Embroidered waist band on a sundress and ‘Mrs America’ on television

Appliquéd and embroidered waistband on a cotton sundress (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

Although life is very calm and sweetly paced with no real responsibilities to distract me, days go  by far too quickly and in spite of always having a needle (or two) in hand, only things not on my ever lengthening list get done. Last week I made 10  drawstring bags with appliqué names for daughters 1, 2 & 3, as two of them said how useful they were for packing –  things like balls of wool, knickers, hair combs, adapters, cables, chargers, etc. and, as it seemed unfair to just make bags for 2 of them, I threw in a couple for the third daughter as well.  It’s always feels good to use odd fabric pieces to make something useful and I find I get as much enjoyment from making things like this as I do from more complex or ornate projects. I must, however, have mentally pigeon holed the finished bags as utilitarian for I handed them over without a thought of taking photographs. In the midst of bag making, a dress from daughter No 2 arrived in the post with the request to make the waist band more interesting. Fortunately an idea for this came quickly and as appliqué provides colour more effectively when time is limited  than embroidery alone, this didn’t take too long. I did take the time to photograph the dress, although as I was about to push it into an envelope for posting I didn’t waste time ironing it first.

Detail of appliquéd and embroidered waistband on a cotton sundress (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

Appliquéd and embroidered waistband on a cotton sundress (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

Daughters 2 & 3 came from London to see us on Saturday, just for the day and we spent what turned out to be a sunny and hot  afternoon having lunch outside, chatting the hours away and enjoying going through a file of their brother’s school work which my husband had come across  in one of his filing cabinet drawers. We were very impressed by the boy’s neat hand writing and his animal pictures which seemed to decorate everything he wrote, whether relevant or not – but this was a child who early in life had declared he was going to be a herpetologist (one who studies amphibians and reptiles), though he actually became an engineer instead. Somewhere I have files like this for each of the children, though typically I could only lay my hands on the one belonging to one of the children not actually in front of me.

Appliquéd and embroidered waistband on a cotton sundress (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

In general I’ve become a bit fed up of what’s available on iPlayer, though I enjoyed Mrs America so much that I watched it all the way through twice and in doing so, learned almost more about the Feminist Movement in America than I knew before. The story of their failed attempt to get all states to ratify the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution is thought provoking, though to be fair, more complicated than a TV show can truly handle. Acting  (Cate Blanchett is superb) and script sparkle, though it felt more like the 50s than the 70s – but perhaps that was just that the conservative women felt like more like 50s housewives than women of the 1970s. For me the 70s means lots of velvet clothing – winter or summer,  and if you lived in Oxford at the time that meant at least one Annabelinda* outfit. (After a champagne breakfast on the island where the Cherwell joins the Isis, I once fell out of a punt wearing an Annabelinda velvet and Liberty print pinafore and as I felt the water soak up through the velvet dragging me down I did think it was quite a pleasant experience. Fortunately, we were home alongside the steps by our Folly Bridge house and the water was no more than a foot deep! It was not so pleasant washing the silty mud out of the velvet but I must say the dress washed well and was worn many more times after.) The soundtrack accompanying the TV series, awakening memories of songs long forgotten, was an additional enjoyment.

*Just to get clear the Annabelinda relationship with Howard Marks (a Balliol man), once the world’s most wanted drug smuggler, I quote the Oxford Mail of 21 January 1998, “To provide himself with a respectable front for his new-found affluence derived from the drugs trade, he “adopted” Belinda O’Hanlon and Anna Woodhead, who were running a sewing partnership specialising in ball gowns for rich Oxford students. He advised the two women to move from their workshop in Park End Street and set up the business in Gloucester Green. That was the front he needed, and while the dress-making firm thrived, the two women were totally unaware of the drug-smuggling business Marks was running from an office upstairs.” (Not all clothes on sale were ball gowns; not all Oxford students were rich!)

