My mother's mother was born Nellie Bearcraft in 1892 in Minster, Sheppey, England and died Nellie Ray in Sydney, Australia in 1981. She married Albert Edward Ray in England in 1913 and migrated to Australia with their three children, arriving in December 1929.
This is a school photo of her two eldest surviving children just before they left England. Grace is wearing a dress that Nellie knitted.
Because of the post-war housing shortage in Sydney, my parents, brother and I lived with my grandparents until I was 6, so I have clear memories of Nellie. I remember her hooking rugs for our floors. My grandfather worked at a Dyers and Bleachers factory in Rosebery and brought home the ends of the rolls of fabric. Some of it was wool, but a lot was an early version of Viyella. The remnants usually had a line across them to mark the approaching end of the roll. My grandmother cut them into strips, about 2 cm wide and hooked them into rugs with large geometric patterns. We had those rugs in the kitchen, hall and bathroom.
One of Nell's first purchases in Australia, as soon as she could scrape together the deposit, was an electric sewing machine. She regarded it as an essential. It meant that she could improve her family's life by making clothing, furnishings and household linen. Nell did not 'sit by the window and sew a fine seam'. She made what her family needed to get out of poverty with her sewing machine and knitting needles.
When we lived with her, my mother did most of the sewing, leaving Nell to knit, which she did every afternoon and evening. Members of our extended family still comment that "Nell was always knitting". She knitted most of our jumpers when we were kids, all of her husband's jumpers, cardigans and waistcoats("wesk'ts" as he would have said), and all her own. Her only knitting weakness was sewing up seams. The sleeve seams in particular, always came undone at the wrist and had to be oversewn.
She was always altering or making something. It wasn't always successful. When I was about 9 or 10 I remember her turning her flannellette nightdresses into 'pyjamas' by machine stitching them straight up middle to the crotch. She shuffled down the hall killing herself laughing. She crocheted me a dress when I was about 18 in quite a lovely apricot cotton. I wore it and liked it, but, like most unlined crocheted dresses, it refused to keep its shape.
She made hankerchiefs by crocheting edges on any white material she could scrounge, including men's shirts - and any cotton, often ordinary machine cotton.
Some of these handkerchiefs were softer than others. I still have a couple of dozen of these, including a few with her initial in ink in the corner.
She preferred, however, to knit and always said her daughter Grace was 'the one who could crochet'.
When I moved out of home into a flat in 1969, the year I began teaching, she was approaching 78. She presented me with over 30 coathangers she had covered using left-over pieces of material, some I had given her from clothes I had made myself. I still use almost all those coathangers. They are peasant sewing rather than fine needlework, but, as she promised, they have not left shoulder marks in my clothes. They have also weathered 40+ years of constant use.
Around the same time she knitted me a cockatoo potholder that I have always liked too much to use.
When she asked what I would like for a wedding present, I asked her to crochet a tablecloth. However, she thought that was too much for her and bought me two crocheted lace tablecloths.
Even so, into her eighties she kept making things that took her fancy. She learned to make yoyos and presented me with a clown that still hangs on my study door.
In a hostel for low-level care at 85 she still kept stitching . She made little bags to keep things in
and a very crude needlebook.
It amazes and touches me that she kept on making tools for her sewing even when her eyes and hands didn't function well.
I inherited the few bits and pieces she had when she died in 1981. I still use some of her knitting needles and buttons. Amongst her things were a pair of bedsocks she, ever adaptive, had made for herself by enlarging a bootee pattern.
I thought, at the time of her death, how sad these remains of a woman's life were. I now think they are strong and triumphant, those threads and stitches that are left to show the struggle and endurance of one woman's life - the tools she used to survive, fend and provide for her family and the manifestation of her contribution and gift to future generations,.