Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Speech for the Bundoora Tea Cosy exhibition, May 2008

This is the text I wanted to read to the audience though it didn't suit the day, so I only read exerpts from it, and you'll have to excuse the slightly unedited text as I wrote it in a hurry:



I would like to firstly thank you all for coming today, and especial thanks to Dr Jacqueline Healy for inviting me to give this talk…on a subject that is oddly (or rather, endearingly), dear to my heart, the tea cosy. I am also going to stick to my text in order to give a coherent speech, as I am an exponent of tangents and an over-enthusiastic approach to covering as many conversational topics as possible, in a short space of time.

To properly start this talk, and inspired by the title of the exhibition: WHERE HAVE ALL THE TEA COSIES GONE?, I would like to make both a statement and pose a question: My statement is that tea cosies and tea cosy culture are very much alive and well, as this exhibition overwhelmingly attests to and I can only surmise that, like trying to find a good parking spot in Melbourne CBD, one really has to look for them nowadays. Luckily for tea cosy enthusiasts the CWA is a great perpetuator and supplier of tea cosies…as well as the necessary afternoon tea accoutrements: bikkies and cakes.

And my question is: Do tea cosies have a future in our contemporary social culture? Or rather, What future do tea cosies have in the modern world of today?

This question is very loaded, for me, because I believe that tea cosies form a vital part of a ritual act which is becomming regarded as time-wasting and is slowly being forgotten; that ritual act is called Afternoon Tea. Australian food writer Jill Dupleix wrote a fantastic article in 2001 on the subject of Afternoon Tea, and she has given me permission to quote it here:

"DOWN TO A TEA. Such a nice idea, afternoon tea, but so impractical. We're all too busy earning or spending money at that time of day. Besides, we're only just staying at our ideal weight by eating a sensible lunch and a satisfying dinner. Now you want us to eat between meals, too? It's tempting to stick to a quick coffee on the run, instead of the leisurely pace required by a decent cup of tea. Coffee is more efficient, more worldly-wise, and more sophisticated, whereas tea has an old-fashioned quality.

Coffee is a dense black syrup, while tea is sweetness and light. Coffee is a thick little espresso cup or a chunky mug, while tea is fine bone china. Coffee is mid-morning and after dinner, while tea is mid-afternoon and bedtime. Coffee is Italian. Tea can be English, with strawberries and cream, Chinese, with dumplings, or Australian, in a billy, stirred with a gum leaf.

It's a sad thing, if the world is moving too fast for the occasional afternoon tea. In fact, it is because it is impractical and unnecessary that we should indulge in it and forget about being cost-efficient for an hour or two. If the world stops, then so be it. Perhaps that's just what it needs to do, too"

So now tea cosies, our maligned and much forgotten hero(ine)s of the tea party seem destined to the fate of an outdated and redundant object of ridicule. Yet if we consider carefully the function and aesthetic significance of a tea cosy, we will find more than tea stained knitting and lumpy woollen padding with faded, rotting embroidery. A tea cosy for me is the conversation around the teapot, it is an object of domestic worship and a catalyst for debate and modern threads of contention, in this case I believe that tea cosies are a perfect example of an functional object which has been made redundant by the advent of convenience products and a financially obsessed culture of growth portfolios and personal fame.

I will elaborate on this further a little later. I want to give you some background on my passion for tea cosies first.

Spurred on by the discovery of a hand embroidered silk tea cosy I purchased from an antique shop in Hobart, I first became interested in tea cosies in 1995 when, for some reason I decided that making a tea cosy was also a good way to experiment with some traditional embroidery and patchwork techniques. I would learn ‘new’ technical needlework skills whilst at the same time producing a useful item, which I then gave to my elder sister as a birthday present. The tea cosy I made for her is a simple dome-shaped, hexagon patch-worked creation, with my first attempts at embroidery: a stylised flower and some text, clumsily interpreting the satin stitch treasures I found in books of 18th century portraits of European noblewomen.

The ‘real’ history of tea cosies and their origin is patchy and rather organic (like a well-loved cosy).
It seems (unless anyone can enlighten me further with some lovely juicy historical facts?), that tea cosies evolved out of sheer necessity: fuel for heating woodstoves and kitchen fires was expensive and not terribly abundant and so the water you had just drawn from the well for your kettle, once boiled and poured into a teapot filled with tea leaves would need to keep you and those around you nourished for longer than half an hour. Hence the desire to create covers for teapots, guarding the heat of the boiled water and allowing the tea to steep at an even temperature and maintain a level or refreshing warmth for up to four hours (trust me, some of my tea cosies keep hot tea for this long!).

