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A Stitch Back in Time

Posted in This months highlight on 07 Apr 2021

During the national lockdown, many of us have turned to creative crafts to keep ourselves occupied and entertained whilst staying at home. Not only are the mental health benefits widely recognised, but in the early stages of the pandemic, home crafters were able to help with the PPE shortage by sewing face coverings and hospital scrubs. With the recent surge in interest in sewing as a hobby, this highlight examines needlework in the archives.

A few months ago, we received a kind donation of schoolbooks which belonged to Kathleen Barnes of Cholsey Board School (later known as Cholsey County Primary), dated circa 1932. Kathleen Alice Mary Weston (née Barnes) was born on 28 October 1922 in Hungerford Newton. The family then moved to Cholsey before she attended school. These books provide a delightfully nostalgic view of needlework lessons for young girls in the 1930s.

Kathleen writes, ‘[the] ability to sew enables us to make garments, to mend garments, to be useful people, to save money, and to enjoy leisure time’. Unfortunately, many of today’s crafters would perhaps no longer consider sewing to be a money saver due to the increased cost of materials. However, much of the practical advice in the books still hold true. Kathleen lists a series of rules, including ‘do not hold the right arm tight down by the side’ and ‘to finish sew backwards for three stitches’, which are still common practice for hand sewing.

The books contain a wide range of samples of sewing, knitting and embroidery. This includes both beautiful decorative stitches, alongside useful mending techniques such as darning. One of the books includes drawings and measurements for a nightdress or petticoat pattern for a girl of 12 years old. There are also instructions to make multicoloured woollen napkin rings and to knit a lovely pair of bedsocks (an impressive sample of the heel can be found in the corresponding sample book). Her notes also take a detailed look at fabric construction, including drawings of wools, cotton, linen and silk fibres, as they would appear under a microscope.

After leaving school, Kathleen went into service and on the 1939 register she can be found working as a housemaid in Wallingford. At the outbreak of war, and for the duration, she worked in a munitions depot at Milton, Oxfordshire. She married Richard Weston on 8 May 1943. The needlework lessons must have left an impression as her main work was as a dressmaker which she continued to do from home until quite late in life. She sadly passed away on 7 October 2015 at the age of 92.

These books are a charming addition to our collections which will provide researchers with an insight into 1930s school life in Cholsey. We would like to thank the family of Kathleen Weston for this donation and for providing us with biographical information about her life.