Wednesday, October 31, 2007

More Personal History

But not mine, this time.

The collection at the museum in Smock was enough to make my visit to Pennsylvania especially memorable. But then, on my last day, my grandmother's friend Sue invited me over to see some "family things" she thought would interest me.

Sue's life had a romantic beginning. Her mother, an Englishwoman, was in the RAF. Her father, an American, was in the Army. Her mother outranked her father, but they fell in love and married before her father was shipped back to the United States.

Sue was born in England, and at six months old sailed to America with her mother on a ship chartered specially for war brides. Sue still has their orange cardboard "WAR BRIDE" identification tags. From the ship they transferred to the train that brought them to Pennsylvania and Sue's father. According to Sue's mother, she was so excited to see her husband again she nearly left her daughter on the platform.

Sue's grandfather, a native of the Cotswolds, was a stone carver and a fanatic for historical relics. He kept a museum of artisanal implements and antique farm machinery, and also acted as de facto curator of the family memorabilia. Much of it came to Sue, who shared it with me.

There is so much beautiful stuff in her collection (she has four christening gowns, the oldest of which appears to me to date from the 1840s) that I'm going to confine myself to showing you the highlights, which she kindly allowed me to photograph.

The first thing she pulled out was a black silk apron, intended to jazz up a plain dress for calls or company. The lower part is worked with a series of floral sprays worked in ribbon embroidery.

Ribbonwork Apron

There was also a rather spectacular silk choker with an ornamental bib worked in a combination of silk and metallic threads with some bead embellishment.

Women's choker with bib

On the christening gowns and many other pieces (including a petticoat and a piece of lingerie made for her grandmother's dowry) I noticed a lace pattern that appeared several times over the generations worked in different threads and at different sizes.

Tudor rose lace

Sue says that her family claims descent from the first marriage of Catherine Swinford, who was the mistress and then the wife of John of Gaunt, uncle of Richard II. Her mother taught her that the Tudor Rose in the pattern is intended as a reminder of Catherine.

Handkerchief CenterOut of more recent history, but no less fascinating to me, were textile souvenirs sent back to England from Sue's grandfather from France and Belgium during World War I. There are two handkerchiefs like the one at right, but what really caught my attention was an album filled with dozens of embroidered post cards.

I've seen embroidered cards before, but most of them were cheap and utterly graceless junk from China. The level of creativity in Sue's postcard album was astonishing.

Postcards

Postcards

Postcards

The last of the pictured postcards is, Sue says, a portrait of her grandfather. The images themselves are slightly smaller than actual size.

And finally, she pulled out something that had been specially made for her during her English babyhood by her mother with help from friends. It's a simple but sweet dress with a beautifully smocked bodice. The material? Sky blue silk–from an RAF parachute.

Sue and her dress

We'd finished with the textiles, but before I left Sue showed me a set of astonishing mementos actually made by her grandfather. During the war, stuck in the trenches with restless hands, he turned shell casings into matchbox covers to send to the family.

My favorite shows, on one side, Sue's worried grandmother on the home front, thinking "I wonder how my dear boy is in France."

Matchbox Cover, recto

On the back, sitting in a trench, calmly picking lice out of his uniform, is her grandfather, with the reassuring message, "I am all right."

Matchbox Cover, verso

Sigh. Do you think they loved each other?

66 comments:

tricotchick said...

Wow. I am amazed at all these lovely things and that your family has so lovingly preserved them. How proud you must be that some day Abigail's christening shawl will be added to this bevy of treasures!

Kim U said...

Yesterday's post was wonderful, but today's post was even better. Thanks for sharing these pictures and stories from your visit home!

susoolu said...

What a beautiful archive - and your photographing it, with accompanying stories, will certainly help to preserve it.

(And if you run, right now, over to BBC's Radio 4, the current book of the week, 29th Oct to 2nd Nov, is a new biography of Kathering Swynford, available for downloading, and she certainly sounds scandalous!)

susoolu said...

Argh, forgot to add the URL for Radio 4's book of the week:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/arts/book_week.shtml

Marin (AntiM) said...

*sniff* I'm all dewy and sentimental now, which I'm pretty sure is not keeping with the Halloween spirit.

la takahashi said...

Lovely handwork, lovely story. Thanks to Sue (and you) for sharing! :o)

shannon said...

Such beauty. Tears were brought to my eyes at the thought of the love the family shares.

The embroidery on the black silk aprons...omg! Must figure out how to do the fuchsia! They looked like the real flowers.

Again I say, such beauty.

Kristen said...

Oh man! I love the black cat good luck card. Thank you so much for another wonderful post.

pixeldiva said...