The natural adaptation of human beings is such that, during the Victorian era when no nakedness was allowed, apart from women’s shoulders in eveningwear, furniture and anything slightly naked looking was dressed up in Chintz frills, embroidery and brocade, amongst other materials. This then leads to the decoration of domestic objects, and thus, the personal expression of the maker. In an era, the great golden age of the tea cosy, stretching from Early Victorian to the 1970’s and the advent of coffee culture, was a time when a growing middle class enjoyed the concept of leisure time, a few work-free hours before television was born, to sit by the fire and sew. Through this pastime or creating, a whole world of ritual comfort was born, and Elizabeth Gilbert in her book, Eat Pray Love, says something really interesting about this (page 187,Bloomsbury 2006):

“This is what rituals are for. We do spiritual ceremonies as human beings in order to create a safe resting place for our most complicated feelings of joy or trauma, so that we don’t have to haul these feelings around with us forever, weighing us down. We all need such places of ritual safekeeping. And I do believe that if your culture or tradition doesn’t have the specific ritual you’re craving, then you are absolutely permitted to make up a ceremony of your own devising…with all do-it-yourself resourcefulness of a generous plumber/poet.”

I think that because tea cosies have evolved over the past 200-ish years, that they will endure trends and fads precisely because they are ingrained as part of our cultural heritage and there will always be someone, or equally large groups of people who wish to preserve them and revive the use of cosies.

My personal tea cosy collection was enriched the following year with a crazy patchwork number I whipped up from scraps of fabric I’d been hoarding for years…precious bits of silk and linen, each with its own story and associations. I come from a rural family background where the tradition of hand sewing all the household linen, soft furnishings and clothing is still maintained out of necessity and lack of funds for grander schemes. There is as much of a desire to create a domestic environment or piece of clothing to one’s own personal aesthetic, as there is in recycling otherwise ‘useless’ materials. I allowed myself the time to create and recycle these left-overs rather than add to the loads of waste dumped in landfills and tips. This form of recycling has a long history and is much practiced within Australian culture, both past and present, and which I hope will continue to play an important role in Australia’s cultural future also.

With the creation of each tea cosy I feel I am also acknowledging and honouring all those women who have ever picked up a needle and thread and who especially felt that a home wasn’t complete without a tea cosy. Tea cosies maintain a special place in the hearts and collective memories of Anglo-Australians of predominantly English, Irish and Scottish origins. Yet, as a relatively defunct symbol for domestic comfort and social traditions, the tea cosy is a potent reminder that we all crave comfort, no matter where we have come from and where we are heading. The tea cosy bridges cultural divides and social difference. It is a humble object, a human object, an accessory for life. By creating tea cosies which resemble architectural forms and contain elaborate decorative accoutrements I seek to explore the devotional, shrine-like capacity of the tea cosy, which inspires such fondness and humble pleasure within our lives.

My Anglo grandmother had one of those thin, aluminium teapots with an embossed pattern. She used a very thick crocheted tea cosy and I can still see her standing, holding the pot for a while after she put the cosy on, as if it were a loved creature, a pet. Everyone else used teabags, though most houses had tea-drinking relics — strainers and teapots — at the back of cupboards. I am still thinking about why everyone made that transition, but I don’t have any satisfying answers yet.
-Erin Tappe, unpublished recollection (Australia) 2006

I feel the challenge now is to make sure we all pass on our tea cosy making skills and the passion for Afternoon Tea (and tea drinking in general).

So to conclude:
Tea cosies contain ‘stitches in time’ which thread through the ages of tea drinking culture from its illustrious origins in Ancient China and the East, to 16th Century Europe until the present moment. For as the tea cosy currently clings to the fringes of the great tablecloth of society, it maintains its presence in the form of sentimental memories of long-dead grandparents, relatives and (local) town committee meetings. It is no longer a question of “when will people stop making these ridiculous objects and why no just use teabags and modern glass tea infusers?” rather, “When will we see great collections of tea cosies in the glass cases of the most contemporary art galleries and museums; in the homes of the rich and famous as well as those faithful Tea Lovers and Cosy Collectors amongst us who live ‘ordinary lives’? We, the Teacosy Faithful who have inherited treasured tea cosies and who will pass them on to generations to come, we carry the humble tea cosy into modern world, reigniting a passion for time taken to spend with loved ones in the happy and healthy pursuit of a nice cup of tea.


The Exton Gardener said...

Hear, hear!

You've made your points very well. we should all take time to brew a nice pot of tea and reflect on what you've said. Now if the Deli served up it tea in a decent non-drip teapot with a choice cosy covering, surely more people would forsake the trendy coffee?

Fer said...

Nicely done dear.

I'm proud of the fact that if I'm at someone's house and they offer me a cup of tea, I'll decline. Because I know they'll give me a tea bag. To quote an article I once read in Delicious magazine "tea bag tea is just brown water".