Saturday, 29 March 2014


   Memories of life before the last war are now a little dim for me, I was 12 when it started, but some things still stick in my mind - my grandfather was, like my own father, very late to marry and raise children.  He was born in 1830 at the beginning of Victoria's reign and was a good mathematician at  Sydney Sussex  College,  Cambridge (3rd. senior wrangler!) and had to leave his college to marry, as the Fellows had to be batchelors!   He spent most of his time at home sitting in his library chair, working out theorems and composing his sermons, according to his six sons.   But he had the first 'automobile' in the County with the first Caernarvonshire number plate, which was an improvement on horse transport which had been the rule, despite the endless breakdowns of all early cars on very rough unmade-up roads.   It was a well known fact that most  young couples had lived  no more than 20 miles apart, as that was the maximum a horse and carriage could travel in a day!    Most couples met through formal introductions by their families and also at the private dances organised in local country houses, with cards which  the young men signed to claim a dance with their chosen partner!
     During the Great War, my father, the eldest son, bought hay for the army cavalry and got to know Wales, travelling round the farms, and much later in his life he organised a co-operative for the sale of T.B. tested  milk and cheese all for the benefit of the very poor local farmers on the Lleyn peninsula.  
      I used to visit a favourite Great Uncle who christened me Miss Peppermint as I bought him a packet of humbugs for his 90th birthday.   He told me about his journey to Shrewsbury  to his school, in a regular coach and horses post team, way before the trains and cars could take him and said it was very cold sitting on top of the coach with the coachman, and all the luggage behind .  Like his brother-in-law, he had the first car in Merioneth soon after the turn of the century!  It was like a story told by Charles Dickens!     
   My father had quite a few sheep on the poor land that surrounded our home and he sold legs and shoulders of Welsh Lamb to customers all over the country - the joints were packed in rush weave bags which were sewn up and posted away.  I had to buy the bags from old Miss Clarke in Pwllheli, who kept the fish shop, and was a rather fearsome lady, dressed in long black skirts, a sack round her waist and a big BLACK straw hat and a very strong voice which rather alarmed me on my mission.  She had a habit of shouting out my name for all to hear, and the name of our house  and then " how is your daddy then ?"
We were not allowed to buy the chips from the van in the square, or to buy sweets and comics, Rainbow, Dandy, etc., were strictly banned.  So was the picking of flowers on a Sunday, as I found out when I went out to pick them -"not on the Sabbath"!  Despite these minor no-no's we had a wonderful free childhood playing with farm children, especially in the high haystacks and the woodsheds and came to no harm.  My mother dressed me in beautiful blue Welsh tweed coats and skirts made by the local men's tailor which did not allow for waists or bosoms and were very straight!  and she knitted lovely stripey jerseys with buttons on the shoulder which smelt slightly of sheep and were a bit greasy with lanolin.!  We had a very successful small woollen mill nearby at Brynkyr where I loved watching the men and women working the looms, with a deafening noise of clackety-clack and the pretty vegetable-dyed cloth curling out at the end into a roll - and maybe my love of textiles was born there.    All the wool came from local sheep and there was brown from the so-called black sheep as well as the white.  I used to collect it from the thorn bushes and the barbed wire fences to make pillows for my dolls and as soon as I learned to knit, I knitted pairs of garters to hold up my fathers woolly stockings which he wore below his tweed knickerbocker suit trousers, every Christmas.  Although long, they were quick and easy to do as they were all in plain stitch, no purl, which I found more difficult with small fingers;   eight stitches across!  funny how you remember odd things like that !


Friday, 28 March 2014


This card was sent to me by one of my family who complained that I was always in washerwoman mode and mood - and it still makes me laugh. When I look at my laundry shelf and count all the different bottles and powders for treating my linen and hemp patients I am pleased that I can give otherwise good fabrics a new run of life when I get rid of their spots and rashes. The French have a wonderful little bottle of stuff called Rubigine rouille (rust) which is amazing for removing ironmould stains new and old. If you use it, keep it off your skin as it is much more powerful than our Stain Devil and it takes the glaze and pattern off china, but does no harm at all to cloth and for me works without fail.. Find it in any big supermarket (French) next to the detergents. Very hot wash is good for removing the blue/green/brown of mildew damp storage marks, and an oxygen powder soak and wash does wonders for greying linen. Hot water, bleach and sunshine will bleach linen to snow white but it does shorten its life, so go easy on the Parazone.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

CASEIN buttoned up!

