For All It Represents


I love this dresser scarf. Or is it a table runner? Or a doily?

It doesn’t matter what we call it, I love it all the same.

Do I love it because it’s pretty? Not really. I can see why some people would find it lovely but it is not my aesthetic at all. It’s a little too fussy, a little too pretty and flowery and girly, for my taste.

Do I love it because it’s rare and seldom seen? Not at all. This sort of hand embroidered fabric, meant to decorate a dresser top or sideboard, is pretty much, literally, a dime a dozen. In the world of vintage linens, the only items more plentiful are crocheted doilies.

Do I love it because it’s practical? No. It comes from an era where women seem to have felt compelled to cover blank surfaces with “décor.” Antimacassars, doilies, runners, piano scarves—the philosophy seemed to be “let no piece of furniture go naked.” Some of these items had an ostensible purpose—antimacassers on the backs of upholstered furniture, for instance, were designed to keep a popular male hair product—macasser—off the fabric. But, really, most of these items were just meant to look pretty.

I have lots of reasons not to love this runner and yet I do love it.

I love it for what it represents.

  • A woman seeking to beautify her space. Whether this was made by a Yankee, to hold dark winter at bay, or an Okie, facing dust storms or a lonely road west, this woman wrought her own scene of beauty.
  • A woman with enough leisure to time to be able to think about beauty. Whoever did this piece had done enough of the daily chores, the must-dos, to feel justified in taking her leisure on a want-to-do. I’m happy she found that time.
  • A woman who found a way to “be productive” while sitting quietly and beautifying her world. I can relate to this and I know some of you can, too. If you are a person of action and you like to point at what you’ve accomplished, you relish a job of work that can be done while sitting in the shade and allowing your mind to wander.
  • A woman who took pride in something made by her own hands that would So much of women’s daily work was work that was undone—beds made that were unmade each night, clothes washed and dirtied again, meals made and eaten and made again. To embroider something or stitch a quilt was to create a lasting object, something that might, even, outlive the maker.
  • A woman, perhaps denied other ways of asserting her individuality, finding a voice in her handwork. She chose the pattern, the colors, the embellishment. It was unique and it was hers.

This little dresser scarf packs a lot of meaning for me.

I also love it because I saved it.

Those of us who have pets will probably admit that the ones you saved from a grim fate always seem extra special. The stray one, skittish and fearful, the abandoned one, in pain and alone, those pets have our hearts in particular ways.

This runner came in a box of linens found, as usual, under a table and ignored, at a garage sale. The box actually held many pretty and quite exceptional items but, there, at the bottom, was this country cousin of a runner. And it was stained and filthy. It was a stray, unlikely to be noticed or to find a forever home.

I soaked it for hours in three different washes. I progressed from regular washing through my big guns, the Biz and Cascade combo. It was still stained. I did the Biz and Cascade again and added boiling water to my already very hot washing machine. Finally, the stains faded and disappeared. I ironed it carefully and spiffed it up for its glamour shots.

And now the runner is beautiful.

Was it worth the time and energy? It was not, at least not because it was exceptionally lovely or rare or useful.

But, yes, of course, it was worth it! It was worth it because of all it represents, because of the woman who crafted it and all the women like her, and like us, who make our marks by making a mark with thread or yarn or fabric or paint, or any of a multitude of other media.

I won’t keep this little runner—a person can’t adopt every stray and be fair to them all. I’ll show it to friends and see if there is a worthy home among them. At some point if need be, I’ll list it on Etsy in order to match it up with a good home.

One way or another, I’ll find it a place where it’s appreciated for what it is and for all it represents.

66 thoughts on “For All It Represents

  1. Such “rescues” are always worth it…… much love and ‘heart’ contained in every stitch……and that is why I have gone the “vintage” direction. Yes, there are those who may say that the additional stitching I do diminishes the “value”….BUT, I challenge the nay-sayer to observe that the possible alternative is to remain in “the bottom of that box under the table at the garage/tag sale”, forever lost to the caring eye. Perhaps it could be termed that I’m adding my luv to the love already there and, in so doing, creating art for “today’s eyes” (who wouldn’t give a second glance to the original). In any case, thank you for doing all for this lovely piece!!!!! Sending vintage hugs………

  2. So glad that Biz and Cascade combo finally succeeded. I know you will find a good home for it. Looks like kitty appreciates it!

  3. I really like this, it reminds me of patterns I did as a teenager. I love the flower petals and the French knots. I never did master the French knots 🙂

  4. I actually like the bold blue floss (I assume it’s that) used in the baskets. The design has almost an art nouveau feel. Then there’s the variegated crocheted edge which I assume was added by the scarf’s maker. I confess I wouldn’t have picked it up at the sale, given its stained condition, but I’m heartened to see that linens can be brought back from the brink.

