Tatting, knotting, knitting, pin-tucking, crocheting, pinking, stitching, stuffing, embroidering … needles fly when Sydney Living Museums’ volunteer Soft Furnishings Group (SFG) converges twice a month at Elizabeth Bay House to create, re-create and maintain existing furnishings for our historic places.

Underpinning the work of this group is a curatorial rationale that draws upon knowledge of sources, the way families lived at our places and how they furnished their homes. The flop-over valance on a muslin curtain and the binding on a case cover thrown over a chaise to reflect a seasonal change are as important as furniture and its placement, the correct method of hanging a 19th-century picture and the right flowers in the right vase.

SLM curators collaborate with the SFG as they turn their hands to all manner of challenges that assist us to furnish and interpret the different rooms within our houses. A wide range of furnishings – cushions, tassels, crumb cloths, holland blinds, fringed dressing table runners, doilies, even padded brick doorstops – have been made by the group using traditional patterns and techniques. ‘So often women’s work is anonymous, but the material proof of the Soft Furnishings Group handwork is on permanent display in many rooms throughout our house museums’, says Dianne Finnegan, the group’s coordinator.

First published in Unlocked Spring edition, 2016

Printed illustration of ornate jar on a flower shaped mat.

Illustration of a hyacinth glass standing on a worked mat or doily from Eliza Warren, Treasures in needlework, Ward & Lock, London, c1855. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums

Authentic sources

Researching techniques and sourcing appropriate materials are critical to the success of the group. The Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection (CSL&RC) and its comprehensive range of domestic manuals and trade catalogues is an essential resource.

Miss F G Kelly’s The lady’s knitting book (1848) was the source used recently to create 24 doilies for the Elizabeth Farm dining room table. Interpreting early patterns has its challenges; in this case, the vagaries of the instructions resulted in the group having to produce many samples and trial various different sized needles and many different plies of cotton yarn before they could achieve a successful result.

One of the enjoyable tasks currently being undertaken is interpreting the pattern for the crocheting of a hyacinth glass mat from Mrs Eliza Warren’s Treasures in needlework (c1855). Hyacinth glass vases are specially designed to hold a hyacinth bulb above water so its roots can grow down into the vase, producing a flower without the need for a pot and soil. The instructions in the book dictate:

Half an ounce of shaded Green, two skeins of six shades of Scarlet – all 4-thread Berlin Wool; the lightest shade of Scarlet to be a bright Geranium colour the darkest a rather light claret, the third shade from the lightest to be a military scarlet. Four yards of white skirt cord, the size of ordinary blind cord. No 2 Penelope hook. 

Eliza Warren, Treasures in needlework, Ward & Lock, London, c1855, p195

Interpreting the nomenclature – not to mention the wonderful range of colours – takes patience, trial and error, and a good sense of humour. The SFG has also been trained in Berlin wool work, a popular form of 19th-century needlework and known to have been a technique employed by many colonial Australian women including the Macarthurs of Elizabeth Farm.

Many of our volunteers are engaged in interpreting and working early Berlin wool work patterns for use as cushions and hassocks at Vaucluse House and Elizabeth Farm.

Woman seated at table working on sewing under ornate mirror.
Henrietta Cheshire stitching a Berlin wool work sample from an original 1840s pattern held in the Vaucluse House collection. Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums

Engaging our visitors

A successful offshoot of our regular bimonthly workshops is the opportunity to share what we do with visitors to Elizabeth Bay House and at public programs at Vaucluse House, as we find new ways to communicate how people once lived at our places. Late last year, for example, we were able to showcase our projects to guests at the Vaucluse House Centenary celebration. Visitors marvelled at the range of different materials used to furnish 19th-century houses: silk, calico, moreen, glazed chintz, horsehair, holland, vellum, straw, even possum skin.

Delivering interpretative projects, whether large or small, involves research, problem-solving, curatorial leadership and collaboration, and is often dependent on access to and availability of traditional materials. Most importantly, our success is due in part to the passion and dedication of this singular group of volunteers who work tirelessly for SLM.

Two women, one standing, one seated at angled embroidery frame.
SFG Coordinator Dianne Finnegan (left) and Barbara Carnie working on a berlin wool work hassock for Elizabeth Farm. Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums
Woman in bright pink top seated at table with sewing.
Margery Bennett working on the doilies for Elizabeth Farm. Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums

About the author

Joanna Nicholas, Curator, Sydney Living Museums.

Joanna Nicholas


Joanna is Curator in the House Museums Portfolio - responsible for Vaucluse, Elizabeth Bay and Rose Seidler Houses.

This story originally appeared in Unlocked: The Sydney Living Museums’ Gazette, our quarterly members’ magazine.

Find out more about the magazine