   Have you ever heard the word CASEIN?  Well you might have heard of casein paint or milk paint which has a  pastel chalky finish and is sometimes used to fake time-worn folk-art furniture.  I came across it when I bought a huge store of buttons from an old lady in Burgundy, France, and when I asked what some very unusual buttons were, she told me that they were only made during a very short period in the twenties, and I found out later that casein was a plastic substance made from the solids in milk and cheese and was produced about the same time as bakelite.  Bakelite was the winning product and casein lost out.  The designs on these buttons and the bright shades were very striking and obviously Art Deco - eye-catching spirals and sun rays, lines and spots in all sizes for jerseys, dresses and  overcoats.  ! bought the lot - several hundred - for very few Francs, and took them all one day to London for the Little Chelsea Fair I always attended.  A young man picked up a card and asked if he might borrow it to show a friend for half an hour.  On his return he said he would buy the lot and seemed quite excited about his purchase.  He then told me he had been on the phone to New York to the Button Society boss (this was before Mobiles) and that he would be taking them over there as they were great rarities and all button collectors would be very interested in them.   Everybody happy!  An unexpected coup like that is always very exciting, even if the profit is not huge!  If you want to see/buy the 4 buttons left over, come to my Rag Mart in Bradford on Avon on Sunday June 15th down in the wine vaults at No 29 Church St.
   I sold every last button very quickly once I knew what they were and then last week I found a cushion cover that I made with a very rough hemp tea towel with green stripes which buttoned up with four green casein buttons;  you can probably see that they must have been sliced from a long roll, rather like chequered biscuits,  or seaside rock sweets,  and they look pretty amateur to me!  Anyway they jogged my memory of all the near look-alikes  I once had,  and if I saw a lot again I would be quick to bag them for my button collectors.
      Trophy  treasure hunting!  I read only today of the scrap merchant who bought a golden egg at a junk sale, kept it in his kitchen, and it has turned out to be the missing Easter Egg  made for the Russian royal family by the great Faberge, worth millions!   Just 200 millions!   Messrs Wartski,  jewellers, who recognised and valued it, once had a family shop in Llandudno and were well known for their fabulous jewellery pieces - likewise Mr Policoff in Pwllheli who sold fur coats - both were pre -WW2 Russian emigres., who must have found Welsh ways very strange - chapel people did not aspire to such worldly riches!  They liked black and gray, very much, for their clothes and houses,  and it was echoed by the stern granite mountains all around, and in the gravel and slate quarries all over Gwynnedd where I lived. 
I wonder where all those wonderful pearl and diamond jewels are now ? I am looking round my kitchen, just in case, as I am a well-known 'scrap' dealer'!
Casein buttons - my sort of scrap.

Monday, 24 March 2014


   There are so many versions of bouquets of lilies with a trellis of ribbons creating a diagonal pattern on the cloth.    But I find one of the most charming and beautiful is this design by  Beaudesert, the leading
designer of decorative fabrics.  The printing is all done by hand and the colours are particularly beautiful, with plenty of 'air' between each bouquet which I find much more pleasing and elegant than the rather over-loaded palette of other designers.    Most of the chintzes we saw in the late 1980s gave rooms a very crowded aspect and were not in very good taste when used in frilly bed dressings and tightly gathered curtains., often with other accessories in the room covered in more frills and furbelows!  These curtains, which are really long, are on offer at the moment, but if not sold will be available at my Rag Bazaar /Market on June 15th, for which I am saving some rather special things as well as turning my last remnants out at bargain prices!

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Chatsworth A real banquet for a Duke

This magnificent buffet display by Ivan Day, food historian, shows plate, food, fruits and flowers arranged in a symmetrical design, with authentic pastries made from contemporary
recipes of 17th C. in the newly furnished great Assembly Room at Chatsworth. As an ex-florist and a keen admirer of colour in a formal dining room, I find this very inspiring and I was interested to read that it was in fact itself inspired by a painting by Descartes now in the Met.Museum, NY .  It was intended to dazzle the guests and it certainly does give one quite an appetite.