Oh, how wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing.

amy said...

Thank you, and extend my thanks to Sue, for allowing you to photograph and tell the stories of some of her family keepsakes. My family, not so much with the keepsakes. A decided lack of sentiment streaks through the generations. My grandmother got rid of her own wedding dress. I enjoy seeing and hearing about other family's stories.

StarSpry said...

What a beautiful collection!

Marilyn said...

Fabulous! This is worthy of an article for Piecework. Think about it. I bet they'd buy it. And those items should be shown to the world. So incredible.

It would be fantastic to have one of those postcard's embroidery put into a chart for embroiderers. I'd do one. Absolutely.

Linda B said...

Thank you, thank you, Franklin, for sharing your amazing journey & your talent as a photographer! You're a blessing to us all!

knitting elephant said...

I know you realize how blessed you are to have not only the memories, but the people who created and lived them to share with you. Thank you for sharing with us!

CathyCate said...

Delurking to say: This post made me cry in the happiest way at the last photos. I love history, and much of my family history is lost; so I really like other people's family history! Thanks to you and your acquaintance for sharing and preserving this.

Sue said...

OMG what incredible treasures! I just love mementos from past generations and they are made even more special with the stories that go along wit them.
Thanks for sharing these!

Nancy said...

Absolutely fascinating to me to see these snapshots of life...my family would talk about the Depression some and earlier and later, except not much about the wartime of WWII.

Alison said...

I'm a little teary from the last one. It's particularly interesting given something that's been popping up here--in Toronto--this week: lapel poppies for Veteran's Day. It's a really noticeable difference between the US and Canada, the increased attention to WWI and its commemoration, vs. the US focus (I'd sort of say) on WWII.

shyknitter said...

Thank you for sharing. Wonderful stories, priceless heirlooms.

Andrea R said...

My grandparents lived in London during WW2. They always called it The War, as if there were no other. They had plenty of stories to share, which they did.

I have a parachute-silk full-length skirt my grandmother made & dyed black for some even (a wedding, i think). The waist is so tiny!

I've also got a book of hers from the 40's with all kinds of household stitchery projects in it. Tons of knitting with vague descriptions. I really should scan it.

Lisa said...

Thank you so much for sharing all of this with us. We should all be so lucky to have someone in our lives that loves us that much.

Pamela said...

wow. *sniff*

Yvonne said...

Franklin, thank you for sharing. What a touching post. I loved every bit of it.

Em said...

Thank you so much for sharing these treasures here.

Anonymous said...

*unlurk*

franklin! you still in pennsylvania? give sue a kiss for me.

-wendy

*relurk*

Ann (yet another) said...

If not Piecework, write it up and submit it to NeedleArts for the Embroiderer's Guild. Seriously dude. You could narrow it down to just the embroidered postcards, or some such, but you've got an article there, hon.

Sherry W said...

I am really enjoying these stories Franklin! Keep it up!

Kate said...

What great stuff! I assume you recognize the "bib" (a kind of ornamental collar called a yunjian) as Chinese work. Do you know how it came to be in the collection?

Cheers
Kate (friend of birdfarm and Dr. Faustus, prof. of Chinese art history)

seizuresalad said...

You would make a wonderful museum curator, have you ever thought of it? There is a wonderful textile museum in Toronto...

calamity rach said...

Franklin, that is absolutely incredible!

I loved all of the pictures and items, but especially the last ones. In addition to being a knitter, I'm a budding printmaker. To re-create those images on plates and make prints of them would be astounding, but of course not as much so as the original carvings. That's so cool that you were given a tour through that lady's family

Bobbi said...

Wow! Though I heard the stories on Saturday, they mean all the more seeing the matchbook covers for real! I didn't even begin to imagine their exquisite design! The story was sweet when verbally conveyed but means even more having now seen them...thanks again for sharing.

LaurieM said...

The courage of these people to create loving art while in the midst of such hardship is impressive and moving.

Jenna said...

What beautiful treasures! Sue is lucky to have such a wonderful repository of family history, as many of us do not have such things.

I always wondered about your "daht cahm" usage. Your Western PA roots reveal all...n'at.

Kelli said...

Oh, my God. What amazing momentos. It makes me want to trawl my family's attics in search of textile treasures.

Also (reading back through previous posts), you're welcome in my corner of Indiana any time. I think you're rather spiffy. :)

Beverly said...

Wow, Franklin. That is so impressive. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Judi said...

What a lovely treasure trove - we so seldom are able to connect the treasure with the story behind it. And of course, the story is the best part. Thank you for sharing - I agree that this should be an article, or several, in one of the needlework magazines.

