Mrs Mason’s Know How

I had this romantic idea that I’d learned to knit and sew at ‘my mother’s elbow’. There we were tucked up snuggly on the couch surrounded by beautiful yarns … knitting needles gently moving back and forth …. womens’ know how being transferred one to the other as easily as the stitches moved from one needle to the other ……….. Get the picture?

Not so apparently.

A couple of years ago before she died I asked my mother about teaching me to knit and sew. I’ll let her tell you ……

I can’t remember teaching you girls to sew or knit – for one thing the three of you were all left handed and for another you probably had sewing at school or perhaps you did like Topsy – just found out for yourselves.

So there you are …….

But finding out how she learned to knit and sew was a bit more productive ……. again I’ll let her use her own words, but first just a bit of background……

My mother was born and spent her early years in Port Moresby. When she was eleven she went to St Mary’s CEGS, a boarding school in Herberton, North Queensland. All the travel between Australia and Papua in those days was by ship ………


My first memory of my sewing was when Mum offered to teach sewing to the girls at the Port Moresby State school. No special favours for me – I was just another pupil. We did the usual sampler stitches and then the finale for the year we had to take a doll to school – we were shown how to measure them, then cut a paper pattern. The dresses were simple – round neck, circular skirt & circular sleeves. And to finish off a small embroidery design on the front of the bodice.

Then in 1932 I was to go to school in Herberton, Nth Qld. I don’t know how Mum got the navy trobalco needed for 3 uniforms and pants; chocolate brown box pleated to a square sleeveless yoke, with two white blouses for sports outfit; white Sunday uniform dress; new jamas, dressing gown, summer dresses and a couple of winter frocks. I almost forgot – there had to be winter jamas and dressing gown as Herberton really did get cold at night in winter. I sewed all the seams of the pants and threaded all the elastic. I can remember Mum inspecting all the joining seams of the elastic to make sure they would not come apart (at an embarrassing moment?). Mum must have had to send to Australia for all the material as B.P.’s [Burns Philp] would not have had anything like that in stock – with boats 3 weeks apart she must have had to send a telegram perhaps to Mc Donnell & Easts in Brisbane!

At school we had stocking inspection every Saturday morning. We would find our own stockings in the large baskets – oh yes I also had to sew on all the Cash’s names- which must also have had to come from Mac & E’s. If you thought your stockings or socks did not need mending you still had to have them inspected by Sister Dorothea. If there was a thin spot that YOU thought would last another wear Sister would soon put you right by poking her finger through the weak area. I very soon became a good darner as she also inspected the finished article and if it was not up to her high standard it had to be pulled out and done again. I also became a good patcher as later on elbows were wont to become thin and needed patching. One of our more robust senior girls had patches on the front of her blouses. Clothes that needed mending were put in another basket by the laundress and your name entered in a book. When your clothes and stockings/socks had been passed your name got a tick beside it. Strangely enough we did not learn embroidery or sewing at school – domestic science was not offered as a subject.


As I could not go home to Port Moresby except at Christmas, (boat schedules and holidays did not coincide.) Sister Margaret arranged for me to spend my first mid-winter holidays with another boarder in my class, Joan King. Like me, Joan was an only child (yes I did have a little brother of 6 months but he wasn’t born until I was 11 years old ) Joe and Louisa King were living with Louisa’s mother, Mrs S.A.Mason and Joe was working the cane farm for her. They were very kind to me and treated me as one of the family. Just as I needed a home Joan needed a companion and we were great friends. All their large family of aunts, uncles and cousins suddenly became mine too!

Grandma Mason was appalled that I did not know how to knit so the first time we went to Cairns – the farm was at Redlynch 10/15 miles away and they had an open tourer car – we went to Mazlins drapery to choose the wool – a pale blue and fawn, 4 ply marle and the needles. I was to make a long sleeved sweater for my baby brother. It was done without a pattern, just by tape measure and Mrs Mason’s “knowhow”. It was only stocking stitch with garter stitch for the borders. I was very proud because I did it all under her guidance. Took to knitting like a duck to water I did.

When I was pregnant with you Lynne my Mum decided that she had to knit you a singlet but she was NOT a knitter – she also tried to knit a pair of socks and for weeks in each letter she was “racing” down to the heel. Her Mother, Joanna on the other hand used to knit socks for soldiers in W.W.1. Mum used to hear her needles clicking in the middle of the night. Grandma would have the socks under her pillow for when she couldn’t sleep. And one month she won the Red Cross commendation for the most pairs made in one month – 30 pairs! And this was in the heat of Cairns.

So thank you Grandma Mason for teaching mother to knit.

And while neither Mum nor I remember the actual events surrounding my learning it’s certainly not surprising that I ‘picked it up’. Mum knitted a lot and I certainly would have been with her when she was shopping for wool and patterns and such. Presumably I too just ‘took to knitting like a duck to water’ because I can’t remember not being able to knit ……….

It seems also from Mum’s story that the tradition for knitting in our family has strong roots. Her grandmother Joanna [whom she mentions] traveled to North Queensland from Edinburgh Scotland as a young woman in the 1800s bringing her know how with her. But that’s another story…………….