Mary Card, born in Castlemaine in country Victoria in 1861, was the eldest of twelve children of David Card, a jeweller and watchmaker and Harriet Card (née Watson-Wooldridge) a beautiful and talented actress. After spending a few years in Ireland the family returned to Melbourne in 1872. Three years later Mary was one of the first pupils at The Ladies’ College, established by the Presbyterian Church, and then in 1880 she spent a year at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School which trained many of Australia’s most eminent artists.
She enriched the lives of women across the world with her delightful crochet lace designs from the early 1900s for about 30 years. At a time when most women were full-time homemakers, making crochet lace had a relevance which may be hard to understand today. Needlework was an enjoyable, fashionable and socially-correct pastime. Women were proud to wear and decorate their homes with the finished items.
Mary came to this new career in middle age after deafness forced her, in 1903, to sell the school she had established with the help of her mothers and sisters in 1889. She wrote a novel which does not seem to have been published and also short stories for The Australasian newspaper in Melbourne, possibly under the pseudonym Anastasia Call from 1905 to 1909. However, she admitted that she did not write well enough to earn a living in this way. Even before she closed her school she taught lip-reading and helped others with speech defects.
Her new career opened up when shortly afterwards she answered a Ladies’ Work Association advertisement to repair Irish crochet lace when it returned to fashion in the early 1900s. This led to the creation of her own original designs which were taken up by the prestigious American Ladies Home Journal. Her name did not appear on these designs but one 1909 doyley similar to her work was found. The six month contract with the new, local and progressive Everylady’s Journal (later named New Idea) in 1910 was much more convenient and was extended for a very long time.
Mary’s life changed in many ways. She built her own simple house at the top of the Dandenong Ranges about 56 km from Melbourne. Some of her seven war designs were produced specifically to raise funds for the Belgians and other wartime causes. The best-known has a soldier surrounded by wattle and the text ANZAC 1915. She was secretary of her district’s Patriotic League, writing moving appeals for recruits in some of the leading Victorian daily papers and speaking at meetings.
Mary’s fresh new designs and the clear, detailed and illustrated directions for working them were just what her readers wanted. Her lively commentary and personal correspondence increased her popularity. The generous, constant and skilful publicity in the magazine made her a celebrity.
Mary moved overseas at the age of 56 towards the end of World War I to broaden her horizons, going first to New York where her brother Arthur was a singer and entertainer. A leading magazine, Needlecraft, published her work, sometimes designs already issued in Australia together many other new ones including the Statue of liberty, the American flag and the Grand Seal.
However, in her small apartment in the centre of the New York City she missed her country life in Australia. She moved to England in about the mid-1920s and built another home in country Berkshire which inspired a series of superior designs, including the Woodland series.
There are indications that Mary designed for the London firm Weldon and Company who published the popular Weldon’s Practical Needlework. Along with other English needlework magazines, Weldon’s did not acknowledge their designers. This possibility is discussed in the book Mary Card’s Legacy of Crochet Lace as well as in my first book Mary Card: Australian Crochet Lace Designer for sale on this website.
Even after she moved, Mary’s work was still published in Australia and America. In 1930 her work was published in Australian Home Beautiful after her friend and mentor Somerset Shum moved from New Idea to this more upmarket magazine. Her last work was published in December 1939.
Mary was a particularly prolific and versatile designer. She excelled at filet or picture crochet and her tablecloths with large flowing designs have no equal. The Giant charts which she pioneered were clever marketing as well as practical. The listing of her designs in the series of spreadsheets available for downloading on this website show the great scope of her work. She thoroughly explored the range of crochet techniques. As a teacher she had no rival.
She spent the last years of her life in England, occasionally returning to Australia. She died in 1940 with her sister Harriet at Olinda.
Keep in mind that most women in Mary’s era were housewives and mothers leading a restricted domestic life in the home and close community. Mary’s life, her achievements and celebrity status in three countries were most unusual. Indeed she was a remarkable woman, warm-hearted, clever, spirited, hard-working, enterprising and resilient.
Her contribution to the social life of the nation has been recognized in several ways.
• She is listed in the Australian Dictionary of Biography (https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/Card-Mary-5500).
• The home she built at Olinda on the outskirts of Melbourne is heritage listed (https://vhd.heritagecouncil.vic.gov.au/places/115519).
• A street was named after her in Gungahlin, a suburb of Canberra (https://www.legislation.act.gov.au/DownloadFile/di/2003-331/current/PDF/2003-331.PDF).
• She was included along with other needlewomen in Heritage: The National Women’s Art Book – 500 Works by 500 Women Artists from Colonial Times to 1955 by Joan Kerr in 1995.