--Deb said...

The embroidery is wonderful, but the matchbook covers? (sniffle) I love how they're so worn . . . they obviously both loved them.

~Knitting Addict~ said...

WOW, how wonderful to have such things --
Too bad so many families don't keep such awesome family treasures, and either sell or toss such great things the first chance they get...I see it every day!

So glad Sue sees the importance and shared with you, and therefore us ;) it is all gorgeous!

Ragnar said...

That is so sweet (the match box covers) it brings tears to my eyes, and I am not a tears to the eyes sort of girl. It makes me wonder what our family has lost for lack of an historian.

Do you have a picture which shows the whole silk choker?

Jill said...

Thank you to you and Sue for sharing such treasures. What a treat.

. . . Lisa and Robb . . . said...

"...calmly picking lice out of his uniform..."

What a phrase! What an image. Those lice are the size of mice.

marie in florida said...

at first glance i thought the ribbon flowers were real flowers. beautiful

Anita said...

We just covered the war poets in my Brit Lit class today--I've sent this post on to my students! Thanks for sharing@

knititch said...

i love these epics. they are wonderful. and the pictures. and maybe i love them very much because we all have some stories from around that turbulent time in our family history. and all the needlework is gorgeous. yes.

Sarahfish said...

What an incredible history you've been able to touch. And you've touched us in the telling. Thanks! Everyone has a story to share, and how fortunate for your family and their friends that you're there to help them do it. Beautiful.

The Illustrious Ms E said...

Thank you so much for sharing that...How neat!!

Cherice said...

Oh my, is all I can think of to say. That and thank you for sharing.

Amy said...

Swoon. You know I love me some embroidery.

Kathleen said...

That is so beyond cool.

Cobbalicious said...

Fascinating! Thank you for sharing this beautiful history!

Paper said...

I think I may be Sue's distant cousin. My grandparents were very interested in genealogy and apparently I'm descended from the mistress of John of Gaunt. (Well, probably me and a thousand other people, but there.)

Julie said...

Stunning. How incredible lucky is she to have such a rich family legacy. And how lucky are you that she shared her story with you! You did her and the treasures justice! Thanks for sharing with all of us.

aunt norie said...

I've always been interested in historic fiber works. Next time you head towards the east coast, try looking at the collection in Bethlehem PA's Moravian Museum. They, too, have a nice collection of early 18th century textiles.

Rooie said...

Thank you so much, Franklin, for sharing all this with your readers. It's a fascinating, and very personal, glimpse into history. And I followed the link back to read about Smock, too. More good stuff.

And the commenters before me are right. You've got the making of several good articles here.

Sharon Rose said...

I have a collection of trench art from The Great War to Vietnam. I always imagine these young men (most of them boys, really) waiting in boredom and terror for the next slice of chaos. Mourning their friends, missing their homes. Using whatever scant materials they have at hand to express themselves artistically. A few of my favorites: Lighters made of coins, sweetheart lapel flower holders made of shells, and a perfect Spitfire carved from the windscreen of a downed Messerschmitt.

jax said...

I seem to recall that Piecework ran an article several years ago on WWI embroidered postcards--I'm sure they could help you find the back issue.

Patty said...

Franklin....how lucky you are to have met Sue AND her treasures! and oohh, the blue dress made from parachute silk, made my heart jump :-)

holli said...

How wonderful your latest posts are. I am so jealous that you can get to know your heritage. Thanks to Sue for sharing her lovely artifacts. I loved the Smock website!

Roxie said...

Actually, it looks like the seeds of several posts there. Thank you so for sharing.

Anonymous said...

How wonderful to have kept all of these things! Your photographic skill makes for wonderful eye candy.

Kyle Kunnecke said...

the reverse of that little matchbox cover "I'm Alright" gave me chills - it made me smile and I'm glad that it (and the story) have survived - thank you for sharing!

catsmum said...

just gorgeous - I have an embroidered WW1 silk handkerchief keeper [spotted unfortunately thanks to mum's wrapping it in plastic ]with it's hankie inside in pristine condition to be carried by my DD on her wedding day whenever that happens... oh and my mum outraked das too so he had to salute her and call her "ma'am"

catsmum said...

and that should've read mum outranked Dad too

Susie Cupcakes said...

These are just so lovely. I'm so interested in old photographs and mementos--I can only imagine how amazing it would be to have family history preserved like that.

rohanknitter said...

Thanks for sharing - that stuff is amazing. I esp. love the baby dress from an RAF parachute! That is a treasure.

The Mad Crocheter said...

Wow. What beautiful, precious things. I love the matchbook cover best, and the black cat -- black cats are good luck in England.