Mabel

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 I have no idea what this embroidered panel was made for or who made it

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..

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What’s in the box?

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.

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Washed and ready for ironing

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…

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From a dress, perhaps… or some sort of lingerie?

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.

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24 Comments

  1. What an incredible legacy your friend left. She must have touched hundreds of lives! And I know what she meant about the TV, because that’s what the computer is for me. 🙂 What a wonderful friend Mabel was.

    Reply
    • I think she would have really loved the internet – she was always excited by new technology and could see its potential for good.

      Reply
      • A thought occurred to me, I remember my grandmother had bits of lace like you have in the last photo. They were used as a collar. She would use them on different dresses like we would use a scarf. I can’t tell for sure, just a possibility. 🙂

        Reply
  2. Lovely memories. Could the embroidered panel be the top of a church kneeler?

    Reply
    • Maybe, although I think it would have been too small alone. It measures 28cm by 17cm… and whilst measuring it just now, I’ve discovered it isn’t finished! There is a small section of the black border that isn’t stitched – but the canvas is coloured black, so it’s not noticeable at a glance. It’s the bottom left in the photo.

      Reply
  3. Ann Pole

     /  March 27, 2016

    What a lovely story. I still have some lace my grandma made. 🙂

    Reply
    • Have you made it into something? If not, you should think about doing so – I am coming to believe that it’s important to use special objects so that we get to see them and interact with them rather than just keeping them shut away and unappreciated.

      Reply
  4. The world woukd be a better place if it had more Mabels in it!

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  5. Lovely memories of a special person.

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  6. What a fascinating lady to have known. You’ve obviously obtained some of her talents and visions.

    I wonder if people right now are tucked up in one of her many blankets she sent out?

    Reply
  7. That was so lovely to read! And, believe it or not, just a couple of days ago I was closely admiring my Mabel buttons on my SOH flowers that hang at the bottom of my Dangler of International Happiness – the lovely idea of one Narf77 a couple of years ago, do you remember? You know how when you have something hanging above your work desk in the same position for a long time you sometimes don’t really look at it anymore. I was having a really good look at it and thinking of each of the contributors and I was surprised to find I remembered Mabel’s name. So this loving remembrance of Mabel travels half the globe to infuse my dangler with a bit more wonder and happiness!

    Reply
    • I was thinking about you as I wrote this since I told you some of the story when I sent the flowers and other buttons. Mabel would have loved blogging – being able to share our ideas and show off our creativity would have really appealed to her. And I cannot express how pleased she would be to know some of her salvaged buttons were in New Zealand contributing to your dangler. And by-the-way we have been enjoying many light-catcher rainbows in recent days all thanks to you.

      Reply
  8. nettyg

     /  March 27, 2016

    I thought the embroidered panel might be the top of a church kneeler as well. I’d love to help you sort and rejuvenate all your pretty pieces.

    Reply
    • It’s quite satisfying to see some of the drab pieces of lace come back to life.
      The panel does have the look of a kneeler, but I think it would have to be set into a border to make it big enough.

      Reply
  9. The embroidered piece could have been intended to be the side of a handbag. My mother had one from the 30s, it was a small boxy shape, one side plain fabric and the other an embroidered panel in an abstract design, with a metal frame and clasp. Is this piece about that size? The design also has the look of traditional Hungarian work, so another possibility is that it’s meant for some piece of clothing – they made marvellous embroidered coats, jackets and blouses, mostly floral for women but more abstract for men.

    Reply
  10. I loved reading this! I have a vivid picture of Mabel in my head from your writing. Enjoy these special Mabel things you have 🙂 it’s so heartening to see you caring for and using them.

    Reply
  11. What a wonderful woman. Pat is right to say that she has left an incredible legacy. I think it was from you that I learnt the Brian Patten poem:
    A man lives for as long as we carry him inside us
    For as long as we carry the harvest of his dreams
    For as long as we ourselves live,
    Holding memories in common, a man lives.

    That applies so strongly to Mabel, as you are carrying the harvest of her dreams. x x

    Reply
  12. What an amazing lady… And how lucky that she was there to encourage you in your craftiness! I hope her lace pieces find their way to good homes to keep her legacy going 😀

    Reply
  13. All I could think, as I read this, was “welcome to my world.” Like you, I have tons of vintage linen and lace, and spend so much time trying to find good homes for it. It’s especially compelling in your case, because you want to honor Mabel by continuing her work! This was a lovely tribute to her!

    Reply
  14. Your friend, Mabel was a possibilitarian. Hoarders let go of nothing. Collectors like to keep things to look at but those like Mabel love to share and are like a distribution center. It comes in, then with work, it goes out better than it came in. Hoarding is most often caused by trauma or deep loss. There may have been a bit of that but it sounds like Mabel found a way to take her loss and make the world a better place from it. Those people touch our lives so deeply they become part of the fabric of our soul. You were blessed to have her influence.

    Reply
  15. Very fine. What a storied and well-peopled world we share. Thanks … as always.

    Reply

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