Helga Fitzroy’s life has always been about a quest for knowledge – everything from vulcanology to the origins or earthquakes, and from Napoleon to vintage lace.
But, being in her eighties, a widow and living on her own in the Western Cape village of Stanford during the coronavirus lockdown presented a few challenges, she admitted with a wry smile.
“I was lucky to have enough means to buy food for myself, my two cats and dog, so it wasn’t that so much that worried me. It was more about how to keep my mind active and to occupy my days with tasks that I really enjoyed doing,” she said.
Unusual needlework project provides outlet
The answer came in the form of a request from an antique dealer in Stanford to restore some vintage tablecloths to their original condition.
“I’ve always loved sewing and embroidery, so of course I readily agreed. However, when I saw the damage and aging of the fine lacework I knew I had taken on a really big project; one that would take several months.
“Luckily the owner was happy with that, which meant that a least I wasn’t under time pressure.”
More than 50 breakages later, Fitzroy said she was nearly halfway through her herculean labours and hopes that by the end of lockdown she would be finished.
Each stitch no bigger than a pinhead
Now comes the intricate bit. Every broken band and branch has to be reconstructed using fine white cotton strands and buttonhole embroidery stitching. Each stitch is no bigger than a pinhead.
Luckily Fitzroy’s close vision is superb, so no reading glasses and no magnifying glass.
“Look, after a few hours you need to take a break, but that’s OK. It’s really satisfying when you see the original design come back to life.”
She said she could not remember a time when she was not repairing clothes for her family or doing complicated embroidery, quilting or crochet work.
“For me it was either learning about volcanoes, which have always fascinated me, or sewing.”
Helga’s Napoleonic family legacy
So where does the Napoleon story fit in?
“My great-grandfather was a ship chandler in Cape Town. On one voyage a ship was carrying a load of carved furniture for Napoleon in exile on St Helena. But when the ship reached the island there was a huge storm, so it had to turn around and head back to Cape Town.
“Meanwhile, Napoleon had died and the furniture was placed in my great-grandfather’s warehouse. Some he bought, which is now my dining room table, and some went into Groote Schuur [hospital] where it still is today.
“It was those stories of my family that I always loved and probably started me off in my passion to restore beautiful things to their former glory.”
How to safeguard delicate vintage pieces
The iron, according to Fitzroy, is the enemy of beautiful handwork — “especially the pointed bit that often splits the intricate work.
“So when you iron, don’t push it up and down, but from side to side!”
Wise words from somebody who has lovingly used her magical fingers to restore treasures from years gone by.