An Extraordinary Needlewoman

By Hilary Prendini Toffoli
Photography C & D Heierli
 

“Once I’m on a roll I get so busy you can’t stop me. I become obsessed. People don’t understand it,” says Margee Gough, dimpling with amusement at this acknowledgement of her charming eccentricities. “I’m constantly creating in my head. I think it’s a Victorian thing, this need to embellish, to make everything around you pretty...”

It’s certainly something you’re instantly aware of when you enter Margee’s pretty blue and white cottage in Mount Pleasant Street in Darling with its cosy little garden full of plants that give pleasure. Roses, gardenias, lemon and orange trees, jasmine, honeysuckle…

Nothing jars in Margee’s domain. Every single thing, even the apricot-coloured climbing crepuscule roses, has been carefully chosen for colour, texture, shape and appeal. Margee happily admits she’s always been extremely picky about anything to do with the senses, whether it’s the fabric she puts on her body—preferably linen or silk—or the visual objects she surrounds herself with.

In fact her home is a striking embodiment of that famous if somewhat daunting quote from William Morris, founder of Britain’s Arts and Crafts movement: Have nothing in your homes that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.

It’s a line Margee could have come up with herself. Especially since she was an interior decorator in a previous incarnation. Her own beautifully-designed homes in Parkmore, Parkhurst and Tokai were written up at admiring length in all the décor magazines. 
Yet she’s on a different stretch of turf from the rest of the décor tribe, being an extraordinary needlewoman who’s an expert on just about every kind of needlecraft imaginable. Almost all of them self-taught. “I just find a book on the subject and teach myself. Then I break the rules.”

That needle which tends to be in her hand, even when she watches TV, is like an extension of her index finger. With it she’s mastered the art of tapestry, lace, needlepoint, drawn thread, needle weaving, patchwork, quilting and the beautifully alluring ancient craft of stumpwork—padded three-dimensional embroidery that is so not of this era that you’re instantly transported to the Middle Ages.

Her most treasured stumpwork piece is a firescreen she’s covered with tiny acorns, crab apples, raspberries, bunches of grapes, flowers, bees, butterflies, ladybirds and so on. It’s a masterpiece. Guaranteed to become the sort of family heirloom that gets lovingly passed down from generation to generation.

Even buried among the quiet streets of Darling, where the only noises are birds and farm animals, Margee’s creative energy is so restless you never can be sure what to expect next. Her ornamental shoes—embroidered beadwork on the wooden lasts of shoemakers—are particularly distinctive. They’ve even toured the States on exhibition. “One of the American bead magazines had a competition for beaded shoes so I sent some of mine and they were shown at American museums.”

Margee’s husband Dave makes Perspex display boxes for the shoes. They look like objets d’art, as unique in their own way as sculptures. They’re currently selling, along with Margee’s beaded boxes and necklaces, at Read’s in The Zone in Johannesburg, and the Marmalade Cat in Darling. But this is the last lot. It’s getting more and more difficult to find old wooden lasts in the junk shops.

The range of objects Margee makes or embellishes is as large as the amount of time she puts into them, and varies depending on what catches her fancy. She can go from embroidering the kind of needlepoint cushions country folk used to make at the fireside, to creating cute, shiny, swinging, beaded evening bags for the shoulders of today’s hot chicks.
  
She even beads things like shells and musical boxes, and she’s so prolific there’s always an overflow. Beside her still life paintings in oils on the cottage walls is a box-framed miniature kimono, for instance. A curious but enticing patchwork of beading, stitching and tassels, all in delicate hand-dyed colours.

Her studio is like Pandora’s box. In her meticulously-organised cupboards are her needlework supplies, including the handmade silk paper she’s hand-dyed along with her embroidery cottons, to produce lovely infinite gradations of colour. A Victorian mahogany linen cupboard is packed with her exotica, and on display on a table are her gorgeous multi-stringed and woven necklaces made from the glass beads of Venetian and American craftsmen.

For a Worcester-born girl whose early years were spent in the Karoo before the family moved to Johannesburg, Margee is impressively motivated. And as resourceful as her German great-grandmother, who came to South Africa with her malaria-fighting doctor husband and was forced to resort to making her own shoes.

Margee has always been driven. “When I was about 10, those Woman’s Weekly mail order Rosebud twin dolls were all the rage. I could only afford one but I sent off my British postal order, as we did in those days, and started knitting the outfits that appeared every week in the magazine. I made them all. I had shoeboxes full. Those are the roots of all this.”
She started off in decorating in Johannesburg with Ian Calder, and later in David Hicks Décor with Andre Louw and Monique Lion-Cachet. 

“Then I went freelance. When the stock market fell and everyone owed everyone else money, I taught myself needlepoint from books.” 
But it was only after she and Dave, an airline pilot, returned to South Africa from Singapore—where Dave had had a two-year posting with Singapore Airlines—that she really got into her stride with needlework.

“I opened a shop called Lavender Blue with Janet Roche in the Cobbles in Parkhurst. We stocked everything you needed for needlework. The fabrics to work on—linens, voiles, organzas, canvases and so on—as well as the tapestry wools and the cotton and silk threads. We even imported beautiful needlework scissors, and fine hand-embroidered tableware from Portugal. 
“It was such a beautiful shop it made people want to start sewing. So we gave needlepoint classes as well. Needlepoint is worked on a different canvas from tapestry, in a diagonal stitch. We got a Wits art lecturer to paint pictures on canvas for cushion covers, and everybody bought them and made them.

“The northern suburbs housewives loved the needlepoint classes. All those ladies would be sitting there needlepointing away and I’d hear all the gossip. One woman in Saxonwold made herself 16 needlepoint cushions. These were women who had the time, and the money. I remember Dave coming in one day and being very surprised about the line-up of Porsches and Mercs parked all the way down the road.”

Darling is a change of pace, but her home there is equally special. A fastidiously nurtured haven in which she’s surrounded by her collection of blue and white porcelain, some of it Spode and some of it bought in Singapore. Dinner sets, tea and coffee sets, bowls, jugs, jars, cheese dishes, canisters, vases, platters. Even her two Scottie dogs eat from blue and white bowls. “I’ve always liked blue and white. And it makes life easier. You can just mix them all together.”

Then there’s her collection of big beautiful books on big beautiful subjects. Decorating. Art. Embroidery. Flowers. Cookery. Gardening. Botanical Photography.  “Books are my weakness. I find them inspirational.” She orders some of them from the Darling bookshop book league, and a lot of the covers have blue in them as well. Part of the décor!

It helps that Dave is also skilled with his hands. He restores vintage cars, makes model boats and helicopters and can work with wood and glass. “I don’t know anyone who spends as much time, energy and money as we do on what are basically hobbies,” says Margee. “But it’s what makes us happy.”

Creative Needlework Classes
Join one of Margee Gough’s creative needlework sessions. She’s doing daily classes in Saxonwold in Johannesburg in March 2010 and needlework weekends in Darling on the West Coast in April 2010.  Call 022-492-3529 or email margeeg@mweb.co.za.