I think what I remember most about my childhood in Mallacoota, and I guess it was typical of all over Australia during that era, was the wonderful resourcefulness of the womenfolk. They were adept at improvising. Their unwritten motto seemed to be: “If you can’t make it, make do and, if you can’t do that, go without!!”
When the centre of the sheets were beginning to show signs of wear, they were cut down the middle and the outer selvedge edges joined the new ‘outer edges’ which were then hemmed. It is something I learnt in those days and still do today. Pillow cases were also made from the stronger parts of worn sheets.
Flour was mostly purchased in 25 Ib bags, and these were utilised to the fullest. Many an Australian story, albeit a joke, tells of a young lass getting through a fence with the brand mark, “Sydney Flour” emblazoned on her undergarments for all the world to see!! There may have been such cases, but the good housewife usually spent hours scrubbing with sandsoap to remove the brand name after it had been well soaked in kerosene. Some women smothered the brand with lard, rolling the bags up for days, then boiling them several times. Being sown up with chai stitch, the bags were easily undone. The cotton used in the stitching was of course carefully rolled up and saved.
The material gradually whitened and softened and was ideal for lining boys’ serge trousers, for replacing pockets in mens’ trousers, for undergarments and also for making bodices for girls’ skirts. Hemmed they became teatowels, pillowcases and handkerchiefs. Many a young girl learned to embroider and to hemstitch on squares or circles cut out, with the aid of a bottle or saucer used as a template, from flour bag material.
The bags from rolled oats, I remember with more affection, as some were in patterns and were ideal for making ‘pinnies.’ Much coveted were the ones with the makings of soft toys branded on them. The fronts of golliwogs, dolls or animals were on one side of the bag, the backs of the toy on the other side. These were cut out, sewn and filled with kapok or cottonwool to make many a treasured toy.
Mum would even save the small squares of fine cotton material which ‘Reckitt’s Blue’ knobs were wrapped in, for they were invaluable for patches.
Then there were sugar bags which were just as versatile. They, too, became more pliable after washing. Cretonne-trimmed aprons and oven cloths were made from them. Covered in wool embroidery, they became cushions and peg bags. They were also used for the backing of hooked rugs made from thin scraps of cotton material or old stockings.
Our out-grown woollen jumpers were unravelled and re-knitted into other garments long before the word ‘recycled’ was ‘coined.’ Jumpers were also cut into squares, which when joined and backed with an old blanket, a crochet edge added, made colourful bedcovers. The unworn parts of skirts and dresses became pillowcases.
Small billy-cans were manufactured from Golden Syrup and Treacle tins, whilst kerosene tins, with either the top or side removed became buckets with a hundred uses. Many a housewife’s bad back and poor health could be attributed to lugging kero buckets of washing and water on and off the stove.
No house-proud woman would ever think of ever using her new millet broom without first cutting the top from an old stocking and pullof the broom to protect the straws, thus ensuring it a longer life.
They were the days before the bulky, quick knit wools and the skeins came two, three and four ply to be wound into balls. If you saw anyone with outstretched hands, wasn’t necessarily an indication of the size of a fish they had caught, they were in it wasn’t necessarily an indication of the size of a fish they had caught, they were in readiness to hold the skeins to be wound!! Knitting needles were made of tortoiseshell, bone or steel. The latter it was believed, when constantly used caused rheumatism. If we ever broke a needle, Dad would put it on the grinder to form a point again. I remember one quite useful appliance made from bakelite. It was in the shape of a large ball which unscrewed in the middle. The ball of wool was placed inside screwed up and a hole at the bottom allowed the strand to fall freely. A ribbon attached to the top was placed over the knitter’s wrist which not only kept the wool clean but enabled the person to knit as they walked. Most women were seen knitting on their Sunday strolls.
Cotton reels were nailed to the floor for door stoppers. Also, being manufactured from wood, the four nails required for making ‘knitting Nancys’ could be easily hammered into them. Bricks were covered with cretonne to make doorstops, as were bottles filled with sand and ‘dressed’ to resemble crinolinefrocked dolls. Old flat irons, which no longer had a flat ironing surface, were painted in bright colours to perform the same purpose. Pride of all for we children were the white porcelain insulators from telephone poles. We were fascinated by them and would follow the lines through the bush ever hopeful of finding one on the ground underneath, to use as a BRICKS were heated and covered with flannels to warm our beds in winter. Thick, lidtopped bottles were filled with hot water and also used and I can never remember one breaking.
We used either flour or starch to make paste for school projects and with no tooth paste available, salt and bi-carbonate soda from the kitchen cupboard was used to clean our teeth; the latter left a wonderful clean feeling after rinsing your mouth with water.
When our shoes became worn, Dad would place them on the last to repair them with leather soles which he had painstakingly fashioned.
‘Making Do’ was a joint effort for parents. Once, I remember asking our Mother how she had managed to save during those years and she replied, “If the recipe stated a cup of sultanas, I would use 3/4 a cup and so on.” The secret she said, “was to always use a little less!”
Australian wartime shortages didn’t make much difference to Mallacoota folk. We were a poor community which had survived the Depression and hardships of the 1930’s. We were not used to luxuries in our isolated part of Victoria. We were used to recycling and wearing hand-me-downs. It was embedded into us and probably a habit that people of my generation can never shake off.