Lacy delicacy of the bush
A lace wedding dress in the display at Hyden. Picture: Patrick Cornish

Gorgeous curves, golden lace adorning her black bikini . . . Geraldine was an awesome sight, standing under Wave Rock on a sweltering day.

Ladies, of course, do not perspire, they glow. This one, however, did not even do that. If you had got closer, you may have been disappointed to find that Geraldine was merely a mannequin.

"It was 40 degrees when she made her public debut in February 2010," says Olwyn Scott, who worked with fellow Embroiderers' Guild member Jill Lockyer to make the girl golden.

Olwyn is also curator of The Lace Place museum in the Wheatbelt town of Hyden, 335km south-east of Perth.

"Gerry also wore a hat and black wrap over her shoulders, and carried a handbag," she says.

Geraldine eventually switched from bikini to bridal gown and that is how she stands, less seductive but more seemly, in the museum today.

Hyden is best known for the granite beauty of Wave Rock but during a visit a couple of months ago, I investigated some of the town's interior delights. My tour guide is Sheenagh Collins, who shows me drawers and cabinets full of dainty work that is testament to patience and dexterity.

"Our oldest item is from the early 1600s," says Sheenagh, co-owner of the museum and a descendant of pioneer farmers in the district.

"And over here is a beautiful machine-made collar donated by Elsie Allen, who had worn it on her 21st birthday in 1924. It was bought from Bon Marche department store in Perth for 17 shillings and sixpence."

That corresponds to $1.75 today, equivalent to her weekly wage at the time.

We move on to some French pieces. "Look at these Valenciennes (from the town of Valenciennes in northern France). Imagine how much work was needed to get those four strands of thread into one thick bind. Here are some strips of Venetian lace that would have been worn by men.

Intricate lace on display at the Lace Place museum in Hyden, Western Australia. Picture: Patrick Cornish

"Certain families specialised in the business. Children often started as soon as they could hold a needle. Anyone with talent would be encouraged."

''Chantilly lace and a pretty face . . . a wiggle in the walk and giggle in the talk ...
''
I am reminded of the song by The Big Bopper when Sheenagh points out a piece of Chantilly from a gown worn by Queen Victoria in 1845. Named after a French city, this type of handmade lace made with bobbins (finger-length wooden spindles) is known for abundant detail. The most famous samples of Chantilly, which dates from the 17th century, were made from silk.

You need to be careful splashing about with superlatives, but this is certainly the most valuable private lace collection, on permanent public display, in the southern hemisphere.

Coming across such finery in the far eastern Wheatbelt - Hyden's welcome sign, as you arrive from Narembeen, proclaims Bush Living at its Best - is an experience superior to finding a needle in a haystack. It is finding delicate needlework next to fields of grain.

The Lace Place was born in the passion of a Perth JP named Margaret Blackburn. Having built a collection from inherited family pieces and purchases, she offered, when facing a terminal illness in the late 1980s, to bequeath it to the WA Museum. When that did not eventuate, it was shown to Sheenagh's parents, Valerie and Russell Mouritz. They were impressed and together with Sheenagh and her late husband, Denis Collins, bought the lot. Before Mrs Blackburn died in 1990, she knew her collection was in good hands.

Olwyn, who lives in Bicton and goes to Hyden regularly to rotate displays, wash and mend, and share her expertise with visiting groups, shows me a shawl she is making at home with more than 50 pairs of bobbins. "Cross, twist, cross, twist . . ."

She is, of course, allowed to stop any time, unlike a widowed mother of five she read about. The woman spent every day of her working life in Europe using the same pattern. Her options were lace, beg or starve. She chose the first, to the great benefit of her patrons and posterity. When the eyesight of such needlewomen deteriorated, they were often sent to the spinning room.

Lace, as we know it today, originated in northern Italian cities, particularly Venice. Brussels and Nottingham became major centres but Italy is still a big player. Olwyn has just been to accept a handsome award given to her by the city of Sansepolcro, east of Florence.

As I prepare to leave The Lace Place, Sheenagh has a surprise in store.

"Would you like to see our collection of toy soldiers?"

How could a boy of 64 say no?

Next door are 10,000 miniatures - men in uniform, horses, vehicles and buildings - that illustrate centuries of military strife. Posters add an urgent plea from a bygone era: "Join the Wrens (Women's Royal Naval Service) . . . and free a man for the fleet". Replicas of old newspaper pages recall watershed events.

So in adjoining rooms, visitors can appreciate, on the one hand, the clamour of regiment and conflict and, on the other, the silent realm of exquisite symmetry in lace. Together, they represent Hyden's tribute to war and peace.


FACT FILE

The Margaret Blackburn Collection of Lace since 1650 is next to Hyden's wildflower and craft shop on Wave Rock Road. Open 9am-5pm daily. 9880 5182

The West Australian

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