Pity the Fabric


Pity the poor length of fabric.

So full of potential, so mistreated and so neglected.

This cloth would’ve come from a bolt of yard goods, a long piece of off-white damask linen, with bright gold stripes along the edges. The woven pattern is of pansies.

Someone came to the dry goods store, probably 50-60 years ago, and said, “Cut me 3 yards. I’ll make an elegant tablecloth for special occasions.”

But that never happened.

The fabric was left folded, folded just the way it came from the store. It got packed away, in a deep dark trunk, and the trunk got put away in a deep dark cellar, where it was damp and there were bugs.

And it sat. It gathered stains of all sizes and shapes, water stains, dirty trunk stains, stains of unmentionable acts of insects.

It sat until the lady who had purchased it died at the age of 95.

It sat as the lady’s children went through the house and opened the closets and planned the estate sale.

It sat while hundreds of people came through the sale, buying the bits and pieces of the lady’s life. But no one opened the trunk in that corner of the basement.

I went to the sale. I bought armloads of pretty linens  . . . but I never went into the basement. I asked the lady’s son if there were more linens I should be looking at and he said he didn’t think so.

I left, and still the fabric sat.

Later that day, I went back. I just knewthat a woman with a fine house like that, decorated the way it was, had more vintage table linens than I had seen.

I walked in. The sale was winding down.

The son said, “Oh, good! You came back! There’s something I want to show you.”

The basement. The trunk still unopened after two days.

The fabric. And other linens, including huge damask “lapkins” with the lady’s monogram.

I brought the fabric home. It was filthy but unhemmed so I couldn’t wash it yet.

I put it on the clothesline to get the smell out and then I hemmed it.

I soaked it, in steaming hot water, with one of my go-to solutions, for hours.

The wash water turned the color of strong tea but many of the stains were stubborn.

So I soaked it again, with my other magic solution and steaming hot water. Many more hours.

I used a spot stain remover. I put the tablecloth outside in the bright sun and sprayed it with water to keep it damp, to let the sun work its magic.

The stains faded but never fully went away.

I have grown cocky over the years about my ability to remove stains from old fabrics. I boast about my prowess. I wrote about it here.

But this tablecloth has made a fool of me—those last stains refuse to budge!


And still, it’s a lovely cloth and the small spots that remain really do little to take away from its charm.

Finally, after something like 60 years, this fabric is released from its dark prison of inactivity, and ready to do the job for which it was intended.

Pity it no more.


63 thoughts on “Pity the Fabric

  1. That is a serious piece of excellent work, Kerry! A few faded spots are nothing to the overall beauty! It should be a wedding gift for a bride that appreciates history!

    • I agree–the overall effect of the tablecloth is such that the small stains aren’t important. And they’ll probably be covered by a table setting anyway!

  2. Think of it this way. If the lady *had* made that special occasion tablecloth, if it had become the beloved, favoured cloth for high days and holidays, for family celebrations, commemorations and feasts, the chances are pretty good that it would have acquired a few small intractable stains from its joyful life. Like smile lines, these are the signs of a life lived well. You have reinvented this cloth and brought it out into the sunshine so it can fulfil its destiny.

    • “Like smile lines”–I couldn’t agree more! In fact, I think I wrote a blog post along those lines (but not that metaphor) a few years back. These pretty linens were meant to be used and I see the stains as evidence that a group of people dined together, and had a good old time doing it!

  3. You have very good instincts when it comes to linens and people. Glad you went back for it and saved it from the dump. It turned out wonderful in spite of the tiny stains. Any tablecloth would wind up with one no matter what if it’s used at all. You did a good thing there. I just donated tons of knits and pants weight poly and all my fleece so it would not languish unused. Since I’ll never get to it, it needs to go to someone who will us it. It’s sad that something sat in a trunk so long that the lady probably forgot she even had it.

    • I think the woman who owned my tablecloth did forget it. She died with a BIG house, FULL of stuff–she obviously liked shopping! Going to that kind of estate sale, where people are rooting around in closets and drawers, always makes me want to come home and purge my own closets and drawers!

      • We have been purging for months now. My house looks like a cyclone hit but more and more leaves everyday. Some things are harder than others to let go of, like my expensive sewing machine. I need to list it for sale but just hold back. It’s been barely used. I keep using the old one. Giving away books is another hard one but go they must. I don’t want my children overwhelmed with all of this. All the good stuff is being pregifted. 😉

  4. I love this kind of story and that there is at least one person willing to try to save these things outside a textile museum. What a great rescue. And as other commenters said, if it HAD become a tablecloth, there would have been a few stains…

    • I’ve been to auctions here, where they’re selling linens, and I know there’s at least one other person wanting save old linens–she’s always bidding against me!