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Whitework embroidered alphabet: letter Z for Zebra Butterfly


Z is for Zebra butterfly, , a whitework alphabet (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

At the start of this embroidered alphabet project, I rather dismissed animals like the X-ray fish and the zebra butterfly for being second rate representatives for the initial letters of their names and for revealing a too great use of the imagination on the part of those given to the naming of animals. I even wondered whether such creatures had been named solely for the convenience of adding a bit of padding to those final difficult letters of the alphabet and thus making things easier for illustrators of children’s alphabets and people like myself who dabble in that sort of thing. This has not proved to be the case. It didn’t take much research to discover that these animals are fascinating not only for themselves but also because of the way their biology or their behaviour  reverberates on that of our own species. As Linnaeus was the first to describe the zebra butterfly, I think I’ll just draw a veil over my sloppy thoughts and vow in future to avoid superficial judgments on areas I know nothing about.

Heliconius charithonia,  the zebra butterfly is also commonly known as zebra longwing, which name reflects its unusually long wingspan (from 70 – 100mm / a little under 3″ – 4″ ) – perhaps even just a bit too long aesthetically although it is still markedly graceful in flight.  No butterfly in the wild in England even vaguely approaches this size, so my family and I are fortunate to have seen them alive in a temporary exhibition of butterflies in the grounds of the Natural History Museum 2 or 3 years ago. The caterpillars are white with black spots and long black spikes, while the adult butterfly is dramatically patterned with white stripes on a dark background and white spots like seed pearls along and just in from the edge of the wings. (All a bit difficult to read on a whitework butterfly!) Their natural home is in Central America, extending  as far north as southern Texas and peninsular Florida, with migrations even further north in warmer months.  In 1996 the zebra butterfly became Florida’s official butterfly.

Z is for Zebra butterfly, , a whitework alphabet (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

Zebras are greedy butterflies. They take not only nectar from plants but pollen too, which is rare in butterflies and results in a  protein rich diet that has a dramatic effect, increasing the butterfly’s life span and producing more eggs. Most butterflies live for 2-4 weeks but a zebra can live up to 3 months in the wild and 4-5 months in the laboratory (the Natural History Museum, London, website suggests even up to 6 months).  Pollen is digested internally by dissolving the grains in saliva. Because of their diets, both zebra butterflies and their caterpillars are aposematic which means they are poisonous and have the sort of dramatic colouration that warns off predators (just like PDFs, as the poison dart frogs are confusingly called by the small person). Caterpillars get their toxins from eating the leaves of passionflowers while the adults synthesise poison from pollen (when pollen is low, they have the ability to  recycle previously synthesised products).

The butterflies may be poison to predators but within their species they are unusually sociable, roosting in large groups where positioning is hierarchical. The oldest butterflies chose the best spots and then others snuggle round them. Staff curating the butterflies in the Sensational Butterflies Exhibition at London’s Natural History Museum saw up to 30 ‘cosying’ up in the early evening. In the morning, they also noticed how older members of the group seem to nudge the younger ones out of bed. What a thought – teenagers’ need for morning sleep-ins may not be confined to Homo sapiens!

Z is for Zebra butterfly, , a whitework alphabet (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

Before I opted for zebra butterflies I nearly chose zebra fish, picturing two little fish swimming in opposite directions in the zig zags of the Z like two little zodiacal pisces. Now I read (The Time 28 May 2020) that zebra fish have been making scientific headlines. Apparently and somewhat surprisingly, their neurons interact in a way similar to ours and as they are also transparent (and thus confusingly similar to X-ray fish) their behaviour and their brain activity can be studied without killing them. From the study on the fish, experiments were repeated using cultured human cells and from there it was shown that chemicals in the exhaust fumes of diesel powered vehicles can cause a build up of a protein in the brain such as is commonly seen in sufferers from Parkinson’s disease. Previous studies suggested the link but this research has shown how it happens.  The zebra fish may come last in the alphabet but it is up at the front in scientific research.

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