Marching to the Beat of a Different Linen

When you hear the phrase “vintage linens” what comes to mind?

I think of sturdy linen kitchen towels with bright stripes along the edges, or lush and large white damask napkins. I think of tablecloths, and dresser scarves, and pretty embroidered pillowcases, all the usual suspects that filled the kitchen drawers and linen closets and hope chests of a day gone by.

Oh, but there is so much more! The loving hands that turned themselves to embellishing the dishtowels and napkins and pillowcases didn’t stop there! I love the unusual and quirky vintage linens that pop up occasionally.

Today, you might go to a big box store for plastic boxes when you want to organize your kitchen or bathroom. Your grandmother picked up needle, fabric and thread, and brought her creativity to bear.

I love that so many of these announce what they can do for us! But sometimes, they aren’t so forthcoming and it just isn’t clear what the funny, quirky piece was for.


A wonderful, and old, canvas piece with pockets and hanging tabs. Apron? To hang on a towel bar?

white embro mystery tabs -5

Very pretty hand-embroidered tabs, about 4 inches long. I have no idea what they were meant for but they would make elegant bookmarks!

Sometimes I’m even confused about what the decorations meant.


I mean, I understand cacti and I understand lederhosen but . . . I  really don’t understand them together.

My recent favorite has had me stumped for a while.


Top–pretty, with a slit opening in the middle


Bottom–looks like a shower cap!

I tried it on and was pretty sure it wasn’t a bonnet. No photos of that—you’ll just need to trust me.

I was convinced it was meant to go over a serving bowl, to keep the dinner rolls warm and the flies off.


But my husband made another guess and now I’m sure he’s right (and he wants me to acknowledge that I admitted that!) He said it was designed to go over a box of Kleenex!


All of these oddball items, all of these special treasures . . .

I think this is, in part, why I am so hooked on vintage linens—there’s always something a little new, a little different, a little offbeat to be discovered. And in discovering these unusual items, I feel like I get a peek at the off-beat, distinct personalities of the women who made and used these things.

It’s tempting to think of our foremothers as staid and conventional and tradition-bound but some of these fun old linens, full of personality and bearing the individual’s touch, suggest that just ain’t so!

61 thoughts on “Marching to the Beat of a Different Linen

  1. Oh, ha – I guessed tissue box cover straight up!! It’s brilliant!! Me and your husband are both indubitably brilliant and I haven’t had second coffee yet this morning 😀

    I’ve been trolling your shop looking for your weaving. Are you intending to list any of your dish towels?

    • You and Don are both WAY smarter than I am! When he first said it, I said “no way!” but then I had to admit he was right. Hate it when that happens! Regarding the weaving–we do plan to try selling some of it on Etsy, probably in a new, separate shop. It’s a matter of finding time to take the glamour shots and set everything up . . . so much to do!

  2. I believe I have a few bits and pieces at the bottom of a drawer which came to me via my husband! He’s more of an old woman than I am! 😉 Your treasures are fascinating and I would never have guessed what they were for. I would have loved to see you wearing the Kleenex cover though! 😀

  3. What a wonderful collection. The moment I saw the last picture I thought box of tissues. The one with grapes, could be gardening scissors for cutting flowers and grapes.. Thanks for sharing this.

    • You’re smarter than I, since you saw it for what it was! I love the one with the grapes and think I’ll just keep that one, instead of listing it on Etsy.

  4. I remember my grandmother kept all of her embroidered handkerchiefs in a special pouch. Those handkerchiefs were used for special occasions like weddings and funerals.

    • I’ve seen those hankie pouches–always so pretty and fussy. The vintage world is awash with old hankies! I really have no idea what to do with the ones I have lying around here . . .

      • I’ve seen quilts and shower curtains made from vintage hankies. I believe there is a hankie quilt listed on Etsy right now!

        • Yes, but then we’re back to that business of my “personal aesthetic.” I find most of the hankies so fussy and girly–I can’t imagine making a whole quilt out of them! Maybe I’ll just try selling them as a lot so someone else can make a quilt!

  5. Maybe the little caddy with the cactus plant was a sampler . You know when you just receive a new package of transfers… The first thing you do is pull out a piece of fabric to try it out. Just my guess… 😊 Love the tissue box cover!

    • The tissue box cover is too fussy for my personal taste but it is very, very pretty. I’ll list it on Etsy (now that I know what it is) and someone will give it a good home!

  6. Would not have guessed that little gem was meant for a tissue box! I love how well made those vintage linens were…the weave in the fabric much tighter. Treasures they are for sure!

