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Obsolete needlework traditions from a pre-industrial and pre-colonial era were purposely embedded in the education of European New Zealanders. New Zealand was settled by Europeans at a time of increasing industrialisation, at a watershed time between the dominance of craft and artisan production and a more industrialised western world.

By Stella Lange

Obsolete needlework traditions from a pre-industrial and pre-colonial era were purposely embedded in the education of European New Zealanders. New Zealand was settled by Europeans at a time of increasing industrialisation, at a watershed time between the dominance of craft and artisan production and a more industrialised western world. This is a critical juncture from craft to industrial society, hence the somewhat contradictory place of mending in education. Textiles like many other materials were more plentiful and more affordable than at any previous time in history - and yet socially there were deeply embedded practices and attitudes towards the care and maintenance of domestic textiles, household materials and clothing.

Traditionally a European education for girls included learning how to manufacture simple garments and household textiles, and how to care and repair these. These attitudes towards household management and textile care were formative in the development publicly funding schools in Britain and in New Zealand. New Zealand's education act was heavily influenced by the Education act of 1870 in Britain, and older ideas, of a generation earlier, arguments by political activists, ideologists and craft supporters such as William Morris and John Ruskin who promoted worker education and wrote widely on the importance of craft, drawing and maintenance of your home and surroundings.

In 1884 Samuel Like wrote to the editor of the New Zealand Herald to defend the way in which needlework was being taught in New Zealand schools. Mr Luke directed readers to Section 84 of the Education Act of 1877 which outlined that for girls, sewing, needlework, and the principles of domestic economy shall be included in the subjects taught at public schools. Not only did Mr Luke refer to the legislation governing subjects taught at in New Zealand schools but clarified that “Any girl who could not pass half the maximum number of marks in this particular subject cutting out plain garments, and fixing them in darning an patching and in grafting" [1] could not gain a scholarship or a certificate of proficiency. Clearly knowing how to cut and make simple garments was considered an important part of a young woman’s education in New Zealand, as was knowing how to mend both woven garments and knits; reinforcing that sewing, including mending was a vital part of a girls education.

In 1932, it was reported, at the National Council of Women’s Annual General Meeting, there was considerable protest at the reduction in hours allocated to teaching sewing in schools. The teaching of sewing in primary schools was to be reduced from two hours per week to one. With an increasing number of students continuing education beyond primary school, the intermediate and high school curriculum established practical or ‘manual’ classes for all students, woodworking, metal working, cooking, and sewing were taught alongside more academic subjects such as a foreign language, English, mathematics and science, and the social sciences such as history and geography.

These practical or manual classes can be considered as the echo of ideas around the importance of craft, or using ones hands as outlined by activists and theorists like William Morris.

Otago Museum, like most museums in New Zealand hold a collection of needlework samplers, continuing a tradition of hundreds of years - whereby students stitch a physical body of work - demonstrating proficiently with a needle. The samplers acted as both a CV - in an era when needle work skills around making, marking and mending domestic textiles would gain one an inside job as a ladies maid or as a memory aid, in a time before affordable books - recording how a stitch or mend was worked.

Samplers in the Otago Museum collection indicate the universality of mending samplers, and range from those worked by primary or high school students to much more sophisticated examples worked by trainee teachers studying at the School of Home Science at Otago University.

Alice Bowbyes, needlework sampler, 1919. 200 x 230 mm. White woven cotton fabric with hand stitching in same or contrast thread.

Dr Felicia Walmsley Estate© All Rights ReservedOtago Museum

Between 1930 and 1970’s students, especially female students were able to study embroidery as part of a formal high school education, this subject sat alongside the Art or Home Science curriculum. Otago Girls continued to teach embroidery well into the late 1970’s when other schools had long since ceased embroidery classes. In the early 2000s the introduction of NCEA with its Technology focused streams permanently ended 130 years of needlework being considered part of a universal education for New Zealand women. Fabric Technology is very much aligned with its siblings, Wood Technology, Metal Technology and Food Technology - and provides high school students with material knowledge, practical skills and the beginnings of a design process - preparing them for further study towards a career in an industrialised world.

This shift in educational content, from what were once considered essential skills of needle work and mending, believed ‘needed’ by the population of New Zealand contrasts with the increasingly availability of industrially produced affordable goods in the 20th Century and shifting ideas around the right to leisure for all New Zealanders. Where once it was almost universally accepted that New Zealanders needed to know how to repair and mend domestic textiles - it is now universally accepted that needle work is a creative and relaxing pastime - optional rather than essential.

Newspaper report of examination results and awards for Needlework, Toi-toi Valley. Nelson Evening Mail, 24th December 1897, page 4. Needlework, and especially mending was socially important and publicly reported in local newspapers, usually naming top students, but also reviewing overall standards achieved by classes and schools.

National Library of New Zealand/ Papers past

[1] Grafting is a specialised seam used on knitted fabric, where the join mimics the structure of the join, concealing the join and providing flexibility that matches the rest of the fabric.


HEADER IMAGE - Alice Bowbyes,  needlework sampler, 1919. White woven cotton fabric with hand stitching in same or contrast thread, 180 x 190 mm. All Rights Reserved, Otago Museum  G2003.443 

 

Crafting Aotearoa 

This article is part of a collection of 52 essays that form an online companion to the book, Crafting Aotearoa. Spanning three centuries of making and thinking in Aotearoa New Zealand and the wider Moana (Pacific), this book looks at the artistic practices that, at different times and for different reasons, have been described by the term craft. Crafting Aotearoa tells previously untold stories of craft in Aotearoa New Zealand, so that the connections, as well as the differences and tensions, can be identified and explored. This book proposes a new idea of craft – one that acknowledges Pākehā, Māori and wider Moana histories of making, as well as diverse community perspectives towards objects and their uses and meanings.

Edited by Karl Chitham, Kolokesa U Māhina-Tuai and Damian Skinner

Hardcover book published by Te Papa Press

RRP $94.00

Citation 

Lange, Stella. 'Obsolete needlework traditions', Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Published: 11 11 2019.