    • This seems to be one of my purposes in life–bringing linens back from the brink. Not sure what that says about me . . . . But I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve thought I had a mediocre item on my hands only to find a treasure as I cleaned it up and ironed it.

  5. YES. Absolutely worth saving! For 25 years I kept my mils embroidery that her husband was going to send to a charity shop. For 25 years no-one wanted her table cloths runners etc. And then at a family reunion of children, grandchildren and others I found there were enough pieces for each couple to have one each. And so after 25 years they all had a forever home. Well done on saving it and for this post.

    • Oh, thanks, Janice–that’s so nice of you! I sell a lot of these old linens and buyers very often tell me they want the stuff because it reminds them of their own aunt or grandmother. There’s lots of nostalgia going around!

  6. lovely thoughts. My mother did very similar work, it was never my taste even as a child, but I have kept a few pieces. But – in watching her, and doing what she taught – I started on my own path of textile/made by hand discoveries and I will be forever grateful for that.

    • I think that’s so important –not that a particular piece is exactly to your taste but that it helps you recognize the power associated with making something with your own hands, to express your own taste. And you’ve sure done that!

      • it is! I am so tempted…. Love your site, by the way, you have some really lovely things. I have a friend who loves old linens, I plan to send her on over to your site for some shopping. 🙂

  7. I love this, your thoughts about but actually that runner is not so frilly as I first thought. The colors are beautiful, and shapes are nicely evened out and stylized! So nice to see you bringing it back to life! But Chalrey regrets seeing that cat on it…now you have to do it all over again, she says ;o) cheers, Johanna

    • Charley would be way too well-behaved to sit on my newly-ironed runner, I’m sure! And you’re right, this runner is not as froufrou as some–the bold colors help, as well as the expert stitching.

  8. I love that you worked so hard to bring back it’s loveliness especially beings it’s not your taste in linens. I do think it is very pretty,would put it on a table with a candle in the heart of winter for some springtime cheer.

    • It would be perfect to bring a hint of spring to nasty weather! The colors are really quite strong and the stitching is very well done–it was well worth my time and energy!

  9. I love this piece – it is reminiscent of the work done by my dear favourite aunt, who had them scattered about her home like confetti. Hers was a safe and kind place to be and anything that takes me back there becomes precious in my eyes….. Isn’t it remarkable how inanimate objects arouse such depth of feelings across the years!! I am more than impressed with your cleaning up process. The brands you mention are unknown to me here, but it makes me realise if I gather a bit more info I may be able to save some of my stained and tatty pieces too. The kitty, of course, is just adding her love into the fabric too 🙂

    • The kitty is making trouble, which seems to be her purpose in life! I do think these old linens carry a ton of sentimental and nostalgic meaning for lots of us. And i think that’s why some people buy them–to try to re-create a feeling of warmth they may have felt at an earlier stage of life. Do try to spiff up the pieces you love–the Cascade is a powder made for use in a dishwasher and any such powder might work. Just rinse it all out every well at the end!

  10. I’ve never darned, but love to embroider. I believe nurturing are past, preserves our future, which is what you have done. Thank you!

    • Handling these old pieces has reawakened my interest in embroidery and I’m trying a few items of my own, more to my taste. I’m always amazed at how many people feel strong affection for these older pieces–glad to know their are so many like-minded people out there!

  11. Kerry, in addition to being a wonderful writer, you are a kind and thoughtful soul. It’s wonderful to think of our overworked and often undervalued sisters of the past finding moment to create beauty and craftsmanship. I wonder too, given the high cost of wooden furniture, if some of those carvings served to protect those precious assets.

    I see the doilies everywhere. I recently found a small vintage pot holder, and by gathering the bottom half and drawing it together with string, I created a flower/bow for a gift. It’s was fun giving it another life.

    • That’s a good idea for the old pot holder! I am always trying to come up with ideas for using the crocheted doilies but, again, the style of them isn’t really my style. BUT the ladies in my sewing group LOVE that kind of thing so, every once in a while, I bring a passel of doilies to our meeting and let people just dive in!

      • Kerry I just had a thought. You would have to sort them by size I think, but what if you made baby quilts or blankets with them and donated them to hospitals or groups. I know there’s a project to create knitted squares for Syrian refugee children. I’m going to think on this, too, and see if I can come up with a prototype. Hmmm.

        • I should offer some of this stuff to my quilt guild, maybe–they have an enormous commitment to charity work. Part of my dilemma is that I am already over-committed in all the things I’m doing, and feeling stress from it–adding more sewing, even for a really good cause, isn’t in the cards . . .