  7. Such a varied selection of imaginative linens. I confess I thought tissue box right away, but wondered if there WERE tissue boxes in whatever time the linen dated to. But it works, right? I love the napkin holder. Goodness. The little container with the loops might have been an early version of a fanny pack–women’s clothing often being without the necessary pockets!

    • I think you might be right about the fanny pack idea–a sturdy piece of twine, threaded through those loops on top, would make this very useful in the garden. And I don’t think the tissue box cover is all that old–1960s probably–so, yes, there were boxes of tissues then.

  8. What a wonderful collection of linens. So wonderful to see all these beautiful crafted items. Maybe it was a Germany couple that went to Arizona…? There is a story somewhere in that stitching! Thank you for sharing and amusing us!

  9. It seems there was a place for everything, and everything had its place. Among our family linens are a cotton night-dress holder, and a handkerchief envelope – which I still use, as I prefer my family’s old lacy handkerchiefs to tissues which always somehow end up shredding over the contents of the washing machine. Perhaps I need a tisssue box holder … 🙂

  10. Wow, you have a great collection of hand art. I am fascinated by the first one. The flower pots in January make me think something for gardening.

    • Yes, I think you’re right about the gardening. The little apron, if that’s what it is, is made of very sturdy canvas–it would stand up to a lot of hard use. Maybe the wearer would put a belt or cord through those loops on top.

  11. I really enjoyed seeing the wide variety of storage bag linens and other items. I think that I’ve seen pictures of similar items (with an invitation to send in a stamped self-addressed envelope and maybe a little money – something like 10 cents — to get detailed directions for making them) in some of the hundred-year-old magazines that I browse through.

    • How fun! I bet you have seen them–I suspect that many of these items were little projects like that. It’s like now, when we see a gadget on TV and feel we need to have it!

  12. Did you find some fun linens on your FL trip? When I was first married, I embroidered our initials on everything!!! I can’t imagine doing something to cover kleenex boxes though…

    • We didn’t go looking for linens this time. To tell the truth, I have SO much stuff piled up around here, I could keep listing things on Etsy for years and never get caught up!

  13. Linens like these bring back fond memories of all the little doilies and dresser scarves my Mom had stuffed in just about every drawer and closet. The white tabs look a lot like the round ones my Mother-in-law gave me. I use them for little coasters but they are a little thin for any real absorption. Just something pretty to put a bud vase on.

    • That’s the thing–there are SO many pretty little doodads still around. These little touches must’ve been very important to women at that time. I wonder what our modern equivalent is . . .

  14. I so agree with you, and those items brought back memories too of a different time and place. I liked embroidery – we were taught to do simple items in school. Also, remember smocking?Those white tabs are shaped like bookmarks – but wouldn’t they get dirty from the ink used to print the text? Hmmmm…..

  15. They all look so pretty. I just can’t imagine the talent that existed in those days. Everything is so unique and special. Thank you for sharing.

  16. I love the unusual vintage pieces. I think I have a few of those small tabs myself. In an old crochet book I have from the 1930, the introduction tells the homemaker that it doesn’t take a lot of money to make your home special, creating small decorative items can add that gracious touch. These women took it to heart.

    • I wonder if a lot of this was a product of the Great Depression, when money was so tight and people still craved beauty? I love those old books and magazines!

  17. Your description of the cactus piece gave me quite a laugh – I hope there is a story behind it, or else it’s just very strange. So many things were made that are so frilly and feminine. I’ve seen modern day Kleenex box covers that look like sofas, some are ornate, but others are sports teams themed which is a totally different look than the one you show.

    • I imagine there was a story about the cactus piece but we’ll never know what it was! Makes me a little sad . . . And, yes, so much was so frilly and “girly”–not really my style but I can still enjoy handling the pieces!

  18. Fantastic!!! These must have been made by eager young girls dreaming of their future home and a well stocked linen closet! After six kids they probably did not bother anymore with special wraps for napkins and table cloths. Those Tiroler dancers are happy they are leaving the desert to go back to luscious meadows in the Alps with bratwurst and beers! More of this please Kerry!! xo Johanna

  19. Oh boy, you’ve got me going now. I’ve been searching Google for an answer to those book-mark like linens. I searched “unusual shaped embroidery” and “embroidered epaulets” and even looked at clergy and military items which seemed obscure but I was on a tear. No luck!

    Thanks for such an engaging post, Kerry.

    By the way do you know of or own this book:

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