Jayne Dawson: A woman’s workbox shows a past life of love and care

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Every once in a while I spend an afternoon with my mother-in-law. It is part of our on-going project, the one she calls: “If Anything Happens To me”.

She’s 89 so we both know that probably something will happen to her, unless fate intervenes and makes it happen to me first. We both really hope not.

So on those afternoons, we travel back in time.

We’ve done the wardrobe, which revealed some sensational family stories in the biscuit tins at the back, and we’ve done the chest, whose contents proved to be of a more practical nature - though I did enjoy the set of pink nylon sheets with matching pillowcases. I mean, how pure, thrillingly 1960s is a find like that? They had survived completely intact from the era of drip-dry.

But this time it was the turn of the ottoman to reveal its treasures, and it did. For the ottoman contained the practical tools of domestic devotion going back many decades.

In there were the workboxes of my mother-in-law’s own mother, and of her Aunt Minnie. I met Aunt Minnie in later life, and she was a great old gal, a boarding house landlady prone to referring to a particular family member as “the floozy” and not giving a damn who was listening.

But her workbox revealed a different side. It was diligent and homely and more intimate than anyone would expect.

My mother-in-law, who never normally throws anything away, was all ready to jettison a handful of different threads, but I grabbed them for the descriptions on the front of the cards around which they were wrapped. “Specially Suitable for Lisle and Silk Hose” says one, while another is for “General Mending” and - as a special bonus - there was a genuine Schofields paper bag in which to keep these small mementos. As history’s humble yet powerful artifacts go, these are among the best.

The other workbox told of a woman who had possessed the equivalent skills of an engineer, but practised on the domestic front.

There was nothing my husband’s grandmother could not embroider, crochet, knit or sew.

“Fancy a new fruit bowl? No problem. I will just crochet one, soak it in sugar water, shape it round a glass mould, leave it to dry and Bob’s your Uncle” was how it went with her.

A set of embroidered table mats had been left unfinished. She had all six neatly cut out and several of them covered in delicate stitches before death intervened.

And my mother-in-law is definitely her mother’s daughter. In that ottoman were examples of her own creations: a piece of perfect smocking she had created for one dress and then preserved hoping to use again; the curtains she had made, the homemade pattern for the peaked cap she had decided to run up for one of her boys, one long ago year.

Then there were all the bits and pieces she had salvaged for re-use - the zips, the buttons, the pretty piece of cloth that was enough to make a dress - because before the world of Primark and disposable fashion, that’s what women of her ilk did. My mother-in-law was a wartime teenager, and it marked her. She has never been able to throw much away since.

It wasn’t a better world then, it was a worse world. Given the choice between make-do-and-mend and buying new and inexpensive, we would all mostly choose new.

But that doesn’t mean those decades have nothing to say to us - and what they do say is that the quiet skills of women kept life ticking along - and spending a quiet afternoon looking at the tools they left behind can feel so personal as to break your heart.

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