It caught my eye as I was leaving the shop. A place full of old forgotten treasures, worthless now they are stripped of their context and sentiments. Holiday presents have turned into cheap foreign bric-a-brac. Lovely china given to mark some special occasion is now out of style and out of place. No shelf space any more except this grubby corner. Unwanted toys, odd clothes, broken garden tools discarded in favour of something shiny and electric. Then, almost missed, the old mending tins and baskets from a time when people sewed and repaired, and kept their clothes for longer than a single season.
I picked down the tin, it’s battered but I like tins. They remind me of childhood, of toys kept in them in the big cupboard, of the wooden jigsaws that had long since lost their cardboard boxes, of the special biscuits that might be a Christmas treat for the family.
On the top is a dirty canvas sewing bag and underneath a jumble of bits – probably worthless my collectors eye tells me – but there are name tags. Woven ribbons with a little girl’s name, lost in time and place now but once sewn with care into all her things. So “Rose Chidgey” came home with me, in a pink tin with a puppy picture on it, and mixed knot of the past. All for the exchange of a crisp new five pound note.
At home the musty smell of it all hits me, apparent now I’m out of the cramped shop. What have I done? But I’m pulled by the past and the tangled clues, by what I can learn and recover of a woman most likely, who spent evenings stitching by some lost fireplace with it’s ornaments and mirror. I wonder if anything else from her rooms was in the shop? A useless query really, impossible to answer. Was she local I wonder? Probably, as this item doesn’t have enough value to have traveled very far between dealers. With the battered and grubby pink-surrounded puppy watching me I begin an inventory of the tin. I start with the cotton reels.
There are nine reels; first thing I notice is that none of them has their end papers pierced through for being put on the spindle of a sewing machine. So no machine in the house then? A lady who hand-sewed what she had to but didn’t do dressmaking? One reel is old, a wooden reel with a green kind of thread. J&P Coats colour 145 – khaki. Once there was 200 yards of it. What story does that have I wonder?. The other reels, a less interesting mixture. Cottons and synthetics, some fairly modern, white, grey and red, mauve and burgundy, dark green, dark orange and dark brown. Not a very varied palette left at the end of this journey.
Then two cards of black darning wool. One is partly used and there is a darning needle still threaded with the stuff. Oh dear, a sock unraveled somewhere, along with a family. Next there’s white elastic, 3/16” wide, the kind I would have called ‘knicker elastic’ when I was a child. Some of it has already been cut to different lengths but a lot of the lengths don’t look used. There is one quite short piece, showing signs of having been stitched and then unpicked. Maybe a sock garter; I used to wear them to keep my school socks up. This missing sock with it’s hole, and the undone garter will haunt the background of this tale. I can see one piece so stretched it’s lost it’s stretch completely at one end. Why unpick that I wonder, surely you wouldn’t use it again when you’ve brand new stuff in the tin? Maybe it has been lying there for a long time, saved when materials were in short supply and then forgotten? There’s a piece of white cotton cord with frayed ends – “What were you for?” I ask it. Two thick black shoe laces knotted together. 32” long – “Where did you work?”
The tape measure – I just used it to measure the shoe laces. Yellow on one side and white on the other. Plastic coated fabric. “Dean. Made in England. Home Sewing Aid Only.” Coiled up tight – whatever it knows of the story it won’t be letting it slip out. Now there are two lots of embroidery floss, but not their paper wrappers. Only in bright yellow and sky blue, so not the remains of some floral project I don’t think. Perhaps the initials on a sports bag for school? Or marking the laundry maybe, although that suggests a different kind of lifestyle that this tin offers.
So many questions without answers; time unravels so much, so silently. We barely notice the damage as it creeps along, loosening the stitches until it’s too late to repair.
The smell is sticking to my fingers now as I sort and categorises. But every last thing seems like a dropped stitch, a little treasure, and I don’t want to loose anything. As I take each thing off the large tray I tipped it all on to, more is revealed. So now two beautiful vintage needle packets that surely go with the wooden cotton reel. Pale blue-green paper wraps with dark interiors; the brand name of “Flora Macdonald” but made by Abell Morrals of Redditch. There are ¼ Darners and 5/9 Sharps, both still containing bright shiny examples of their kind. But no needle case that I can see and no pin cushion or box. I can’t find any scissors either come to that, which is a shame.
