The lace doily is the centrepiece of many South African homes. More than the hanging photographs or the vase of flowers, the doily represents culture, beauty, order and taste.
Mothers and grandmothers would work for hours crocheting the exquisite ornamental patterns that make up the lace doily.
The completed product would be displayed around the house to show friends “popping in” for a cup of tea. It was a talking point that heaped praise on designing women.
The doily, says poet Janice Harrington, is a work of women’s artistry in which you would find art, architecture and geometry all in one. But the doily meant much more – it stood in for something else.
“Patterns, repetitions, skeletons of lace used for display, to protect, proclaim . . . to prove.”
To understand the doily in places like the Cape Flats, you have to understand forced removals.
The destruction not of houses but of homes. The attempt to flatten memory and buckle dignity. To tear apart families and sow disorder. Uprooting community and dumping people on the vast open flatlands.
Mothers stood up and with their hands restored a sense of symmetry and samehorigheid (cohesion) in the most prominent place in the house – the front room, some called it, the diningroom, others insisted.
As you stepped into a Cape Flats house, it was the first thing that caught your eye. The lace doily sometimes starched so stiff that it stood to attention on a polished table or atop a display cabinet.
On that doily you placed a holy book or delicate flower pot or a colourful plate. Not an ashtray or used cup; that would be out of place.
In the home of the devout the doily had another purpose – to cover the head of the woman in prayer when another covering was not close by.
The doily was also a metaphor. It stood for the things lost in the fire of past oppressions as in the works of the African American folk painter, Horace Pippin.
Back home it was as if the mothers of the Cape Flats were saying, “you can take away my house in District Six, or Windermere or Tokai, but you cannot take away my dignity”.
The lace doily was a way of speaking back or even fighting back. Here was a symbol of symmetry and respectability that could not be soiled by laws or flattened by bulldozers. A flag in battle that would not fall.
Even as things fell apart outside the new location — gangs, drugs and violence – the doily was a statement of a resilient people.
“We display the doily. Does the doily display us?”
The doily provided reassurance. The afflictions of the world were not random, nor was suffering without purpose.
In the doily there was pattern and predictability. Individual threads eventually came together in perfect harmony as the crochet needles performed the labour of love.
What happened to you, in other words, was a result of your persistent work. You were not a victim of fate or held hostage by external elements.
“Consider the doily, how it shows what does and does not belong to you.”
Any family on the Cape Flats would tell that the carefully crafted doily set was high on the list of inherited items to be discussed after a mother died. Who gets the crocheted doilies?
Daughters were known to fight for ma’s doilies, with each claiming that they were promised to the other.
That’s because the doily is not simply sophisticated craftwork; it is a treasured memory made by a mother’s own hands. In this way doilies were handed down from one generation to the next to remind families about the values that bind them down the passage of time.
“Memory rises as if it were a doily of lace, beautifully edged, holding what once mattered.”
This coming Sunday is Mother’s Day. For many it is a day celebrated in the absence of mothers who have passed away.
When the children and grandchildren look around they will not see the mother or grandmother, but hear her voice through the work she left behind.
“The words fall from her crochet hook, linked into white lace, a white page.”
Doilies trigger memory, says Janice Harrington, through links, chains and dropped stitches.
The doily is therefore a way of speaking, of conveying messages of love, care and concern to those who come after mothers have left us.
It is the most tangible way of reminding family members of what holds them together in a broken world.
Happy Mother’s Day.
- Quotations in this column come from the poetry of Janice N Harrington under the borrowed title, Why, Oh Why, the Doily?