When A Mistake Makes It Perfect

As I continue my purveying of vintage linens, I wash and iron these old pieces, and have time to think about perfection.

This homely little scrap of cloth meets my own criteria for perfection.

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First of all, it declares what it can do for its owner.

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I’ve always loved these linens that boldly state what they’re for! They come from an era when being a homemaker was a serious undertaking and women wanted to be covered for every eventuality.

This little bread cloth wants us to know it is for Toast! Not bread, not dinner rolls, just toast, dammit.

I also love it, of course,  because it is handmade. The work is done by hand. it’s not really difficult work—a bit of satin stitch embroidery and some drawnwork. Because of the simplicity, I envision a young woman, plying her needle, honing her skills, and thinking about keeping house. Thinking about growing up and getting married and bringing toast to the table with a pretty cloth, daydreaming . . .

And it appeals to me because it’s oddball. The quirky always speaks to me. I see so many damask tablecloths, so many dishtowels printed with bright flowers, so many pretty-but-simpering embroidered table runners. Nice, often very nice, but common.

But I’ve never seen a toast cloth before!

The most perfect aspect of this little cloth, though, is that it gives evidence of an imperfect human. I didn’t notice until I was ironing that the cloth bears an evident mistake. That daydreaming girl was, perhaps, in a bit of a fog. Or she was in a hurry to finish and do something more pressing or more interesting (maybe go flirt with a boy). Or maybe she was trying to figure out how to escape the life society had assigned to her, escape the sewing and cooking. Maybe she was dreaming of going to college and heading a major corporation.

Whatever. Wherever her mind was, she missed a whole line of drawnwork in her stitching.

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We can see that she cut the threads and pulled them out of the fabric but she failed to do the stitches that would define the drawnwork and finish the design.

She was human. She made a mistake that a machine wouldn’t make. Her hand missed stitches, her attention flagged, and by objective measures, she screwed up.

And yet . . . it’s the very flaw that elevates the work and makes it special.

I find this endearing and incredibly reassuring.

Seeing this mistake makes me like the girl who did the work—she is real to me, she is human, in a way she would never be, if her work was without flaw.

And I can also relate to her. I am human and I make mistakes.

Her mistake helps me understand that, in our world of making and creating by hand, mistakes and oversights are more than just inevitable.

Mistakes and oversights can be charming, they can be more engaging than perfection. They reflect the work of a real person and, in so doing, they can touch and appeal to other real people.

I’m not saying I’ll go out of my way to  make mistakes (as if that were necessary!) I’m not saying I’ll be sloppy and stop striving for a very fine finished product. I’m just recognizing that a mistake can enhance, rather than detract from, the appeal of work done by hand.

The mistake can make it perfect.

72 thoughts on “When A Mistake Makes It Perfect

  1. I have to laugh at the somewhat rigid compartmentalization going on with your embroidered pieces. (No, that’s for the cream. The sugar goes here.) I have pieces done by my aunts and mother that also aren’t quite complete. It hasn’t stopped me from using them. What’s sad to me is all the pieces didn’t seem to get used. I think that pretty container for dust cloths would brighten up such a dreary chore.

  2. I always think about the “statements” when I take out my day of the week towels. Back then, did everyone always use the towel with the correct day on it? Which reminds me, I have my little Dutch girls waiting to be transferred, but that may be a better project for summer time, much cooler! Toast–I love it!

  3. Wonderful post and a lesson that can be applied to many areas of life. As someone who LOVES toast and even has a toaster than can do four slices of bread, I am all for anything that pertains especially to toast.

  4. I loved seeing these beautiful pieces. I would not have noticed the flaw either had you not pointed it out. I think flaws are perfect and you are correct, they tell a story and make the piece perfect. I think that’s why we like hand made over machine made but I even make flaws on the machine. 🙂

    • Oh, I make mistakes with a machine, too! It’s still human error, though. I like to keep a few of these “flawed” pieces around, to remind me that it’s okay not to be perfect!

  5. lovely cloth, and post! It reminds me of an old college friend who said “mistakes prove I made it, not a machine” and she would blithely knit on. lovely to be so free from perfection. 🙂

  6. These linens are works of art. And how very touching it is to see that ‘mistake’ on the toast cloth. As you say, it allows us to feel in touch with the maker in a very human way. I am also reminded of the Japanese concept of wabi sabi – one of my favorite things to think about when I make a mistake of any kind, especially with something creative,

  7. I like to envision what breakfast must have been like many years ago. Individual butter knives, a master butter knife, orange spoons, egg spoons, coffee spoons, porridge spoons, various forks and serving spoons. Napkin rings which varied by person. And, of course, toast, either standing up in a toast rack or wrapped in this lovely little cloth. Worth waking up for!

  8. I love this post, and you’re quite right. But we still continue to get all upset when we notice a mistake that we have made. We can’t forgive ourselves, so why should anyone else?

    • Thanks, Margaret. This business of being hard on ourselves is sort of mystifying and I think it really does affect the way others treat us, and how we treat them.

  9. I’m amused at the strict specifications of what all these linens were to be used for. Mind you, Mr Snail used to have days of the week socks and refused to wear them on the ‘correct’ day. Maybe there was a little element of building in the opportunity to rebel in these items. And what a charming omission … I shall think of this next time I realise there’s a mistake in my work.

    • A rebel, indeed! Undermining societal expectations! I have a hard time ignoring a mistake if I notice it while i’m making something but, if I don’t see it until the piece is finished, I try to find the charm in it!

  10. I have never seen little cloths named so precisely before. I think it might start to make me tic….. Part of me would want to comply and the other part of me would be scheming how to place the brush on the ‘toast’ cloth and then worrying I would be breaking some kind of pact……. Eventually I’d be found sitting sobbing in a corner somewhere surrounded by hair equipment and toast crumbs……..