          • No pressure intended, just thinking out loud. I visited your shop on Etsy recently and noted all the sales. In addition to all the projects you share here, you must be making daily trips to the post office as well. That said, I’m happy that your site is such a success.

            I have more ideas than I have time for, and as I finish up another project (refurbishing three wise men made of beer bottles for a friend…blog post to follow), I’m feeling some relief.

  12. The piece is not to my taste either but it is carefully done and you have restored it beautifully. I really enjoyed reading your reasons for loving the table runner. Things have changed very little on the home-making front – most of what I do has to be done again and again. It is *still* nice to be able to create something that lasts.

    • I wholeheartedly agree about the nature of “women’s work”! It’s part of the reason I am SO glad my husband loves to cook. I would be completely demoralized if I had to cook three meals a day, every day, just to end up with dirty dishes–it doesn’t seem to bother him at all! And, yes, to create something that lasts–some days I feel like that is what my life is all about . . .

    • You’re so sweet, Judy. Yes, the maker of this piece, and all the makers who spend careful time creating a little piece of beauty, are special–you, me, so many of our blog friends, and “real” friends, too!

  13. I love these things and that one–with its shaded crochet border that gives the illusion of shimmer–is particularly lovely. The basket of flowers is nice and so are the little drops of sunlight. Great save.

    • The little green squares are my favorite part! I wish you could’ve seen (and smelled!) the pre-cleaned piece–really was much nastier in person. I love the process of aiding this transformation . . . .

  14. I would like to think that someone like you will find, and rescue, all the handmade items that I have gotten rid of over the years! I was talking to Peter about your crewel post and lamenting all the things I gave away over the years. But we move a lot nad as he said, my taste changes.
    Thanks for reminding me that it was April come she will! I spent all that day humming the words and couldn’t get them to work…

    • This whole process of selling on Etsy has taught me that there are SO many people out there who love vintage linens and handmade pieces as much as you and I do–it’s really very heartening!

  15. In my mind, this runner speaks of an upper-Midwest-farm-wife aesthetic–what I grew up with. The women who stitched them found satisfaction and fulfillment in making something beautiful in the midst of all the hard work that filled their days. The clumsily stitched ones may have been the learners, the pieces given to youngsters to practice on. I have one of those that my Mom thought would be an easy “first piece”!

    • I’m sure you’re right that a lot of what I see was made by learners–some sets of napkins will have 6 napkins of 6 different sizes! But that just makes it better for me–those signs of real people, striving . . .

  16. Your description of why you like this piece is wonderful. It really makes we think about the woman who who made it. I am absolutely amazed that you were able to get the stains out of the cloth. Over the years, I have had pieces that I thought were hopeless to restore – now I wish that I’d tried harder.

    • Thanks, Sheryl! Some stains really are nearly impossible to get out–I usually keep those items and either use them as is, put a vase on top of the spot, or put them in the growing pile of things I hope to turn into some sort of special quilt, when I get time (HA!)!

  17. Kerry, I looked on your blog for a topic that might answer my question of why I need an audience for what I am currently doing with my time. That is buying vintage Lands End and LL Bean stockings that fit my aesthetic and embody significant Christmas symbols (trees indoor and out, mystery, animals, dolls, cats and dogs on the periphery, people connecting) and are rhythmic as a unit. Rather than dutifully organizing my house, I am searching through hundreds of items on EBay, Google and Pinterest, then on those that made the cut, picking out threads of embroidered names. Why? I am attempting to circumvent in my own family, both now and in the future, lost appreciation for traditional arts and thoughtful acquisitions. The worth of preserving the old is a idea in danger. It’s a manipulative play, but I want any sensitive unborn grandchild to think this is what their family does. We use our hands and time to gather and curate thoughtful and artistic, not new and trendy, decor to be integrated into our rituals. That is certainly in opposition to the tide of our culture. There’s a possibility that a sensitive grandchild may recognize the difference. As an unexpected adjunct, I have developed another useless skill: analysis and classification of stocking styles over the last 50 years.

    • Oh, dear–in the grip of a collection! I can really relate–I apparently had quite the eBay addiction awhile back and that’s where I got the mountains of vintage linens, which i am now selling on Etsy! The internet amens these things just so easy! Your collection is fascinating–maybe you could go back and dust off your blog and write about it?! I do understand your motivations . . . i hope the yet-to-be-born grandchildren appreciate your effort!

      • What a clever idea. I might do that–dust off my blog. I truly do appreciate your reply. That I can identify with the thoughts you express in your blog is particularly comforting in the midst of the short days. Never had an iota of literary or artistic talent in my younger years yet now that is what fascinates me. That and collecting stockings…

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