The One That Got Away: A Pansy-Strewn Tablecloth

IMG_7422One of the best things about selling vintage linens is that I love what I sell and get to scout for beautiful items to pass along to others.

One of the worst things about selling vintage linens is that I love what I sell and, in passing them along to others, I sometimes really regret letting something go.

Such is the case with this wonderful tablecloth. IMG_7406Never mind that I have no room to keep it, it doesn’t fit my décor or lifestyle, or that it would be better appreciated by someone else—I still wish it had stayed mine.

I am not a pink and purple kind of gal. I rarely, if ever, would have a reason to use a cloth like this and don’t have a table it would fit on. It only made sense to sell it.

It sold with a couple of days of listing and the new owner was eager to get it.

But the minute I got notification of the sale, I experienced the worst seller’s remorse.

Part of the reason was the quality. The embroidery was stunning and done so perfectly. My grandmother always said that the mark of expert embroidery was that it looked nearly as good on the back as it did on the front.

The front of the tablecloth is shown on the left; the back is on the right.

The front of the tablecloth is shown on the left; the back is on the right.

Additionally, the linen was heavy and dense, with a beautiful sheen, and the hem was finished with delicate hemstitching, a detail that adds such elegance.

The other reason I’m sad to have let the cloth go is that I had learned a bit of its story from the woman who sold it to me. I rarely get any provenance for the vintage linens I buy so that’s always special—the cloth had been made as a gift for the owner’s mother. It was made in Scotland and brought to the United States in the early 1950s, when the woman emigrated.

And the pièce de résistance is that a man created the beautiful embroidery!

It makes me inordinately happy when I hear of a man excelling at work that is stereotypically “women’s work” or, for that matter, a woman doing work we associate with men. I love the idea that a person gets so much pleasure and satisfaction from an activity that they persist even though others may think them odd.

I know men, including my husband, who love working in textiles—they ask why should women have all the fun?!

In addition to the quality of the tablecloth and the detail that it was made by manly hands at home, the fact that a man made this lovely piece for a woman, who brought it with her to America, also allowed me to indulge in a little speculation. He must’ve cared for her very much—making this tablecloth was not a done on a whim! Did he love her? Did she not love him? Why did she leave Scotland? Did they stay in touch?


Knowing a tiny bit of the history of this tablecloth captured my imagination. The fact that I’ll never know the rest of the story is fine by me—the story in my head might be better than the truth.

The tablecloth has gone to its new home. I wrapped it carefully in tissue paper and put it in an envelope. I told the new owner what I knew about the history. I wanted to lecture her about using it carefully and cherishing it, but I exercised self-restraint.

It’s hers now.


46 thoughts on “The One That Got Away: A Pansy-Strewn Tablecloth

  1. Look at it this way, that lovely tablecloth is now owned by someone who will cherish and, hopefully, use it. And I think you have the plot outline for a lovely story, if you decide to go into novel writing.

  2. My mother goes to auctions looking for old linens and has dressers full of pieces that someone worked very hard on. But when the owner passes away and no one wants the linens, they leave the family. She, like you, feels called to love each piece. I only wish I had more tables!

    • Having dressers full of linens is exactly how I got into the business of selling linens on Etsy! I couldn’t seem to stop buying them at garage sales but, really, how many napkins does one girl need?!

  3. It’s like fostering children sometimes, no? I get attached to many of my things as well. But we just have to let them go knowing they went to the home they were meant for and we did our job facilitating that!

    • I usually have no trouble letting my things go–I feel, as you do, that I’ve done what I set out to do, which is find happy homes for them. But once in awhile, it just gets to me . . .

  4. That design seems unusual to me – usually it’s just a ring or a posy of the same flower, or maybe two flowers. Here, the different flowers and leaves are just scattered. Do you think that the man designed it himself? Do you think he was capturing native flowers of his area? You have a lot more experience with linens than I do, so, have you seen a similar design?

    • I simply don’t know. It did seem more heavily embroidered than a lot of cloths I’ve seen and the fabric quality was much better than most. But the pattern was very consistently repeated in all four corners so it may have been printed on the fabric, to guide the stitcher. Makes me crazy not to know!!

  5. That is stunning!! I, too, keep my eye out for such treasures at thrift stores, etc. I have used them as the foundation for whole cloth quilts. Many times that helps to preserve the fragile cloth (with the addition of the batting/backing/additional stitching). This one is especially sweet as you shared…………………………..

    • Using a tablecloth as a whole cloth quilt is a great idea! I’ve considered it but have never taken the plunge. This particular cloth was on quite heavy linen and was not fragile at all so it will serve its intended purpose for years, if the new owner treats it well.

  6. You hit a note with me, I completely understand how you feel and the need to…yes/no! sell it. You appreciate everything about the tablecloth but deep down you know you won’t really use it because of color and size. These are the dilemmas that bring me to my very sentimental knees. But I think the bright note is that you connected it to its next “care taker”. I’m sure if this person was in love with it as it sounded like they are, they will enjoy it for years. I think at this point you give it good wishes and have to hope for the best. You documented it and gave it a place of honor in your blog.

    • I do hope you’re right about the new owner! So many people, right now, seem to be buying vintage linens for weddings and showers, because it’s trendy, and I do wonder what they do with the linens after the big event is over . . . This must be how the people at the SPCA feel when they let a puppy or kitten go home with a new owner–will it be treated well? Will it be loved?

  7. I can absolutely relate to that sinking feeling when you receive notification that an item that you love has sold. The embroidery work on this tablecloth is amazing and I’m certain the new owner cherishes it.

