A Weekend Steeped in Vintage

I had the kind of delightful weekend available only to the lover, and purveyor, of vintage linens.

Oh, it was a good weekend anyway—the temperatures in upstate New York reached a very unusual 60 degrees, my beloved Penn State Nittany Lions won at football, hand quilting and chocolate were on the agenda.

But the best part of the weekend involved finding a plastic bin full of wonderful linens I didn’t know I had.

How is that possible?

It’s embarrassing to admit but I have been known to hoard such things. I buy linens at garage sales, flea markets, thrift shops, and on eBay. I buy them when I find them and often don’t deal with them right away. I may have as many as 10 large plastic bins stored, waiting . . .

I thought I sort of knew what was in those bins and it did not fill my heart with gladness.

Recently my dealing with old linens hasn’t been much fun. I have a lot of plain white damask table linens—elegant and of high quality but, frankly, they all look alike unless you are a real aficionado.

I have a LOT of tablecloths. Tablecloths are time consuming and a pain to iron and I can only deal with them on days when I can move them straight from the ironing board to the big table and take photos right away.

And, lately, I seem to have had a lot of items that have damage, some of it small but some of it serious. The serious damage means giving up on the piece altogether but the small damage creates the conundrum—do I try to sell it anyway? I have to take photos of the flaws and list it “as is.” Is it worth it? Will it bring the overall look of my shop down if I include such things?

And I admit, I have a tendency to “cherry pick” when I go looking for linens to smarten up. I open bins, rummage around, pull out the unusual, the striking, and leave the mediocre or common. This means I have a lot of mediocre and common waiting around . . .

So, I was thrilled when I opened a bin, thinking it would be more of the same, and instead found a treasure chest of lovely items, vintage but in unused condition—towels with bright printed designs, napkins with perfect embroidery, all manner of unusual and striking beauties.

All the stars aligned.

The sky was bright so I could take photos in natural light.

The days were warm so I could work on our glassed-in porch where that natural light is abundant and the big table awaits.

I could iron tablecloths because I could move them to that awaiting table on that porch where the day was warm and the natural light was abundant.

And I could enjoy all the variety and quality that are the best aspects of dealing with vintage linens.

Over two days, I ironed and took about 300 photos of items ranging from large tablecloths blooming with printed red roses to small tea cloths delicately embroidered.

From sassy chickens to sweet pansies.

From understated elegance to napkins of every stripe.

Of course, I still have work to do. The photos must be edited and listings written before these pretty things are available on Etsy. But the linens gave me something I needed this weekend.

I started with a pile of chaos and ended with crisp, sweet-smelling, beautiful order.

Lately, it seems, little things mean a lot . . .

What made your weekend delightful?

For All It Represents

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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.

The One That Didn’t Get Away

Sometimes things work out just fine.

A few short weeks ago, I was loudly lamenting that I had not bought a sewing caddy I found at a garage sale. But that recent experience with hesitation and regret left me primed for the sewing box I found two days ago, at yet another garage sale.

While the one that got away was whimsical and handmade and fun, this one is staid and handsome and sensible.

The case I left behind made me smile out loud, but I think I knew that, if I owned it, I wouldn’t really use it. I have other similar cases and I have never pressed them into real service. They are a little tippy and awkward to move and, I don’t know, not really aligned with my organizational style.

I knew this case was really much more suited to my needs; I loved it the moment I saw it.

This is not to say that I paid the asking price for it! It was priced at three times as much as the box I didn’t buy and I would not have gone that high. But the seller wanted it to be loved and appreciated and was willing to accept what I could pay, she said, because she believed I would love and appreciate it.

She was right.

It belonged to the great-grandmother of the seller; great-grandma’s name was Violet.

Violet, and others in the family who came to use the box, left the case filled with the bits and bobs and flotsam of daily sewing. I spent a happy hour or two sifting through their treasures.

Wooden spools of thread, clothing patterns from the 1960s, needle books given away at stores. Pin cushions. Many, many buttons. I will think of Violet whenever I use the case.

But this isn’t Violet’s sewing box any longer. It’s mine now, and I just know she’d want me to use it and make it my own.

I’ll put most of the old stuff away and fill the box with the flotsam of my daily sewing. It will hold the things I use to sew yo-yos together, to embroider my redwork squares, to organize me through projects as yet unimagined.

I will pick it up and take it with me to sit by the lake on these perfect summer days. In autumn, I can carry it to a spot sheltered from the wind and savor the October sun.

I will transport it next to the fireplace when winter arrives and the lake freezes and the north wind blows cold.

And I’ll be awfully glad I didn’t let this one get away . . .

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The One That Got Away: The Sewing Caddy

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Sometimes being practical is a bad idea.

Sometimes being frugal comes back to bite you.

