Tuesday, 23 September 2014

The Greek Collection: A history lesson

The project is well underway: come and join me at The Greek Collection.

My aunt came to my house recently so we could have a Skype session with my mother's side of the family, connecting Hania, Athens, London and Wellington all on one screen. At the end of the excitement, as we left my computer space, I noticed my aunt looking intently at my computer chair.

"I recognise that from somewhere," she said, picking up a patchwork mat that I have placed on the chair to keep it clean.

Detail of the chair mat

"You made it, Thia," I said. Or at least, that's what my mother used to tell me. The chair mat was used in our New Zealand home as a table mat for a large chest of drawers. Although it is now not in very good condition, I still keep it for sentimental purposes. In some parts, it is very tattered.  

"No, your grandmother made it," she corrected me. "I think I remember her sewing it." We inspected the chair mat more carefully, and discussed the fabrics on it. She can't remember where they came from. They all have that vintage look which sells like hotcakes on the likes of etsy and ebay. Looking around my living room, she peered at the foot stool.

"You mother made that," she said, pointing to the fabric I had sewed on top of the dust cover I had made for the foot stool. The original dust cover was made with a floral fabric remnant with the words "House and Home Fabrics and Draperies Inc.", dated 1986, running around the selvage. I'd bought it in Athens sometime in 1992 from a warehouse fabric store across from my first job. The fabric eventually suffered wear and tear where it was used most of all - the top. So I covered the large hole that had formed with my mother's loom-made fabric. Despite the heavy use made of that stool, it shows no sign of tearing (it's been in use for at least 6-7 years already).

Raising her eyes from the foot stool to the large table next to it, my aunt recognised another piece of fabric. "Your mother made that tablecloth too, She wove cloth on the loom, in long narrow strips, and sewed them together by hand to the size that she wanted. Then she made the δεσιές (macrame-type ties) by hand. I was the only one of the three girls who didn't make δεσιές. I just didn't get round to learning how to do it. By that time, we had moved away from the mountain, and had come to live close to the sea, and this all seemed unnecessary at the time, as we did other things, and we could buy the same products for less effort." 

Indeed, all these skills, the time spent on making the items and the items themselves seemed like a waste, even for my mother: she had never used any of her hand-woven items, leaving them in the μπαούλο her mother had bought for her, to store her dowry items. On leaving for New Zealand, my mother never saw them again.  

I then brought out some other fabrics that belonged in my mother's baoulo, hoping Thia could give me a bit of background to them from what she remembers of our family's history. "Kitchen towels," she said, as soon as she saw the familiar patterns of the darker woven material (see above). "You could still use these, you know, all they need is a hem. And the white fabric with the δεσιές were body towels, but we wouldn't use them now..." Her voice trailed off with a tone of regret, as if she remembered the times when she did in fact use them as body towels, remembering laundry days, after which she had to untangle and comb out the  δεσιές, something I've done too, and know how much trouble it is.

Detail of a body towel made by my mother. Yellow age stains are visible on the cloth. The whole cloth was hand-woven on the loom, including the decorative parts. The ties on the edging are also hand-made. This particular towel has been turned into the lining of one of my hand-made bags.

"But I still use them in other ways. I use them now as furniture coverings, and they look very pretty."

"And what about these, Thia?" I took her to the bathroom where I have some bundles of cream fabric ready to be dyed because the material contains a lot of dirty-looking brown age stains that are difficult to remove. Once the fabrics are dyed a dark colour (I am sticking to blue at the moment), the stains vanish.

Some of my first designs in The Greek Collection, made with the bought fabric (ie my mother did not weave it herself - it was made in Greece on an industrial loom: more information here). The brown age stains are visible. The tiny dark brown spots are the husks from the cotton plant. Both the husks and the stains become invisible when the fabric is dyed; the blue fabric below is the same white fabric above. The checked fabric below is also hand-woven on a loom by my mother  - more kitchen towel fabric.

"Oh, your mother didn't make this fabric on the loom," she said, fingering the fabric. "It's too heavy, you can see that yourself." She beckoned me to touch the fabric. "This is what we used to call καποτέ". I have since understood that this is the pronunciation that my family must have used for the Greek word κάποτο or κάμποτο, which means 'calico cotton'.

Detail of embroidered runner edge. The tacking is still in place

The fabric was bought in narrow lengths, which were cut and sewn by hand to the required size (the above piece in the photograph had three hand-sewn seams in the main body), to make bed coverings, namely decorative sheets. More fabric was hand-sewn around the sheet as a border, which was eventually embroidered - again all by hand.

I showed my aunt what I was doing with the fabrics, and she seemed quite excited with the idea of my reinventing uses for 'unuseable' things. She told me many stories on that day, and hopefully I'll remember them when I write the next installment of The Greek Collection

(To be continued.)

Bonus photo: My bathroom tidy, unwittingly made with my mother's hand-woven fabric (the white background fabric). The ribbons conceal old baptismal 'witness pins' known as μαρτυρικά (scroll down this link for FAQ on witness pins).

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