    Do you suppose she may just have gotten bored and wandered off to do something else and never quite made it back? The other thought that rose in my mind as I read was about the Eastern concept of perfection. When making something a deliberate mistake is always included as nothing made by human hand can be perfect, only the Creator attains perfection.

    I love how you make me think things through and gain a new appreciation for the work of yesteryear! It’s good to be back!!

  11. Another great, wise, funny (“Not bread, not dinner rolls, just toast, dammit”) blog post. Hurrah for occasional mistakes! Sometimes blocked creativity (often due to internal judgements about quality and perfection…) can flow again if one gives oneself permission to create something “bad” or imperfect.

  12. Toast handkerchiefs and duster bags belong to a very different world, don’t they? I wonder what we are using today that someone in a few generations hence will look at at say “How charming! Fancy having time to make/use this object”.

    I have become very fond of your young daydreaming girl too. To think of someone else making this charming item is impossible!

    • I love my daydreaming girl–she provides me with my own daydreams! I’m kind of happy and relieved that no one expects me to make these linens I featured. But I still seem to feel driven to make *something* and that may, in itself, be seen as quaint in years to come.

  13. Or maybe she ran out of thread..love the linens ,they do speak of times past. I can so see a comb and brush linen on my grandmother dresser,she would love for me to comb her hair ,I would carefully get the set out to comb her hair,and sometimes I would get a dime , you know ..that was exciting !

    • A dime!! Big spender! I can remember my mother offering my sister and me each a dime if we cleaned the whole house. And off we went! A little money meant a lot to us. Your memories of your grandmother are so sweet . . .

  14. So interesting. The bureau scarf that tells you which side is for your comb and which for your brush makes me wonder what the embroiderer was really like. A little hard to live with maybe?

  15. I know some potters who put a mistake in each pot so it won’t be perfect–for Pauline’s reason, I think. I do like the little cloth, but I like the things that held stuff, too. I remember those being around in my grandmother’s house. I love it when you show us what you have in linens and things!

  16. Very sweet. I love the product of the human hand and heart. Recently I read a blog post on getting past creative blocks. The blogger quoted from elsewhere (my memory fails me!) that one thing to try is to go ahead and do your worst work. Don’t worry about doing something interesting, fine, or wonderful. Deliberately do your worst. Most importantly, do something! The person who made the dear toast towel did something, best or worst or in between. Good for her!

    • I think always trying to be competent and clever and perfect can be downright paralyzing so the advice to do something makes a lot of sense. And trying too hard for perfection can undercut good work. I always had a lot of trouble with the selvedges of my weaving until I got disgusted and just starting throwing the shuttle without paying attention to the edges . . . and then they got really good!

  17. I have a whole (very old) suitcase full of vintage linens but I don’t think I have anything with embroidered text on it. You’ve given me the perfect excuse to get the suitcase down, open it up and have a rummage through it for the first time in ages.

  18. I love to see these perfect imperfections too but I am so hard on myself! I can’t accept my work if I see anything wrong! Even if I had finished the work and I spotted a mistake I really believe I would have to go back and make all good!

  19. Fun! I particularly like the dust cloths one! Dusting is one of my least favorite chores and I’m not even sure that perky cover would help me smile about it. When we were first married, I embroidered M’s on a lot of things…so fun to have a new name.
    Now the tablecloth ribbon seems very unusual. Even Martha Stewart wouldn’t do that! That lady had a lot of time on her hands.

  20. Such an entertaining post, Kerry. I’ve never seen a toast cloth either, let alone a special coaster for cream and sugar. In cool climates or damp rooms, keeping one’s toast wrapped in a blanket made good sense. That the cloth is labeled as such is perhaps to reduce embarrassment for the guest unsure what to do with the wrap.

    As I work with organizing clients, I marvel at all the storage that is now all but obsolete: Cassette tape holders, VHS cabinets, even DVD’s are slowly becoming obsolete. I hope bookshelves never go out of style. I remember when my computer monitor at work was so heavy that it took two people to lift it. Now we can carry our computer on an airplane.

    As for the missing stitches, I may need a new set of glasses. I could not for the life of me see what was missing. I greatly admire your love and respect for the work and for the history behind it.

    • You can’t see the missed stitches? Look at the photo again. Just to the left of the coin is a line where threads have been pulled out of the fabric, running top right to bottom left. Then there are stitches to the left of that that look like a ladder. And, to the left of the ladder, are little open spaces–this is done correctly and is what the stitching should look like. Both the lines, right and left of the ladder, should match. Okay?

      • I don’t remember her doing any needlework as an older woman, but she occasionally mentioned it in the diary. There are places where she mentions making handkerchiefs (which I’m guessing would have had a crocheted edge or embroidery) as gifts. My favorite needlework related diary entry was when her older sister is trying to teach her to tat:

        “Besse was trying to teach me tatting today. Am awful stupid about it, but still I persist in trying to make the stuff. It takes some patience.” (June 11, 1914)
        https://ahundredyearsago.com/2014/06/11/learning-to-tat/

    • That’s nice to hear, Cynthia–I’m never sure if the vintage linens posts are of interest to people and it’s good to know some people like them (since I imagine I’ll keep writing them!)

  21. I wonder how much these labeled linens were used for the embroidered purpose. Or were they made by girls for a hope chest, and put away. It’s a good reminder to accept and even appreciate some imperfection. Makes me want to jump right in and get started on a project!

    • By the looks of a lot of the ones I’ve come across, you’re right–they were made for a hope chest and saved “for special.” Too bad, really–we should use our nice things!

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