A Tale of Two Towels

It was the best of towels, it was the worst of towels . . .

Have you ever seen a gorgeous handmade item and, because you couldn’t afford it, tried to make it yourself? Of course you have! Isn’t that what all the do-it-yourself boards on Pinterest encourage us to do?

This impulse isn’t new. People seem always to have wanted to possess beauty beyond their means to afford. Evidence of this came home to me in a poignant pairing of vintage linens recently.

One huge category of vintage linens is towels—kitchen towels, dish towels, tea towels, bath towels; mostly these towels were meant to be used and used hard.

But another whole category of towels exists in what is often called “show” or “display” towels. Display towels weren’t meant to be used—they were designed to show off. These towels were usually made of highest-quality linen, often in damask. Damask linen is often very fine linen with a subtle white-on-white (or any other single color) design that is created by weaving.

Understated and elegant damask combined with long, gorgeous (and impractical) fringe and with some sort of hand-worked embellishment combine to make a towel that should not be touched but simply displayed to communicate about refinement and good taste.

The hand craftsmanship in these expensive display towels was superior. The long fringe was hand braided and knotted to perfection. When other embellishment, such as drawn thread work was used, the threads seem to magically twist and turn, without any evidence of a human hand at work.

But what if you couldn’t afford that lush fabric? What if you didn’t have access to the beauty and craftsmanship of these stunning items but still understood the impulse to make a statement about your love of pretty things?

What if you were striving to move up, to transcend your roots, to show you understood beauty and refinement and taste, even if you couldn’t really afford to indulge in items that would demonstrate your understanding? What if you wanted a pretty show towel but couldn’t afford one?

You might try to make it yourself.

In my imagination, that’s what happened here.

homemade display towel-4This towel mimics the key elements of the expensive, high-quality towels.

It’s made of linen but, instead of very fine damask, this one is made of plain weave, possibly homespun, linen. It hasn’t been bleached pure white and slubs are apparent.

homemade display towel-2High-quality display towels have the damask tone-on-tone weave to add interest. Because this towel is not made of damask, the maker added color with red stitching. The stitching is the most apparent sign that this is handmade by an inexpert hand.

The maker used a lot of blanket stitch to finish edges and you can easily see how uneven the stitches are. The maker seems to have been counting threads to determine where to place stitches but, because the weave is uneven, the stitches look uneven. Also, the person who stitched this had trouble deciding what to do when she came to the end of a thread. Knots are all too noticeable.

homemade display towel-3High-quality towels have long, hand-braided fringe. This one does, too. The braiding is less meticulous and the fringe is shorter. (The fact that it looks meager is due to the fact that this towel was used and laundered. The fringe tangled and broke when it was combed out.)

Both towels incorporate the same drawn thread work to create open bands across the width of the towel. This is created by horizontal threads being cut and pulled from the weave. The vertical threads are then twisted and held by the introduction of a new horizontal thread.  The use of red thread in the homemade towel highlights the twisting white threads but also draws attention to unevenness in the design.

Both of these are handmade; one is obviously homemade.

Which one is better? Which is more treasured?

I have to admit, I admire the expensive fine towels—they draw me because they are simply so gorgeous. Lush, high-class, expensive, understated, yet elegant.

But I love the homemade towel; it speaks to me on a much more basic level. It reflects the hands of the maker in every stitch. The fancy towel was made by expert hands but the homemade towel was made by hands, loving hands, at home.

It’s homey, far from perfect, a little awkward, and out of place in a world that values beauty and money and perfection. But authentic.

It makes me a little sad to think that, of the two, the world will value the pretty and perfect towel.

My little handmade towel is like a homely, mixed breed puppy, likely to be overlooked as unlovely, especially when compared directly with a haughty, perfectly groomed purebred.

But I’ve always been a sucker for a stray. I’ll appreciate the beauty of the perfect towels, and then pass them on to others.

And I’ll keep the other towel, and display it, to serve as a tangible reminder of who I really am.

Just like the towel, I’m homey, far from perfect, a little awkward, and out of place in a world that values beauty and money and perfection. But authentic.

It was the best of towels . . .

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48 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Towels

  1. Will you be trying your hand at creating your own handmade towel at some point? I know you’re working on a quilt now…but maybe after that?

  2. What a lovely post! For me the homemade one wins. I love old linens and think the slightly broken stitches where the thread has aged adds to the charm. I have inherited family linen and plan to make the modern equivalent one day but can’t ever imagine being able to manage this kind of drawn thread work.

    • You’re lucky to have family linens to inspire you! I don’t have any idea how to do the drawnwork either but I’m very intrigued by it. If you try it, make sure you post about it!

  3. I’m all for the the homemade towel, I think it so pretty in it’s naivety. There is simplicity, love and thought almost etched into it. It reminds me of Scandinavian linens, practicality but with a little bit more to lift it from the ordinary. I can only think of the pride and love that the person who made/owned it must have had for it, to have sat and combed out the fringe. I would love to learn how to do the drawn thread embroidery like what was used here. Thanks for showing us these x

      • I’ve managed to find a little bit on drawn thread work (also known as counted thread work and pulled thread work), it’s grouped into whitework embroidery because it’s normally done white on white. It’s done on evenweave fabrics. I had a look on YouTube and there’s not a huge amount in English but there does seem to be quite a lot in other languages. In one video I think it was Spanish being spoken as I could follow a very small amount. I found a lot of patterns for it on the Internet especially from http://www.nordicneedle.com which were not really to my taste as I prefer a simpler style but they were there ok, there is also a lot of hardanger on Pinterest. It has my interest piqued now. As a commenter mentioned below, I have Therese De Dillmont’s book along with some other open source vintage needlework books and I must have a looksee 🙂

      • I just downloaded the de Dillmont book, too, and am going to check out the website you mentioned. I am in the middle of making a quilt with a firm deadline but, once it’s done, maybe I’ll try some drawnwork, just to confirm that it’s as hard to do as it appears to be! If you find good stuff in your research, maybe you could do a post and share with the rest of us!