Monday, 17 March 2014

The Saturday Book - Edwin Smith & Olive Cook

shell picture, sailor's woolwork ship; tapestry work

Hankies worked by Lady Nelson     orange wrappers


This book is a compilation of photos (Edwin's) and comments (Olive) and shows a curious hotchpotch of favourite objects, but all have been chosen in a certain style which will appeal to many collectors of the bizarre, unusual and rare. They were particularly fond of the sea side and shells, ships and nautical items feature a lot. The hankies embroidered by Lady Nelson are so personal and touching, and the orange papers from Italy and Spain are so bizarre! I have this book by my spare room bed and hope visitors dip into it. I went to see Olive Cook when she was a widow living in a small studio flat near Dunmow and told her how much I loved her book and went away with another large tome, written by her and Edwin, a beautiful book about five centuries of fine English houses. She was a most interesting person, but rather lost without her partner, Edwin.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Growing up in Wales

I was brought up in a remote Welsh country house, where little had changed from the time of my grandmother 'Nain' who raised 6 sons in the rambling,uncomfortable, unheated old place, way before the first world war. She was artistic and actually had drawing lessons in Barmouth from Ruskin, the famous Victorian artist, who had a mission to spread artistic knowledge and skills in the provinces. She taught the village schoolchildren to embroider and sew and produced charming drawings and watercolours of her own family and the Welsh countryside. She furnished the house with the old family oak furniture and embellished it with cushions, borders, and cloths in many different styles, mostly cross stitch, and tapestry work, and used some rich Eastern fabrics brought back from a visit to Egypt and Palestine. From her I have the best Kashmir shawl I have seen - no faults and immense with a beautiful border.

         When my mother who was raised in very different surroundings in a grand London mansion, took over the house which had been unoccupied for 5 years, she had to battle with open fireplaces, no heating and lots of shabby bedrooms upstairs, rusty old baths and basic plumbing. There was no main electricity and the water for the house was pumped by a ram from a stream below the house. The attics, where little Welsh farm girls had been trained as house maids, were bleak with iron bedsteads and plain pine chests for clothes storage. There was no shortage of girls as their families were so very poor, and they got proper food and and sensible clothing in a good household with the added bonus of being much in demand by the local young farmers who were looking for respectable girls with homemaking skills, so there was always one waiting for a job at the 'big house' They used to "walk out " for several years before they had saved up to marry and start a family, and 'the bottom drawer' as in France, was their pride and joy. They walked two miles to the bus, as did all the schoolchildren, and the big treat was a Saturday visit to the cinema in the local town.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Full steam ahead

  Monday was washday, without fail, in my old Welsh home and I can just remember the Victorian laundry which was normally out of bounds as it was full of hot steam, red hot irons and dripping wet sheets. There was a huge copper with clouds of steam and a soapy mix of 'whites' being pummelled with big wooden dollies that pushed the hot water through the cloth and turned it all over again and again. There must have been big tanks full of clear water to rinse thoroughly and then the linen was rolled by the huge iron mangle with wooden rollers that squeezed the surplus suds and water out This seemed to run on a sort of mini- railway and the ends were loaded with stones - I don't know how it worked but it was another no-go area for me!
         After a bath of starch the things were hung on huge racks of poles to dry; these were pulled out on wheels to load. and then, of course, there was the ironing on big tables covered in old Welsh blankets and linen and several heavy irons were heated on special iron stoves and carefully wiped before speeding over the damp linen. At some stage in the rinsing, Reckitts Blue was added to the water and this gave the fine linen an elegant tint that enhanced it.

        Two local women came in to do all the work and they were very pretty with full pink cheeks and strapping red arms after all the rubbing and scrubbing. They shouted and sang in Welsh to each other and told me to keep out of their way¬ nearly all the larger country houses had these laundries built in Victorian times and it was only just before the war that the local towns had proper laundries and deliveries and the old home laundries were gutted and the machinery sold for scrap.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014


18TH C. silk on silk embroidery



Lace border on linen pillowcase, 1900

3 very different examples of fine work from three centuries.  Which do you admire the most?

Tuesday, 4 March 2014


  This is a good book to have beside you if you are interested in all kinds of design for interiors, and possibly if you are seeking inspiration for a project.  This is a very heavy, full and glossy book with hundreds of brilliant and detailed illustrations showing every kind of period background, hundreds of examples of antique furniture, textiles, folk art, and pictures in brilliant colour,  not so much a coffee-table book, but a serious and scholarly history of American furnishing and art.   Mint condition in dust jacket.   £12 plus postage, or free collection at my next Fair in Bradford on   Avon, Sunday June 15th.