In 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 . . .
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.