      • I’m thinking of doing the same, just to try it! I had a look at Therese De Dillmont’s book and it is difficult to decipher the diections, for me anyway! I think there is better stuff on the internet. I am definitely drawn (no pun intended) to trying drawn thread. I know for definite my Sister would adore a towel like yours for her kitchen. I think that it would be a great post! Thanks for the idea! Watch this space!

      • My wife asked me to mention a magazine called Piecework; there are a lot of old-fashioned, handcrafted items in there–along with photos, stories, and instructions for projects.

        She is able to get them from our library.

    • What nice feedback that is, seeing how much you value, and strive for, good writing! I was taken aback by the thought that you might be the only man who is reading (my husband does!) but then, when I look at my topics, I guess the blog really would come across as more interesting to women. I hope you find enough of value to keep coming back!

  4. Sometimes when people see items I’ve knitted they compliment me by saying, “It looks store-bought!” I’m grateful to receive their compliments, but it seems sad to me that the skill involved in making something well by hand is now indistinguishable from machine-made items–even that the measure of how well we do something with our hands is how well it can be done with a machine. I suppose machine-made items are an advance, all things considered, but there is something very satisfying in being able to do something very well by hand.

    • Rachel,

      Sometimes, after I’ve poured my heart and soul into cooking a dinner and it turns out to be a work of art, I’ll say to my wife, “It’s good enough to be served in a restaurant.”

      And then I wince and think, Wait … shouldn’t it be the other way around?

    • I also get the same. It’s the modern day pursuit of perfection. Everything has to be totally even, totally perfect in every way. Our fruit and vegetables must be of a specific shape, size or colour or people won’t buy it. Our bodies must conform to what is considered ‘right’. No hooked noses or anything. If there is anything less than perfect it seems to engender some form of fear and then is open to ridicule or outright annihilation! ‘All forms of physical imperfection will be irradicated by our armies of cosmetic surgeons and dentists!’ Sorry! This is a particular bugbear of mine!

      • Thank you, I feel very strongly about our modern day ‘standards’. I had a look at the blog, very very interesting and thought provoking! I have a feeling that I’m going to enjoy her posts!

      • It’s true–it’s the modern pursuit of “perfection” as standardizable, something we can all agree on with some kind of point-assigning system as if we’re olympic judges. I have a friend who is a dancer and now a professor of dance, and she says that dance education in the last century or so has moved toward a standard everyone can recognize (are your limbs completely straight? is your turnout exactly right?) rather than the too-amorphous concept of beauty, which is harder to teach and harder to agree on.

        And Kerry, thanks so much for your kind words!

      • I’m very sorry and concerned to hear that dance has become something akin to a science experiment! Where does the art, movement and beauty fit in? Whilst I agree per se that there must be some definable standard but I think that it **must** stay in the competition arena!

        I had a look at your blog, it’s very interesting, thought provoking and challenging. I am looking forward to seeing more.

    • This is a great point and other readers obviously have had similar experiences! I do think there are a lot of us who recognize and value handmade, and who try to achieve a level of good craftsmanship in our own work. Long live the human touch!

  5. Yes, I like the red towel too. Check out Therese de Dillmont’s Encyclopedia of Needlework for instructions on drawn thread work – it’s a very old fashioned book, but universally available.

    • Thanks for that tip, Heather! I just downloaded the free file from gutenberg.org. I can see getting lost in this for days at a time and acquiring an altogether new appreciation for the linens I’m looking at!

  6. I love the homemade towel. It reminds me of ones we had to complete in “Needlework” at school. We’d take them home and present them to mothers who said they were the most treasured item they owned (that week).

    • We didn’t have anything like that at school. We had “Home Economics, where we learned very basic use of a sewing machine and a stove but I can’t remember being proud of anything we did there! Don’t you wish you still had your needlework “treasures”?

      • I went to a small country-town school where it was probably considered an “essential” skill for country girls to be deft with a needle 🙂 . My efforts were always awful! We had “Home Ec” in High School (which is years 7-12 in Australia).

  7. I am so glad you came down on the side of the home-made towel. From the moment I saw it, I was saying, ‘But that would be me, putting my heart and soul in to something, but not getting it quite right”, and treasuring it all the same. Also reminds me, as Aussie Emjay said, of the needlework we, or our children, did at school and which was brought home to mother and carefully loved and admired.

    • We’re all having a regular love fest for that little towel! I envision a whole bunch of us setting out to make our own towels now, and writing blog posts about the process–watch this space! 😉

    • It’s the story behind these items that gets to me, too. I wish I knew that towel’s history but it just came to me in a mixed lot of stuff I bought on eBay. So, I’ll just have to invent my own story for it!

  8. Q – What a lovely story! So very informative. I’m the lucky recipient of vintage linens made by my great-aunts and their mom. All items were well worn, even the terry towels with wonderful crochet edgings.

  9. Pingback: Whitework, Cutwork, Drawn Thread, Pulled Thread and everything in between! | Copperhead Crafts

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