  5. What a story! I was riveted from beginning to end. All that hard work was rewarded. Despite the small stains, the tablecloth is lovely. And as we age, don’t we all have some stains here and there?

  6. I was thinking the same as many others, that stains would have happened by now if it was in use. And that is also why I use the ones I have and don’t worry about stains. It is so much better for them to be out and enjoyed, than stuffed in a dark trunk waiting for the future. 🙂 I am glad you went back and performed this rescue!

    • I went back. I juts knew in my heart there was more there. And I hadn’t gone to the basement because my wobbly mother was with me and I was busy helping her find stuff for herself. There was still a TON of stuff in that house–I wonder what they did with all of it . . .

  7. I did a happy dance when you went back! I’d say you did a marvelous job at removing the stains .. besides it needs a few aging spots the linen isn’t a “spring linen” anymore.😄 lovely post !

    • Usually, by the time I drop my mother off at the end of our garage saling, I’m pooped and never stop anywhere on the way home . . . but I just had to go back that once! I’m glad I did.

  8. I know you wanted to restore it to something of its former beauty and you have – but the stains can have any story you wish to tell…and if they really bothered you, maybe a patch or some other decorative embellishment to give it another “story”

    And how lucky you returned, and had the “trunk in the basement” become yours to love and cherish…

    • Lovely points, Catherine! I do take stain removal as a big, personal challenge but I also know when to call it quits. It’s funny, if a family member spills the red wine on a tablecloth, it doesn’t bother me and just becomes a sign of that a good time was had by all. I think the stains on this tablecloth offended me more because they came from neglect.

      • and that last sentence is another story in itself…and a lesson to using everything that we feel is too good to use. I can relate to that from my making life, one of the first books I gave away, the recipient said “oh, I can’t write in it…” and back in my weaving days similar notions “tucked in a drawer”

  9. Ooh, I always want to look inside old boxes, trunks and cases – you never know what you mlght find and, occasionally, you find a treasure just like you did.

    • You would’ve loved this sale, then! The son who showed me the trunk with linens couldn’t figure out why the shoppers hadn’t rummaged through everything. He seemed to know what was in the trunks but had left them closed so it seemed a little rude to open them. I hate to think of all they took to the dump . . .

  10. There’s certainly a moral in your story about the folly of keeping the good linens stored away unused. I joke with my husband that I plan to bury him with all the clothing he’s keeping “for good” while he wears shabby ancient garb.

    • Where did we come up with this idea that we aren’t worth “the good” clothing and table linens and dishes?! I’ve given a number of friends handwoven dish towels . . . and they won’t use them!!

  11. I was willing you to go back; I’m so glad your instincts are so sharp 🙂 And such a beautiful result; a testament to your persistence. As others have said, those stubborn spots merely add to its story.

      • Sadly, you can’t crawl through them. I have a friend who likes to go to auctions, and she will buy that last box of linens just because someone’s treasures should not go unwanted. She gets them for a song sometimes, but she bangs onto them all. I suggested she read this blog and check out your etsy shop. You two are kindred spirits. 😉

  12. Great post, Kerry! I love that, to you, these linens have souls and feelings or at least they have taken on some kind of life from the person who made them. I’m so glad you worked your magic on that poor lonely forgotten tablecloth!

  13. I love a good story. I admire your patience, I struggle with stains. As a matter of fact, a pair of pants stained with tomato juice has been twice washed with no great result. I probably could “get by” wearing them. The stain is faint, but I see it and know that it is there. Next, I am trying Dawn detergent. 😀

    • Dawn is tough stuff! If your slacks are white or colorfast, you can try hydrogen peroxide or lemon juice, too, or simply dampening them and leaving them in bright sun. I’m always surprised at how well that works!

  14. That’s why estate sales aren’t as good out west – no attics or basements to squirrel away treasures! I enjoyed the tale of the would be tablecloth rescued from oblivion, given a makeover, and emerging triumphant at last.

    • It’s interesting– a lot of the vintage linens I sell are to people in the western. I’ve always thought that maybe it was because, in years gone by, as settlers moved west, they didn’t couldn’t take a lot of extra fancy stuff along. On the other hand, people is the East stayed put and just kept accumulating.

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