But I Spy ... thimbles and loose needles. Thimbles first...
There are three of them, two large and one small. The first I pick up is green, some kind of early plastic I think but now split and faded with age. No more work for this one, laid aside as the stitcher finished. The others are both metal – one says “Stratnoid England” Funny that, I have vintage knitting needles of that brand, but I didn’t know they made thimbles. The other tells me it’s “Solid Nickel Silver” but not who made it.
Now that I’m searching among tangles that are left I see all sorts – rusty pins, safety pins, needles, small metal buckles. There is more than one needle threader, little plastic parts from children’s games, a nest of thread ends, oh even brass curtain hooks! I begin with picking out the needles carefully. Rusty punctures in your fingertips are not recommended. First out is a card-backed packet of “Repair Needles – Assorted”. It contains some serious bits of metal; straight and curved, some very thick, broad ends for leatherwork, all sorts. One very thick needle is threaded with that khaki thread, yet the thread is old and this needle packet is much more modern. I’ve read the story clues wrong somehow. A few more stray needles, rusty. A handful of assorted safety pins. A pile of old rusty pins, and just two neat ones with pearl heads. Another almost empty card of darning wool hidden in the jumble, and three small bun pins, black. So once upon a time someone pinned up their black hair neatly in a bun? The mother? The daughter?
I found a metal suspender off a girdle, painted pink, for the mother I think. More small metal buckles, some in pairs. What did they come off? Children’s shoes? Raincoat sleeves? They are rather a sad little collection now. There were half a dozen curtain hooks all told; they could explain a lot if only I could string them together right, but just one brass ring.
And all the time I’m shuffling aside Rose Chidgey; singly and in pairs, purple embroidered on woven ribbon. The lost child in this story, fascinating particularly because I know her name but nothing else about her. It’s funny how you think you should be able to pin someone down once you know their name. But you can’t really. It’s a label that came adrift in a crowd that has passed by now – and I don’t think I can re-attach it to her even with the most careful of stitches.
Now I untangle a large hook from a ‘hook and eye’ type fastener. This one is large and bound around, the kind that reminds me of long velvet skirt fastenings. That also makes me realise there are no zips in this tin, no cards of poppers, no hooks and eyes. Definitely not a home dressmaker!
It feels like it’s time to let Rose Chidgey out of the tangles of time and covering of buttons. Most of the name tapes are in pairs – ten in all – and then one single. So 21 left, I wonder how many there were to start with? Before Rose grew up and didn’t need to have her name sewn on everything any more? These names are in purple – did you like that colour Rose, was it your favourite? Or the school summer dress colour maybe?
A strange sad find – the tiny foil backing from a sheet of tablets – Zyprexa 10mg. Used for schizophrenia or psychosis. Did you forget who Rose was I wonder; did those labels puzzle you if you found these abandoned things?
Now there’s not a lot left; the oh-so-pink tin with it’s paw prints round the side and the puppy on the lid, and the flotsam of thread ends and buttons and miscellaneous bits. There aren’t any colours of thread in this tangle except those I’ve seen on the reels. But there are a lot of buttons. Oh I think you can tell a lot about someone from their buttons! First things first, there are only two inside the little plastic grip top bags that come attached to clothes labels. One’s dark purple and the other grey. This person either didn’t go out of their way to keep the spare buttons for garments, or they didn’t buy the kind of new clothes that come with spares? Or maybe they usually took them out of the bags and dropped them loose in with all the rest? I guess I’ll never know.
I picked out all the odd nameless things that weren’t actual buttons. A tiddly-wink and other small coloured plastic parts from games and toys. A metal numeral ‘3’ with holes so it could be stitched to something. Parts of what had been a plastic flower I think. A grey leather belt loop. A metal washer and other odd bits and pieces I couldn’t identify. Then half a small ‘hook and eye’ and a couple of parts of poppers. A white glass bead. Best of all, something which must surely have belonged to Rose herself, a small metal “Palitoy” key which was used to lengthen and shorten the hair of a special kind of doll. Did you like playing with her I wonder? A birthday or Christmas present?
At last I’m down to the buttons proper and I start by sorting out the colours. Yellow first for no particular reason except perhaps because it’s a sunny spring day outside whilst I’m sorting and I can see daffodils. So there’s about thirty yellow buttons of various types and all are plastic. There was no yellow sewing thread so I’m guessing yellow isn’t a colour that’s been worn much lately. Perhaps it suited the little girl but not the adult. Some of the buttons are odds, then a few flower shaped one, some small baby-cardigan sized ones. All of them might have come off children’s clothes by theri size. Cardigans, summer dresses, that kind of thing. They make me smile – the yellow flower-shaped ones bright on my wooden tray background. I looked at other “little girl” colours, but there’s hardly any pink at all, a little bit of pale green, a few orange. I guess these weren’t colours that either Rose or her mother looked good in? There are a few more in the mauve category, those simple shiny two-hole buttons that might have come of cardigans. There’s a bigger selection of reds, including three lovely red glass buttons with sculpted dogs heads on them, the collars picked out in silver paint. They so ‘went’ with the puppy on the lid, it was partly them that made me buy the lot. There is one bright red and black ladybird button, a few of the plain cardigan type, one very old early plastic type cracked with age.
Considering there was no reel of blue thread I was surprised to see some bright blue and turquoise buttons, so I pick them out next. There must be more than forty assorted blue buttons; once upon a time then the owner of this tin wore a lot of blue. There are blue and white summer dress and coat type buttons, there are tiny pale blue pearlised. Four of those, come perhaps from a bed jacket or a pair of long gloves? Textured buttons, pale blue, navy, bright sky blue. Some still have snippets of thread attached, some came from cardigans and have wool through them. There’s a whole rail of blue clothes in my imagination after sorting these out.
There were plenty of metal buttons which at first glance I thought were all from civilian clothes. But there is just one which has the inscription “Legion Etrangere”.
Good grief! The French Foreign Legion!
What mystery lies behind that one small button? I wish I could create a story in my head, write something wonderful about this family. That really surprised me.
After that the rest seems quite ordinary. There’s a few wooden toggles off a duffle coat, and some of those buttons made of plastic that are meant to look like leather. Several odd buttons, each over an inch wide, possibly off 1960’s summer coats like the kind I remember my mother had for special outings. There’s a pile of brown, and a pile of grey and black. But they are all quite light and small buttons, nothing that honestly suggests men’s clothes. Quite a feminine collection it seems to me, although perhaps I’m reading too much into it, and buttons didn’t really express gender even 40 years ago?
Glass buttons, well there are few, including a set of six patterned ones. The same with mother-of-pearl, a few, some textured.
Then there is left about fifty white buttons. A few of them small enough to be shirt buttons I suppose – Rose’s father emerges briefly in this mostly female story – but plenty of the white buttons patterned or pearlised for dresses or cardigans. Nothing very striking, just a lot of small white circles on a disused path.
Last of all I came to the little canvas pouch. *
It strikes me from it’s colour as being army or land girl or something similar. Sturdy cotton canvas outside – although now very dirty and smelling musty. A strip of khaki inside under the flap, with a rusty needle threaded through it. There’s also some brown wool – for darning or repair? – a small wound ball of blue/grey, and a cardboard reel wrapped with dark green thread stamped “Cotone Mercerizzato”. In a charity shop they’d probably throw this out but I’m going to try and find out what it is.
*This thing turns out to be an Army ‘Housewife’ sewing kit – date around or just after WWII. Searching among the buttons I find some which possibly belong to it, along with one of the thimbles. It would perhaps have had white cotton thread in there too, I might have something of the right vintage in my own collection. I’m reluctant to wash it, and destroy it’s vintage character, but it is really grubby and smelly. Perhaps a good airing and stiff brush is the best I can do. But I shall surely keep it, even though they must have been common items at the time.
So there laid bare is all that’s left of the story of Rose and the pink sewing tin. I could look her name up online, try and find out more about the real people perhaps, but that would be a step too far I think. At some point, some member of the extended family chose to let go of this tin and I must respect their decision to part with it and the history it contains. I have been fascinated with all it’s possible story threads, and wish I could write something that really explored and honoured them, but this is all there is.
The rest has unravelled . . .
~ Yes, I know I should be decorating, but everyone benefitsd from a day off every now and again!
Spring Blessings from Glastobury