Yesterday was such a day. I was practical and frugal and now . . . I am repenting.

It was Saturday—garage sale day. My mother and I went off on the byways of upstate New York, to see what treasures lurked.

Not too many treasures, as it turned out, but there was one . . .

In a driveway, in a small village, a beautiful sewing case.

I’ve written about these cases in the past. They were offered, apparently as a project from the Cooperative Extension, for men to make for their wives. I’ve seen probably 20 of these over the years and have ended up owning most of them, at least for a while, before passing them along to others.

This one, though, is the prettiest and most unusual I’ve ever seen.

The fabric on the outside is a wonderful winter scene, and in great condition.

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The inside, though, is what sets this apart. All of these cases were customized by the makers, probably with input from their wives. Some have pin cushions built in, or little drawers. Many have the jars with the lids attached to the box, to collect buttons and pins, and the nails to corral spools of thread.

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But never have I seen one with the fabulous decorative cutouts evident here. The words “This ‘N That,” the initials “LC,” and the shapes of scissors, large and small, were all carefully pierced into the wood.

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And all those pierced panels are constructed to tip out, on hinges, for easy access.

So, I looked at it and I drooled. I coveted it.

The practical persona sat on my shoulder and whispered, “You already own two pretty cases like this.”

The frugal persona asked the price . . . and offered $5 less.

The seller declined that offer.

And the third persona, known forever after as the bereft, disappointed one, walked away.

I got in my car. I drove away. And I haven’t stopped thinking about this treasure since.

So Lovely and Yet . . .

A beautiful damask bath towel, probably part of a hope chest.

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A gorgeous goose eye twill weave.

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Elegant hem stitching, done by hand.

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Satin stitch monogram; again, done by hand.

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But an unfortunate monogram.

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Was the young woman dismayed at the image her initials brought to mind?

Or did it make her laugh, because she knew she was no such thing?

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Egg Money

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My grandmother kept hens.

I sell on Etsy.

Two women, separated by years and changing times, earning “egg money.”

The concept of “egg money”* (or butter-and-egg money) derives from farm life, where the woman of the farm typically took care of the chickens. Any money she made from selling the eggs was hers, to use as she wished.

Egg money could be set aside for emergencies or could be used for something a woman wanted but didn’t need. A little luxury, a special treat for a child, a gift for one’s husband that wasn’t purchased with “his” money.

In a lot of ways, egg money would seem to be an outdated concept. Like so many women, I no longer live on a farm, don’t raise chickens, had my own career and made a good salary of my own, so why would I still think in these terms?

I don’t know but I do! When I consider my motivation to keep going with my 5-year-old shop on Etsy, selling vintage linens and handmade chocolates, I always think in terms of egg money. Around here, we call it Etsy money.

When I began selling, it was not with the idea of making money. I had a huge collection of vintage linens, almost embarrassing in its scope, and I wanted to lighten that load while finding good homes for the pretty things.

Similarly, I had taken up candy making as a hobby and was enjoying trying all kinds of concoctions but I couldn’t justify doing it just for my husband and me.

Both endeavors also gave me focus and purpose in my new retirement, when I was trying to figure how to focus my energy and use my time with purpose.

So, I didn’t start out to make money but . . . along the way, I’ve made quite a lot of money, much more than I would ever have expected.

My husband and I have kept this money separate from the “real” money of the household, our savings and retirement incomes.

And I think we’ve treated it exactly as egg money has traditionally been used. For fun, for the frivolous, for pet projects.

As a couple, we’ve used Etsy money to fund our travel, to Boston, to Maine, to Ireland, to Scotland. It is sending us to an upcoming weaving workshop. When a friend’s cat needed thousands of dollars of emergency vet care, Etsy money was used to make the donation to her GoFundMe account.

We could’ve done all of these things with “real” money but we might have hesitated more and wondered if it was practical. We might’ve worried about unpredictable emergencies to come and decided to forego our desire to spend in favor of frugality.

Having the Etsy money is wonderfully liberating. It really feels like free money, even though I’ve done real work to earn it. It’s money I enjoy spending, instead of feeling a little guilty, a little profligate, a little reckless.

And I know I’m not alone. One friend teaches piano lessons and pulls out that cash when we go out to dinner. Another works as a substitute librarian and the money is designated for fabric purchases. Many of the women I know, it seems, although they had careers and have retirement incomes, also relish the guilt-free freedom provided by egg money.

Do you know this freedom? Was there a source of egg money in your foremother’s lives? Is there in yours?


* “Egg money” is different than “pin money.” Women earned egg money but pin money was an allowance given by the husband, intended for a women to use for personal needs.

 

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.

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

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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.

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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.

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Top–pretty, with a slit opening in the middle

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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.

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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!

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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!