FOR 23 years, Meriel Watson has been carefully looking after well more than a 1,000 items of clothing worn by Ryedale families of yesterday.

From stately ballgowns to shepherds smocks, she has not only catalogued them in detail, but intricately drawn them in a series of books for posterity.

The retired art teacher, who lives in Kirkbymoorside, is now seeking a successor to take on the role of curator of the costumes which are housed at Ryedale Folk Museum in Hutton-le-Hole.

“There are certainly more than a 1,000 costumes, probably nearer 2,000,” said 83-year-old Mrs Watson, who was previously the warden of the Friends’ Meeting House in Kirkbymoorside.

“Many must have some wonderful stories behind them because they have been passed down from generation to generation.”

One item is a christening gown which has been used so many times that it has been patched, while among the other prized items is a wide range of clothing given to the museum by the late Earl of Feversham, who was Lord in Waiting to King George V.

Funeral wear, grand ballgowns, wedding dresses and even a couple of shrouds number among the unique collection, said Mrs Watson.

“Nothing was wasted in the olden days when it came to clothing,” she said. “When they eventually became too well worn, they were cut up and made into rag-rugs.”

Many of the items in the vast collection were worn by farming families in Ryedale’s uplands, among them a battered bowler hat dating back to the 1880s and a top hat which would have been worn by a farm foreman.

“The costumes are the social history of Ryedale,” said Mrs Watson.

Some of the dresses date back to the early 19th century, while others include hunting outfits and collections from the Wain family who lived in Ryedale for many years.

There is also an impressive collection of quilts and a Boy Scout shirt dating back to 1911.

Two quaint items are small dresses which were worn by boys in Farndale.

“They were fashionable for both boys and girls years ago,” said Mrs Watson.

A delightful touch is a pair of shepherd’s boots which are officially labelled as being “still muddy”, adding to their authenticy.

Men’s gaiters and nightwear, a host of patched clothing which had been passed down from parents to children, prove that Ryedale families not only made their own clothes but mended them for years, she said.

“Few girls sew today, although there are signs that it is coming back,” said Mrs Watson. “Today, clothing can be so cheap so people don’t repair it or make their own as they did in days gone by.”

Currently helping Mrs Watson with the collection are Veronica Hartley and Jo Harvey, both of whom have taken a keen interest in the clothes collection.

“The problem is that the museum just doesn’t have the space to display clothing because it has such a wealth of other items,” said Mrs Hartley.

“Meriel has done a magnificent job not only caring for the costumes, but brilliantly drawing them all and cataloging them.

“She knows the history of so many of them.”