Those vintage Mister and Missus towels, as well as the His and Hers towels, always seemed so prim and proper.
Until today . . .
Those vintage Mister and Missus towels, as well as the His and Hers towels, always seemed so prim and proper.
Until today . . .
As the daughter of a dairy farmer, one phrase has always had great meaning to me: “Make hay while the sun shines.”
We needed hay to feed the cows during winter. But wet hay, that which had been rained upon, would moulder in the haymow or, worse, could spontaneously combust, burst into flames–the last thing one wants in a barn.
So, we watched the weather and did as the proverb told us—grabbed the sunny days, put other chores aside, and brought in the hay.
Now I am equally aware of sunny days but I grab them for a different purpose.
Now my motto is, “Take pix when the sun shines.”
I’ve been selling vintage linens on Etsy for over 8 years and probably the single most important aspect of that is good photos. And good photos of vintage linens, or anything, really, depends on natural light.
When I initially get the linens I sell, they are often in pretty unappealing shape. I’ve written elsewhere about my whiz-bang techniques for getting out stains and brightening up the linens.
But the rest of the process is equally important.
When I get a sunny day, I approach my linen photos as glamour shots.
Do you remember glamour shots from the 1980s and 1990s? Was that only an American thing? Women would get a makeover, with big hair, lots of dramatic makeup, some glittering jewels or maybe a feather boa, and a professional photographer would employ soft lighting and maybe a bit of blur or air brushing to create the glamour.
I never had my glamour shot taken, but my linens get them regularly!
First, I iron; that’s the makeover part. I’m always surprised, when I go looking at the other listings on Etsy for vintage linens (or even more so on eBay) how many sellers don’t bother to iron! The ironing might be my favorite part and certainly it transforms the linens from bedraggled to beautiful.
Then I find a sunny window, where there’s good light that doesn’t shine directly on the table I’m using.
The combination of a sunny day and the light shining just right in a window is a tough one here, in the winter.
I usually take 15-20 photos of each set of napkins or tablecloth or hankie. I can use up to 10 of those photos in an Etsy listing.
After all these years of doing it, I have a sort of routine. First, the boring photo of the full item.
This one will be the last of the 10 photos customers see. If the item has any flaws—a tiny hole or a noticeable spot, I take photos of those, too.
I take extreme close-ups if the item has amazing detail, like hand embroidery or fancy lace.
I take photos of different angles, trying to catch the beauty of the fabric and colors.
Damask linen, which has a tone-on-tone design woven into the fabric, can be the most difficult to photograph well—it can just look like plain old white cloth.
Early on, I read on the internet that, to capture the beauty of damask linen, one needed “strong, raking light,” or light from a deep angle, which can reveal texture.
So, I stalk around the table, bending low, moving the item slowly around, until the pattern emerges, until the lush sheen of the linen and the flamboyant damask design of mums or roses or fleurs de lis show to advantage.
I love this process and can get WAY too caught up in it, spending 20 minutes trying to get the perfect photo of something I’ll be selling for eight bucks.
Like my farming forbears, I watch the forecast and look for sunny days. I set aside other obligations and plans for those days and use them for taking Etsy photos. In mid-January, we had two sunny days in a row and I took over 425 photos.
I see now that Monday will be sunny and you know what I’ll be doing . . .
making hay taking glamour shots of napkins!
There’s a new stitch-along in town.
Kathy, at Sewing, Etc., is doing tutorial on how to work hardanger.
Hardanger is a special needlework technique that combines embroidery and drawn thread work. You embroider and cut, embroider and cut, all while hyperventilating and hoping you don’t cut too much or too far.
I’ve seen a lot of hardanger in my years of selling vintage linens and am fascinated by the technique but I told Kathy I wasn’t going to participate in her stitch-along.
And then, you know, she posted the first instructions in a tutorial.
And I said, what the heck.
I whipped out some pretty blue linen I just happened to have on hand—not too fine cuz I’m new to this—and some white thread and I just took the plunge.
It went pretty well, don’t you think?
I made two placemats then got bored with the pattern so I made two more with a different pattern.
Then I thought, well, who wants a set of four placemats when six is within reach and I just dashed off two more in yet another different pattern.
I’m darn good at this, huh?
And then, since I had more fabric left and I was feeling frisky, I stitched up a cute little apron.
I am the queen of hardanger.
Wait . . . why are you looking at me like that? As if you doubt me? Don’t believe me?
I can see what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Really, Kerry??”
Not really! Ha.
Of course I didn’t make these pretty things. They were part of a stash of vintage linens I got recently. According to a handwritten tag attached to them, they are Danish.
But they are a beautiful example of the hardanger techniques. You can see how the white embroidery frames and secures the background cloth so that threads of that blue cloth can be cut and removed to create the classic look.
So, no. I’m not joining this stitch-along. I have plenty to keep me busy and feeling stressed without adding another deadline to my life. But I’ll follow along, watching the progress made by others, and offer my pretty vintage hardanger as inspiration.
“This is for you. I made it myself.”
You make something for a friend or for a family member.
You think of them, with every stitch and brush stroke and creative impulse.
You consider their likes and dislikes, their favorite colors, their lifestyle. You pour yourself into the making.
You want it to be perfect, to express your love, your affection, the extent to which you value their presence in your life.
You value their presence but . . . do they value your present?
A couple of times lately, I have come face to face with what I consider a bit of a betrayal. I’ve found, at garage sales, beautiful handmade gifts being sold for a pittance.
