One of the posters about doily heritage, created for the Celebrate Doilies exhibit. This one is about Neva Adene Barbee Bramlett of Erath County, Texas.
When you look at a doily, what do you see? A delicate piece of lace? A reminder of a beloved relative? Or maybe simply a practical item that protects your furniture from nicks, scratches, or hair oil?
You may see all those things at one time or another. So do I. But after a year of interviewing people who have made or inherited doilies and other vintage crochet, I’m beginning to see beyond the practicalities and intricate stitches, into the past and into people’s lives. For generations now, people have made doilies as pretty decorations for their homes or as gifts. They got together to craft with friends and family members. They may have enjoyed the challenge of interpreting complex patterns. Like many of us do now, they crocheted to pass the time, or to unwind from a hard day. Some used their skill to create beauty in an otherwise plain and hard life.
I took the stories and photos from my interviews and turned them into posters, celebrating the craft and history of doilies and their makers. The posters were part of Celebrate Doilies, a traveling exhibit which debuted at the Cross Timbers Fine Arts Council Gallery, in Stephenville, Texas, in July 2017. Among the crochet heritage posters, I displayed my own doily-art wall hangings. The finishing touch was a collection of fifteen doily-inspired works by poet Sandi Horton.
Sharing a love of needlework brings people together. People meet, whose paths might not have crossed otherwise. Strangers become friends. For me, gathering stories about the makers of what is now vintage crochet, opened a connection to crocheters who are long gone. Our 21st century lives are quite different from the crocheters of the early and mid-1900s. But I feel I could sit down with any one of these stitchers of the past and enjoy a session of crocheting and visiting.
Pat McKeown’s Family
Bertha Laverne Scarborough Kelly was born in 1909. Sometime in her childhood, her family moved in a covered wagon, from Oklahoma to Floydada, a town in the Texas Panhandle. She may have gone to college, says her granddaughter Patricia Kelly McKeown, but in Bertha’s adult life, she was a seamstress, sewing drapes for a living.
Bertha’s creative skills included crochet. Sometime in the 1980s, Patricia saw a pair of sweet miniature crocheted shoes, which Bertha had crocheted, starched, and displayed on forms. Pat asked her grandmother, “Please, please, could you make me a pair?” Bertha did, and now they are among Pat’s prized possessions.
The Scarborough and Kelly families farmed on the Southern High Plains, where Pat’s mother Edna Murle Kelly also crocheted doilies and other home accessories. Pat said, “That’s what everybody did to pass the time. We had only three [television] channels—we didn’t have cable or anything. We didn’t even have a telephone on the farm until I was 16. GTE would have brought a line in for $5,000, but we couldn’t afford that, so we used ham radio.” In the late 1960s, South Plains Telephone Cooperative brought telephone lines in at no charge.
Miniature shoes, crocheted by Bertha Scarborough Kelly.
Mary Yantis’s Family
In the 1950s, Mary Yantis of Dublin, Texas, started married life with a gift of pink ruffled crocheted doilies for her end tables. The pair of doilies was made by her husband Dick’s sister’s mother-in-law, Willie Salyer. Willie was one of many needleworkers in Mary Yantis’s family.
Mary remembers her relatives working together on projects. Her Aunt Vernon Hodges Sides, who lived on a farm between Comanche and De Leon, Texas, was a very good crocheter. Aunt Vernon teamed up with her sister Ina Vaye Hodges Cowan to make dresser scarves, table runners, bed linens, and tea towels. Ina embroidered and Vernon crocheted. Ina was from Comyn and De Leon, Texas.
Having grown up with a bounty of needlework, Mary continues the tradition of using handmade linens to decorate. Handwork, along with books, living plants, family photos, and music are what Mary says, “make a home.” She has saved and preserved many pieces of needlework from her family, in part, she says, “to honor and remember people I love so much. And it’s part of my life, since I was one year old.”
This pink ruffle crochet doily was one of a pair by Willie Salyer.
Vernon Hodges Sides decorated these tea towels with crochet. The pink towel with the crocheted trim was one of the last things she made.
Ina Hodges Cowan embroidered the chrysanthemum design on this cloth and hand-hemstitched it. Her mother-in-law Bessie Cowan gave her the pattern and the knitted trim, which had been made by Bessie’s mother-in-law, Elvira Cowan of Alexander, Texas.
Horace Wayne Callaway
Like many people in small Texas towns, Horace Wayne Callaway worked two jobs to make ends meet, in his home of Rising Star. In the 1950s and 60s, he was in the construction and cemetery-mowing businesses. After a hard day’s work, he came home to his wife and five children, and crocheted to relax.
Horace Wayne was in his late 30s when he learned to crochet with help from a relative. By reading and following directions, he was able to figure out a lot on his own. Eventually, he could study a piece of crochet and recreate it without a pattern.
Crocheting was a kind of therapy for Horace, and he enjoyed doing it. His daughter Joy Harris said, “He loved making things for other people.” She liked to watch him crochet indoors or outside.
Horace Wayne Callaway had little money, so sometimes he would unravel a piece he had made and crochet a new piece. When his children grew up, they bought thread for him and he made things for them to remember him by.
A doily by Horace Wayne Callaway.
Horace’s daughter Joy Harris, said that if he ran out of thread, Horace would unravel his work so he could keep crocheting.
A doily crocheted by Horace Callaway.
Suzann Thompson is the creator and curator of Celebrate Doilies, a traveling art and history exhibit. She continues to collect doily stories for the project. If you would like to book the exhibit in your area, or if you have a doily story you want to share, please email her at email@example.com or by phone at 325 864 7902. Please visit her website at www.textilefusion.com or follow her on Instagram @suzannthompson or Twitter @textilefusion