We have few diaries or letters, few first hand accounts and no formally documented ways of knowing the circumstances, the situations, the choices behind the marriages, the journeys and travels of these women in my family. No ways of knowing whether they saw themselves as exiles or emigrants when they set out variously from England and Scotland to Australia. Likewise we know little about why their sons and daughters and grandchildren later set out for places far from home, some to New Zealand, some to Papua New Guinea.
But we have stories, lots of stories passed down and down and across generations. Stories that have captured my imagination and demand to be told and retold. Stories that I hope do justice to and honour those whose experience they portray. Stories that I hope will interest this and future generations.
These stories came to me mostly from my mother, my grandmother and from Aunty Nell, usually as part of cooking a meal or washing up, or while knitting and sewing. I assume it was thus in previous generations. I can’t actually know. What I do know is that as a child and young woman the best place to be was in the kitchen to hear the gossip and chat. Again I assume it was thus in previous generations.
The themes of these stories and gossip and chat were often about births, about marriages, about deaths. About lots of other topics too but these are the serious ones. As well as the stories we have formal pieces of paper – birth certificates, death certificates, census and shipping records, reports from coronial inquests, newspaper records. The stuff of ‘facts’, the stuff that legitimises much of the stories and corrects or redirects those parts that may have ‘strayed’ from the formalised truths.
My mother Esmé Johnson’s role in all of this was huge. She collected and retold so many of the stories. The easier part. She then set about ‘digging’ wherever and whenever to put the more formal structures round the stories. Dates, places, written records – genealogical ‘gems’ that might provide today’s answers but more likely pose many more questions for tomorrow’s digging. By far the much harder part.
For ages I asked her when she was going to stop digging and write it all up. Her answer always was that she’d do so when the digging was finished. Quite so.I decided I could keep asking and waiting. Or I could offer to write some of it for her. She accepted.
It’s been so good to find so much from the family stories borne out and supported by the documents Mum found. It has been intriguing too to uncover from other documents some of the stories the family didn’t tell us.
The writing of these stories – those told and those discovered – has been filtered through several lenses, the main ones encapsulated in the title Women of FibreAn out of the ordinary marriage, tragic and violent deaths, an out of the ordinary birth – all had me wondering and wanting to find out more about the women involved. Wanting to know how the events had come about – what the women’s lives were like and how they had managed before, during and after these momentous events.
In the 1970s there were three main family dramas that were coming through Mum’s research: the Amy Bock fake marriage story had only recently come to our attention, Aunty Nell’s death in 1977 brought the tragedy of her son Alan’s death into focus, and the story of Ellen Daniel giving birth to Aunty Lou under a dray in George St Brisbane had me wondering ‘which part of George St and did the dray have curtains. Add to these the rape and murder of my father’s sister Margaret six or so weeks after her mother died.
An out of the ordinary marriage, tragic and violent deaths, an out of the ordinary birth – all had me wondering and wanting to find out more about the women involved. Wanting to know how the events had come about – what the women’s lives were like and how they had managed before, during and after these momentous events. At this time too feminism was helping many of us reshape our views of gender and roles and how history as taught was shaped so powerfully so traditionally with men at the centre and women somewhere else – if indeed they were visible at all.
I wondered where to fit Amy Bock, Ellen Daniel, Aunt Margaret and Aunty Nell into these new frameworks. I decided that they were extraordinary women whose truths needed to be explored and told. I called them Women of Fibre. It expressed what I felt but couldn’t easily explain.
During the 1980s and 1990s I became more involved with Mum’s research as I pondered the events and lives of these Women of Fibre. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that I found many more of them. The life events of these other women weren’t as dramatic as the originals but their stories were just as compelling and I had no doubt too that they indeed qualified as Women of Fibre.
During the 1980s and 1990s I was also becoming more involved with textiles and the textile arts. Knitting and sewing clothes for the family was changing to stitching and knitting art pieces for exhibitions.
I started asking Mum questions about textile connections in the family stories as I made a quilt with many of the fabrics she had collected over the years. And again it presumably isn’t surprising that there are many such connections – in fact the most we know about some of our forebear’s was that she was a ‘sock knitter’ or a ‘silk throwster’ or ‘draper’s assistant’. This information from the census documents of the day.
The textile lens is a powerful one in this story. It highlights the second element of the Women of Fibre tradition for me. The women Mum researched dealt with fibres, yarns, threads and fabrics as I do. They used tools and machines similar to the ones I use. The patterns and designs I use and play with, extend and improvise upon are ones that were known to them. They too made garments and items for everyday domestic use and wear, then other items for special occasions and decorative display. In several stories sewing machines were special gifts for special events – coming of age, engagement and marriages in particular. In another story the only gift ever from a grandmother was the presentation of a fine woven woollen shawl to mark the birth of the first child in each family.
It’s been very satisfying to trace and describe the connections with the women in my family in terms of the textile arts. It’s fun to surmise that they too experienced phases of high interest, excitement even, boring patches, frustrating episodes, then pride in completion in their sewing and knitting activities. Mum and I decided to bring our passions together in a book and to document our work for others to enjoy and share. It’s a work in progress. She was still organizing her diggings up to the later years of her life, and I’m still playing with new textile techniques and ideas and seeing what happens.
She was excited that I was starting to document our work and she was pleased with the early versions that she saw. I’m planning that this version will do justice to the history and textile work that engaged us both so intensely and with so much passion for so long.
There are three main family groups of women featured in this story: The Bradshaws and Millers, The Bocks and the Blackburns, the Johnsons the Thurstons and the Timletts. You can find their branches on the family tree on the But first … page. That’s my brothers and sisters and me on the trunk.