It’s given me pause and made me wonder about the extent to which handmade gifts can ever be truly appreciated by people who are not, themselves, hand makers.
One of the items I came across is this beautiful hand crocheted afghan, in wild and wonderful shades of green.
It was hanging on a clothesline at a yard sale and I idly asked if it was for sale. Yes, it was. How much? Two dollars. Two dollars?! I’ll take it.
I asked, Did you make it? The answer was, No, my best friend made it for me.
Your best friend spent hours making you this gift and you are selling it to a stranger for two dollars.
I knew not what to say. But what I thought was “pearls before swine.” What I thought was your friend deserves a better friend than you. And I became the crocheting friend’s friend, in absentia, and will give her afghan the good home it deserves.
And then I came across this fabulous hand knit sweater.
This sweater has it all. It is big and burly and well made. It has cool colors and a terrific retro design. It has a proud tag, added by the maker, “From the knitting needles of Eleanor E. Heffner.”
Oh, Eleanor. I am so sorry that your sweater ended up at a garage sale, being carelessly sold for three dollars. For whom did you knit it? I hope that first recipient cherished it, even though the sweater came to this sad end.
But, of course, it isn’t the end for the sweater. I’ll offer it for sale and the perfect owner will present themselves, someone who understands what Eleanor was communicating when she stitched this great old cardigan.
I know that, in theory, a gift is supposed to be given freely, with no strings attached. That the joy is supposedly in the giving and, once given, we can’t determine how the gift will be used and maybe we should try not to care.
But I can’t help but be sad for these makers whose work was underappreciated, for any one of us who makes a gift for someone who just doesn’t get it.
I think it may happen more than I knew. I mentioned the topic to my group of sewing ladies, we who meet weekly to stitch, and knit, and crochet, and quilt. To make things that often become gifts. And, I should note, these women are excellent makers, who take great care in their work—no sloppy, amateurish rags coming from this group!
And I heard their horror stories of quilts that took days, weeks, months to make and that were immediately re-purposed as dog beds. Of handmade gifts that were never acknowledged or were given away. Of faint praise and insincere thanks, or no thanks at all.
Is there an abyss, a huge disconnect between those who make and those who don’t? Am I trying to communicate in a language foreign to others, those who receive a handwoven kitchen towel and think, “Oh . . . a towel. Big deal.”
What do think? Are you happy with the simple act of giving, in a selfless, loving way, the things that you labor over? Or do you consider the recipient and, perhaps, reserve your handwrought work for those you know can appreciate it?
And how about those of you who aren’t makers? Are you thrilled or made uncomfortable by a handmade gift? Are those of us who craft expecting too much? Do you cringe or cheer when you hear the words, “This is for you. I made it myself”?
The stars are aligned, with a perfect confluence of energy.
In a serendipitous meshing of ley lines, the designated dates for ScrapHappy and for the Hand Quilt Along have come together on this very day.
My scrappy weaving is finished for now and my big hand-quilting project is on hold, awaiting cooler weather. The fusion of ScrappyHappy and HQAL provides just the right time to write again about my fusion quilt.
The fusion quilt, for newcomers (or readers who don’t remember every detail of a post from months ago!), is a quilt combining sewing and crochet. Small squares are made of pretty fabric chosen by the maker, a blanket stitch border is added, and crochet is hooked into that border, to make a lovely edging. Eventually, many, many of these squares are crocheted together, to make a throw.
I’ve seen gorgeous fusion quilts made of all new fabric. But that wouldn’t be scrappy and that wouldn’t be me.
My fusion squares are the special bits of vintage linens–the embroidered flower, the tatted hem, the lacey furbelow.
I can’t bring myself to cut into vintage linens that are in good condition but that hasn’t limited me in any way. I have dozens (hundreds?) of damaged linens. They’re too stained or holey to use or to sell but they have sections of perfection.
Those 5-inch sections are the heart of my project. The last time I wrote about this, I had completed 24 squares and now my total is 54.
I still have not done any work toward attaching the squares one to another; I still feel as I did last time, that “I like seeing the stacks and shuffling through the squares, like a deck of cards, an encyclopedia of needlework techniques done by a sisterhood of stitchers and lace-makers and crocheters.”
Their scraps are my happy!
You, too, can participate in one or both of these blog happenings!
The Hand Quilt Along is an opportunity for hand quilters and piecers to share and motivate one another. We post every three weeks, to show our progress and encourage one another. If you have a hand quilting project and would like to join our group contact Kathy at the link below.
ScrapHappy is open to anyone using up scraps of anything – no new materials. It can be a quilt block, pincushion, bag or hat, socks or a sculpture. Anything made of scraps is eligible. If your scrap collection is out of control and you’d like to turn them into something beautiful instead of leaving them to collect dust in the cupboard, why not join us on the 15th of each month? Email Kate at the address on her Contact Me page. We welcome new members. You don’t have to worry about making a long term commitment or even join in every month, just let either of us know a day or so in advance if you’re new and you’ll have something to show, so we can add your link. Regular contributors will receive an email reminder three days before the event.
Here are the links for everyone who joins ScrapHappy from time to time (they may not post every time, but their blogs are still worth looking at).
Kate, Gun, Titti, Heléne, Eva, Sue, Nanette, Lynn, Lynda,
Birthe, Turid, Susan, Cathy, Debbierose, Tracy, Jill, Claire, Jan, Karen,
Moira, Sandra, Linda, Chris, Nancy, Alys, Kerry, Claire, Jean, