From almost as early as I can remember there was a very interesting lady in my life. She lived a couple of streets away from us, in what appeared from the outside to be a normal house, although there was an old caravan parked beside it. It looked rather old-fashioned and, indeed, when Mabel came to the door she looked like an old lady…. although when I first knew her she can’t have been more than a decade older than I am now. However, behind her front door was a sight that had to be seen to be believed. Mabel’s house was absolutely FULL of stuff – as was the caravan. The hallway was piled high with boxes and bags, the caravan was full of fabric and linens, the living room contained stacks and stacks of tins… It’s not that Mabel was a hoarder, far from it, she was in fact the ultimate upcycler – she could see potential in everything and was often able to find new homes for the items that passed through her hands.
For example she collected yarn and made blankets for Save the Children – knitting and stitching together hundreds of squares over the years. She also accepted knitted squares from other people and made these into blankets and acted as a collection point for blankets made by other people, Some of my first knitting was for these blankets. Many, many people must have benefited from this ceaseless activity, but she did it very quietly and I have no recollection of her being publicly acknowledged..
She never threw away items that might be of use. Clothes that were worn out would have their buttons removed and any other potentially useful bits. I guess the remnants were used as dusters or cleaning cloths or went to the rag and bone man (we still had them then) but I’m not sure about this. It is from Mabel that my collection of mother-of-pearl buttons originates. She was particularly interested in sewing supplies and had tins full of threads, fasteners, zips and so on. I’m not sure where all the items she processed came from, but lots of people must have given her old clothes, linens and blankets to pass on to charity or process into their component parts.
When I was in my teens I received a large plastic tool box in which to keep my sewing bits (I still use it today) and Mabel gave me lots of bits and bobs to put in it- needles, thimbles, press-studs, hooks and eyes, scissors and more. I very clearly remember taking it round to show her and opening it up on her dining table to the admiration of her and her husband, Wilfred.
Wilfred was much older than Mabel – she knew him because she had nursed his first wife through a terminal illness – and they married having both lost loved ones. Mabel, you see, had been betrothed to a Polish airman who was killed in WW2, and the sadness of this loss never seemed to leave her. The had a son, of whom she was extremely proud, but I think she would have liked a daughter too. She had been a needlework teacher and loved passing her skills on. She was, I recall, particularly delighted that I was ambidextrous and could sew with either hand… and appalled when she heard that my own sewing teacher at school had slapped me when I told her this. I know that she kept all the handmade Christmas cards I had ever sent her and until her eyesight deteriorated too much she still managed to to write me the occasional letter – several of which I still have.
Mabel never travelled, although the world fascinated her. She always said, though, how lucky she was to have the television because of the way it could transport her to different countries and times. She loved heraldry and history and natural history and never failed to be entranced by programmes like Life on Earth – telling me that she never needed to leave her living room to experience the wonders of the world.
Much of the stuff she collected she passed on to charities or to local schools for use in craft projects; she also donated to museums any items that she thought had particular significance.. Anything that she thought her friends might like or find useful she would give to them gladly… sometimes too enthusiastically. In fact this passing on of stuff explains why I am currently working my way through a couple of boxes of vintage handkerchiefs, lace and broderie anglais that my mother has had in a cupboard for the past 20-odd years. My mum, you see, used to make and dress dolls to sell. Mabel thought that all this lace would be very useful… some was, but lots wasn’t and so it’s been sitting in a box untouched for a couple of decades. I know how much Mabel wanted these things to be used and valued, so I’m currently busy revitalising as much of it as I can in the hope that I can make it desirable. I’m planning to sell at least some of it as the time and resources (soaker, washing liquid, starch etc) required to launder it are quite considerable, but any that’s too scrappy I will give away. I’m intrigued by some of the bits and bobs (including the embroidery pictured at the top) that I’ve found – trying to work out what sort of garment they originated from or what they were made for, this for example…
Anyway, going through all this has brought back many memories of a very dear and generous lady. Sadly she died about three years ago and I was unable to get to the funeral. However, she still feels like part of my life and I think of her whenever I’m rummaging through my button box, sewing with some of her embroidery thread or, as now, ironing yards and yards of broderie anglais. She was a woman of vision.