Essay

The Single Object At Home Edition: Thread Box

All through my childhood, this box of threads sat close at hand. Its designated shelf space was next to the tartan-print biscuit tin filled with buttons, on top of piles of cotton muslin, wool felt, and the rare silvery scrap or two of silk. I don’t remember the exact moment the box became “mine” instead of my mother’s. I never thought about where it came from because it was always there. As I grew older I dipped into it at will, experimenting with stitches, mending rips and tears, reattaching buttons to old shirts; finally taking the box with me when I moved away from home (where it found it a new place on a new shelf).

I only learned recently that before it belonged to me, or to my mother, it belonged to my grandmama, Faith Walker (née Muldoon: she grew up in the prairie of Saskatchewan, Canada, but was very proud of her Irish roots). The threads were a gift from Grandmama’s dressmaker sister Bonnie, via Bonnie’s Scottish mother-in-law. It must have been sometime in the 40s or 50s, after Grandmama’s ocean-crossing between Canada and the UK – the oldest threads inside still all come from Scotland. The box was filled to the brim when it accompanied her across the ocean yet again in 1964, to Aotearoa. It was constantly in use and always being replenished.

Many of the threads inside still hold vintage brand names on wooden spools – J. Dewhurst & Sons, J & P Coats, Mettler – mixed in with poly-blends and plastics added to the collection later on. I hate to think how many of these older threads I squandered on long-forgotten projects. But then again, were they really squandered? Perhaps not: the threads were with me as I began to learn my craft, drawing from this rich, seemingly endless source for each clumsy new stitch. What were once ‘just threads’ have grown far more important to me. I’ve become aware that this is a finite resource; that the original threads inside will, eventually, run out. I’m more careful with my stitches now.

I’m in the final stretch of my MVA thesis, centring on stories, textiles, ancestral narratives and traditions passed down over generations, he taonga tuku iho. It feels odd to be working on a project as tactile as this, a project held together by relationality, during the unsettledness of a global pandemic. I keep returning to objects to ground me. The thread box sits beside me on my desk as I write, or by my sewing machine as I stitch together final thesis works (and draw a few precious threads from the box for each piece). The wooden inlay is beginning to chip away, and the mismatched paper linings are peeling and frayed, but the bones hold strong.

Shall I end on that sentimental-yet-hopeful metaphor for our current isolation (frayed, but still held together)? The beauty of our objects lies in their ability to hold multitudes. They are resolutely themselves, yes: but they can act as metaphor too, as storyholders, memorykeepers. Objects keep us connected to our stories, and our stories keep us connected to one another.

--

Arielle Walker (Taranaki, Ngāruahine, Ngāpuhi, Pākehā) is a Tāmaki Makaurau-based contemporary artist, writer and maker.

Currently undertaking a Master of Visual Arts at AUT University, her practice sits within the intersections and connections between language and craft, focusing on tactile storytelling and ancestral narratives. Contexts that surround this include the interconnectedness of isolated islands, the intrinsic ties of language and land, migration across the swell and pull of the ocean, decolonising methodologies, textile traditions passed down through generations of tūpuna wāhine, roots and botanical belongings.

Arielle Walker's thread box

Arielle Walker's thread box exterior