quilted. These clothes, along with other items such as cigarettes, biscuits and letters from home were sent across the seas to those fighting far from home soil. 

Not only were these groups a way for women to help their men and their country, but they were also a form of connection for those left behind, to talk about their missing loved ones and to take comfort in those who were just as worried and terrified as themselves. 

While we no longer have to come together to create clothes for men at war, coming together to create things with our hands can be comforting and a way of connecting with others. It can be a time to make new friends and to reconnect with old ones. To tell stories, pass down our grandmothers’ secrets, and sometimes just to chat. A good old-fashioned chin wag can be good for the soul and working with our hands can be grounding and calming, both for our minds and for our bodies. 

Take a break from the things of your everyday life and come and connect with the secrets, the history and the stories of hand-crafted traditions.  During our Common Threads Woven Through Community week-long exhibition from 24th – 30th May 2019, we will be sharing sustainability workshops galore with many of them tapping into these long-lost traditions. 

Together, let’s take a walk down memory lane and learn once again how to love the things we own, and to understand the power and stories behind the things that have been loved and re-loved for a very, very long time.