  8. It surely is a beautiful piece of work – and so unusual that a man from that time and that country made it! A most unusual man!! Like yours, my imagination races around with proposals and possibilities and questions 🙂 I so understand your wish to keep the cloth simply for it’s exquisite workmanship and beauty – yay to you for sending it off for its next chapter. I like to imagine how inanimate things that have been made with love travel from hand to hand until they touch into a related life………….. We never know 🙂

    • Your mind works like mine does! The inanimate objects are animated by their stories or, really, by the stories of the people who created them. If I don’t know the story (and I rarely do with linens), I always seem to make one up!

  9. Oh that one is lovely! Thank you for sharing your images of this stunning piece as well as the wonderful story behind it. I can see why this piece was difficult to let go. Just my two cents, but I don’t think it would hurt if you gently reminded buyers to take extra special care of the items they purchase from you. Someone put so much effort into making this piece, and you put effort into finding it, it’s only proper that the next person care for it and treasure it too. Speaking from experience, I’ve seen beautiful, irreplaceable vintage treasures ruined or destroyed simply because people had no clue; often because the item is given as a gift and the recipient is totally unaware they couldn’t just throw it in the washing machine with bleach or toss it in the dryer on hot. And then poof – it’s ruined! Besides vintage linens and studio pottery, I also collect vintage Dansk Kobenstyle enamel cookware designed by Jens Quistgaard and I can’t tell you how many pieces I’ve seen that went from pristine vintage condition one minute to instantly ruined the next when one ignorant person starts stacking pieces, one on top of another, at an estate sale! Or by tossing them in the dishwasher! Or by using metal spatulas instead of wood – all because they had no idea that vintage enamel (glass on steel) can’t be treated like cookware from Target. I don’t think it would hurt to caution people to be extra careful and perhaps include some tips of how to handle vintage pieces so they’ll last a good long time. 🙂 Anyhow, sorry for rambling, but such a beautiful piece deserves a careful owner who treasures it as much as you do.

    • It’s funny–the last time I wrote one of these “the one that got away” posts, I was lamenting selling a Kobenstyle casserole pan! It’s probably good I didn’t keep it, since I would have had no idea how to care for it!. I do try and give some instructions about caring for the linens–I am especially careful with the display towels that have the long, gorgeous fringe. I am very clear with buyers that it’s a miracle the fringe is still in perfect condition and that they must NOT put the towels in the dryer, etc. But even then, I wonder if anyone really pays attention–we are so used to easy-care everything now . . .

  10. What a beautiful cloth! I so understand that you would want to hold onto it. Sometimes, even though the colours may not be exactly our favourites, it is still possible to be in love with the skill and expertise which has gone into the piece. I too was taught by my Grandma to make sure that the back of my embroidery was as neat as the front and I love that I can still hear my Grandma’s voice guiding me and helping me to aim for her standards. Stripes and checks had to be matched, stitches consistent in size; order which felt supportive in a chaotic world.
    My Mother, my Grandma and all my great-Aunts all made embroidered cloths and I have many of them still..I often think of them sewing during the war. It is sad that there is often so little respect for this work now and when I go to markets they seem to go unseen.
    It is such a good thing to know that you are searching them out and giving them a second lease of life. When I first married I starched all my linens and would serve cream teas using cloths and napkins. I have to confess that even I, who have a huge chest of linen, have not done that for sometime.
    Thank you for sharing your beautiful Pansy cloth.

    • Your comment about order in a chaotic world makes so much sense to me. People who make things–whatever the medium–seem to find real comfort in the making during times of trouble. And the fact that, along with order, comes beauty adds to the appeal. And, on the topic of using our linens, my husband and I used to have these big, crazy Christmas parties and I’d drag out a zillion damask tablecloths and cocktail napkins and it would all be so grand. But we just got tired of hosting such a big event . . . and then what do you do with a zillion damask napkins?

  11. I’s beautiful, I must admit and no wonder it’s so hard to let go. i hope the new owner will cherish and treasure it the way you did!

  12. Oh, it is such a lovely piece, and its history is tantalising. It will remain with you forever through your sharing it with us all. Thank you. You’ve given its new owner a reason to cherish it too.

    • I wanted to write about it because it goes back to that whole issue of documenting what you know about a piece. The story about that cloth would be lost forever if I didn’t at least tell what little I knew. I think I’m going to send the blog post tot he woman who bought the cloth . . .

  13. It’s a beauty. I always look at the back too…it’s a real clue to quality of workmanship isn’t it? Do you know of organisation called Fine Cell Work? They are a charity that works with prisoners. I saw a short film at an exhibition in London a couple of years ago and I found it profoundly moving to see such large rough hewn hands producing such delicate work. Thank you for sharing and well done for letting it go!

    • I saw a blog reference to Fine Cell Work recently and I can’t remember where–was it you? I went and looked at the site and actually thought I might write about it but then promptly forgot all about it. Thanks for reminding me!

  14. When I just joined Etsy, I also sold some vintage goodies. With some of them I was really happy to have made a sale, and on the other hand felt kind of sad that the item was sold and I needed to say goodbye 🙂

  15. This is a beauty! I bought a couple embroidered table linens last summer at a neighbor’s yard sale. I thought I’d make myself a top or bag using them, but I cannot bear to cut them!

    • I can’t bear to cut a piece that’s in good condition either–never! I am so astounded it got to me in one piece that being the person to cut it up would weigh heavily on me. I’ve found plenty of slightly damaged linens, with lots of usable material–those I’ll cut up!

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