Picking up the Threads

Updated: Jul 9, 2019

How old textiles are finding a second life with a new generation of makers.

Old doilies, laces, knitting needles and spools of thread may seem like antiquated, decorative objects to some, but you might be surprised to learn about the stories they can hold. Few people are more aware of this than Robyn Steel-Stickland, whose Melbourne-based craft and textiles store Opendrawer is frequently on the receiving end of donations of pre-loved textiles and haberdashery.

Robyn sometimes receives as many as two to three donations a week. Often they come from people down-sizing their own collection of craft materials (or ‘stash’ as such collections are affectionately known amongst textile folk). Other times, the donations come from family members thoughtfully sorting through a loved-one’s belongings, perhaps an aunt or grandmother who was an avid sewer and recently passed away. From antique laces to mysterious sewing tools, reels of ric rac to old sewing patterns, a vast array of vintage textiles finds its way to Opendrawer, and the shop plays a unique role as the middle-man, providing a temporary home for these items until they can be given a second life.

To find out more about the donations that Opendrawer receives, click 'play' on the SoundCloud players throughout this article to hear Robyn provide a bit of background about some of the most interesting pieces.

“I think people choose to bring these things to Opendrawer rather than the op-shop because they know that in some op-shops, there’s no understanding when it comes to sorting these types of things, and textiles with some special relevance, history or beauty might just get thrown away. People have learned through word-of-mouth that by bringing them here, we’ll sort them and work out what they are,” says Robyn, who is responsible for much of the sorting and curating of the donated items.

Textiles can tell a story

It’s often in the process of sorting these donations that the stories of the textiles and their previous owners start to be revealed. Handmade baby clothes, well-worn sewing boxes and even embroidery projects that were abandoned part way through all hold some of the story of the person who made or used them. And it’s not always easy for people to let them go.

“I think it’s often an emotional process for the people making the donations,” says Robyn. “I actually helped two daughters to sort out their mum’s things. And we did find things among the stash that I considered to be family heirlooms, like the mother’s original nursing uniform, and a sash from when she was belle of a ball at some point. I’m always fairly careful with that, because I don’t want people to give away their family treasures by accident.”

Brisbane-based textile conservator Louise McCullagh is also keenly aware of the stories that textiles can tell. Louise’s work is varied, and has ranged from installing outfits for the Dior exhibition at Melbourne’s NGV and London’s V&A Museum, to working with historical textiles for places such as the Queensland Museum. Louise is often approached by private clients wishing to have a family heirloom conserved, and witnesses first-hand the emotion that can be attached to such pieces.

“I find private work quite difficult, because often there’s a lot of sentimental value attached to the textiles. I do a lot of quotes, and often when people realise how much it’s going to cost to conserve the pieces, they’re unable to go through with it,” says Louise.

“It’s not generally about the worth or monetary value of the pieces. Most people just want to pass it on to the next generation and make sure a piece is stable enough for people to see its history. I recently quoted to repair and clean a sampler from 1824. It wasn’t anything fabulous or beautiful — although I thought it was beautiful because it was made nearly 200 years ago — but the client just wanted it preserved because it was made by his grandmother.”

Understanding the history of each piece is an important part of the conservation process, and Louise has worked on some fascinating pieces, from Greek Orthodox priest vestments from 1919, to silk maps used in the Vietnam War.

“I find everything fascinating. When something lands on my desk, I like to do a bit of research about its historical significance. I recently worked on an Indian textile from the 1960s. It was a painted design on calico fabric and I needed to research to understand the type of paint used, in order to be able to conserve it,” says Louise.

Even when an item isn’t historically significant, it can still give us an insight into the skill-level of the type of sewing that was undertaken by many of our mothers and grandmothers, and is often dismissed as ‘home sewing’ or ‘women’s work’.

“The main thing about the hand sewing is that people don’t appreciate how long things take to make,” says Louise. “As part of my degree we had to learn to weave or spin, for instance, so we could learn how long it takes to make something. I think if more people learned to do that, they would come to understand the time and effort that goes into these things. I wish they were appreciated more.”

The resurgence of sewing

Fortunately, a recent uptick in people learning to sew might mean that old textiles are beginning to find an appreciative audience once more. According to 2017 research by the UK’s Craft and Hobby Trade Association, more than 1 million people had taken up sewing in the three prior to the study. Retailers are reporting a huge leap in sales of dressmaking patterns and sewing machines, and numbers of knitters have increased over a similar period, swelling to an estimated 900,000. We likely have the internet to thank for this. While craft skills were less commonly taught in schools in the 1980s and 1990s than in previous decades, YouTube tutorials and online classes have made these skills accessible once more.

1920s glass beads
1920s glass beads

Robyn has seen evidence of the renewed interest in sewing and making, even since opening Opendrawer in 2010.

“Younger women and men are taking up sewing, and wanting to make things for themselves and get out of the fast-fashion cycle. And older women who used to sew when they were at school, and then went and had their working life and have forgotten how. They’re also relearning and rebooting their skills. And I think it’s also because fast-fashion is boring and people are realising that they really want to be individual.”

As well as finding something unique, there are plenty of other reasons for the new generation of modern makers to seek out old textiles over new, such as connecting with the makers who came before them, and reducing their environmental impact.

“There’s a whole bunch of different people who buy textiles from us. It might be dressmakers who are looking for fabric remnants or zippers. Then there’s artists who come looking for strange and unusual things. Quilt makers can find fabrics and weavers find all sorts of interesting threads and cords. We have a large amount of useful, vintage or second-hand haberdashery that has never been used by other people. From needles and pins to ric rac and bias binding. All these sorts of things that you could go and buy in Spotlight and pay full price for, or you could find it here and pay a small amount for it and know you’ve got something that had been in someone else’s sewing box, and now it’s your turn to use it,’ says Robyn.

It isn’t possible to keep and use everything the way it was. But if we can honour the handwork that went into them by using them in another way, then I think that’s to be encouraged.