Monday, 6 February 2017

Gingham: the fabric of my childhood

We children wore a lot of checked gingham in summer.  I always think of it as being red and white although I also remember dark green and white.   A quick search of ‘gingham’ on Google throws up numerous websites illustrated by photos of adults wearing the fabric in a variety of colours.  As a teenager, I remember wearing multi-coloured check shirts but even though these were made of cotton I would call them ‘plaid’ rather than gingham.

If you look at websites about the history of gingham you will find it has been around for a very long time.  The word appears to come from Malay ‘ginggang’ and originally meant striped.  It’s first mention in an English dictionary is dated 1615.  One distinctive feature of gingham is that it is woven from threads of the two colours rather than being printed after weaving.  In the nineteenth century checked gingham appeared and by the mid-twentieth century it had come to be associated with the American West, cowgirls and general country style.   I suspect the movies and musicals such as Oklahoma might have had something to do with this as film stars were frequently photographed wearing it.

Here is my sister, dressed as a bride in a gingham dress.  (I think the veil was a curtain and I am very impressed with the 'bouquet'.)

And here she is in another gingham dress, this time with smocking.   This photograph has been hand-tinted so I would not guarantee that the dress was blue and white.

Since gingham was hard-wearing and cheap it was also popular for household objects.  I can remember gingham tablecloths (I even made one but from linen rather than cotton gingham), aprons and tea towels.   It was easy to embroider because the checks meant there was a ready-made pattern to follow and I can remember embroidering it with stranded thread when I was at primary school.  The same went for smocking as it meant you did not have to iron dots onto the fabric.  Interestingly, I cannot remember gingham school uniforms in New Zealand.  I expect some schools had them but primary school children in our generation often wore ‘mufti’ and it was only fee-paying schools like the one I went to which insisted on uniform.  I remember being struck by the wide use of gingham dresses for primary school age uniform when I first arrived in this country.

To show you how central gingham was to our lives I want to describe an incident which I have been told happened when I was three years old.  I think it shows that I had an early interest in clothes which also meant sewing and dressmaking since everyone in New Zealand made some or all of their clothes in the decades after the Second World War.  Until I was eight we lived in Hastings in Hawkes Bay as my father had been born and brought up there and had a job to return to when he got back from being a ‘potato peeler’, as he would put it, in the forces during the war.  My mother came from Wellington and she found living in Hawkes Bay very hard, especially as at first we lived on the edge of Havelock North, a village which was only two miles from Hastings but felt very cut off.  I assume we did not have a telephone and my father commuted to Napier so was gone all day.  His mother and sister lived in Havelock North too, so were an important part of my life but I know my mother found her mother-in-law difficult.  I think this was because my grandmother was from pioneering stock, that branch of the family having left Scotland because of the Clearances and arrived in New Zealand in 1837 which was very early.   People who could trace their roots back that far were often people who had done very well in colonial society and that was certainly true of my grandmother’s family, who considered themselves a cut above many of the other people in the area.

My mother’s parents would visit us two or three times a year, driving the two hundred miles from Wellington which was quite a journey in those days of poor roads and unreliable cars.  While staying with us they would take my sister and I out and this incident occurred on one of our trips into Hastings, presumably to go shopping. 

 I do not remember the occasion myself but it passed into family history and was brought out as an example of what little children say and of my interest in all things textile.  Apparently my sister and I were sitting in the car with my grandfather.  I assume it was parked in the main street since as far as I cannot remember any car parks.  We were waiting for my mother and grandmother to return from shopping when a large woman walked past.  She was wearing a black and white gingham dress and I remarked ‘Look, Garg, (the pet name I had for my grandfather), black and white check.  How awful!’   And the fact that the woman was large obviously influenced the remark. 

What are your memories of gingham?

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