Made by Harriett

IMG_4551In one of my piles of vintage linens was this treasure—a tray cloth of fine white linen, embellished by hand with embroidery and fancywork. Very pretty, very delicate, probably made in the early part of the 20th century.

Lovely, but not so unusual, except . . .

IMG_4546It was made by Harriett.

Who was Harriett?

I so wish I could tell you she was my paternal great-grandmother or a maiden aunt who entered the convent after her heart was broken. But the truth is, I have no idea who Harriett was. I don’t know her. I’m embarrassed to say I don’t even remember where this cloth came from.

But I know there WAS a Harriett. She put her talent and skill into making something lasting, and knowing that this cloth was made by Harriett gives me a different sort of connection to this piece.

So many things I come across were made by hand—but whose hand? We can’t know. Those details are lost to time. Making was such an integral part of daily life, such a staple in what people did, that most things weren’t signed in any way. No note was attached to document the maker and connect her or him with that which was made.

And because we can’t put a name to the maker, we may fail to think about the person. We admire the tangible product in an abstract way but forget to think about the flesh and blood that created such beauty.

These were people so much like us, with the same urges to create, to brighten a room, to clothe a family, to leave something lovely in their wake.

With this piece of linen, we at least have a first name to remind us of a specific woman, Harriett. I can’t see her clearly; it’s as if she’s in one of those old tintypes photos that has become faded and cloudy. But she’s there. And she’s real.

Her name makes her real. I can imagine her looking forward to a quiet moment in her day, when the chores are done, to pick up her embroidery and sit by the window for the best light and put in a few tiny stitches. I can see the ghosts of her hands, her touch left in the work she did.

This tray cloth tells me that Harriett was a maker of a special order. Whatever else she could or couldn’t do, that woman could sew. The work on this cloth is done completely by hand—the embroidery, the cutwork, the hemstitching—but more on her work soon.

For now, let’s just think about Harriett.IMG_4545

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44 thoughts on “Made by Harriett

  1. It’s sad you don’t know – almost certainly will never know – about Harriett. But yes, it’s good to know she was the one who made that tray cloth. And it sounds as if you’re going to show us more of her things ….. soon

    • I’m not going to show more things–so far as I know this is all I have. I’m going to talk more about this piece and how it was made–the detail is extraordinary!

  2. Who ever Harriet is, I really like her. She’s talented and proud enough to put her name on her very refined craft. I love that she wrote it in her own hand, plus the linen is beautiful.

    • Hmmm . . . that’s so interesting! It never occurred to me that Harriett labeled her own work. I’ve been thinking that someone level put the label on, referring to Harriett. You’ve given me a whole new angle to consider!

  3. This so resonates with me, Kerry, as do so many of your posts. I collect vintage photos, mostly babies, and it is always a thrill to find their name on the back of the card. It’s rare, sadly. I loved this post and Harriet’s handwork is remarkable. Imagine how she would feel knowing it is now floating through cyber-space to such admiration.

    • If Harriett could know about our world, and cyberspace, wouldn’t she be astounded? It would seem like the wildest of science fiction, I’m sure. I feel the same way you do about old photos without names attached–it makes me crazy. And yet, I’m worse–my photos don’t even get printed. They’re on an external hard drive that’s sure to become obsolete and then what? I really worry about digital photography and what we’re leaving (and not leaving) for the future.

  4. You make a compelling point to make sure one’s handmade items are labeled with first and last names, date, and place. This tag looks like whoever made it assumed that family members would always know who Harriet was. Sadly, that knowledge was lost.

    • True–it seems like “Harriett,” her one name by itself, was known to others at the time. How many old photos have you seen labeled like that? I like the mystery of it all but I’d prefer to know the full story!

    • Very talented, indeed! The more carefully I look at the piece, the more it impresses me. I wish we had her here to say, “Hey, Harriett–show me how to do that”!

  5. What a gorgeous and well made piece. Harriet strikes me as a remarkable and meticulous artist. But it puzzles me why the label was sewn on so crudely. Could it be that it was entered for a contest and everybody there knew who Harriet was? Have you ever seen a lbell like that before? I love things like that…I am always thrilled when I find writings in old (cook) books. xo Johanna

    • I thought the same thing about the label – was happy to see someone else commented on it! I wonder if maybe it was gifted to someone and that person labeled it to remember who gave it to them? I could almost see my grandmother doing something like that if I had made her something. (Though it would have been the other way around because I can barely thread a needle and she was very talented with such things.)

      • The label is, for me, what makes this piece really intriguing. I assumed it was as you describe–a label added by someone else, out of pride for the work. But other readers think it might’ve been Harriett who added it. Isn’t speculating fun?

    • I haven’t ever seen a label like this–the crudeness of it and the really sloppy sewing makes me think someone other Harriett sewed it on there. Writing in books and on old photos does the same thing for me that this label does–make me feel much more connected to the actual human beings behind the writing. It is a thrill!

  6. I’m sure that Harriett would be happy to know that her lovely handwork is being admired and discussed all these years later.

    • Once she got over the idea of how we’re discussing it–the internet? What?!–I’d imagine she’d be pleased. I wonder if she thought her work was exemplary or just run-of-the-mill for the time.

    • Thanks, Mrs. Fox! 😉 The only fiction book I ever wanted to write was a murder mystery. Do you think I could make Harriett a murdered who got rid of her abusive husband by dipping her embroidery needle into poison?

  7. I love how you muse over these beautiful pieces – I am often struck by beautiful handmade items, paintings, clothing and find myself musing on the creater of them. The artists and their stories may be lost to us, but their creations go on. I like to think that maybe the right person will end up handling a piece, or owning it and their stories will combine for a time. There is a lot of mystery in life and sometimes items made with love carry that little bit of magic! I am an unapologetic romantic 🙂

    • You certainly are a romantic, my friend! I guess that makes me one, too, although I never see myself that way at all. I like to think that, someday, maybe, something I made will cause people to pause and wonder . . .

  8. This is a beautiful piece. The flowers. I often find myself wondering about the people who made something–furniture, embroidery, a quilt. People want to create beauty. I wonder if this piece was ever used, what with the paper label still on it. It deserves some time on a tray!

    • I think people definitely do what to create beauty, although their ideas of what constitutes beauty and their ability to take that vision and translate it into form differs. I think the paper label was added late to this piece, not at its creation, because it is done so messily. But I still doubt the piece was ever used much, if at all–it looks to me like a show piece.

  9. This is a beautiful piece of work! But as I looked at it and it’s tag, I became a little sad. Why? I had to think of this dear lady ,or her best friend writing this little bit of information,for her things needed to be auctioned off for she no longer had a use for it. The writing reminds me of my Grammy as she got older and her hands shook ,so that the letters no longer were the same, which is really noticeable with the r’s. The writing is so old school , who does cursive like that anymore among the young? 🙂

    • Isn’t it interesting how we each come up with our own narratives about this, based on that simple label? I can’t decide whether I wish I knew the full story or if I’m happier with the mystery and the chance to fill out the details in my own imagination.

  10. I too was going to mention the writing, it is indeed old school cursive and I love it! I have some of my Grandmother’s recipes and the handwriting is like this……. That cloth is exquisite. Thank you.

  11. Such an interesting item – for the handwriting, the name and the work. We were taught how to make pieces like this when I was an adolescent. I wish I’d kept even one piece.

      • They do, they do. Do we have to get much older before we realize the value these things will have in our lives? Thankfully, my mother saved a few items for us, knowing we’d find them precious one day. Journals, books, flower-girl dresses.

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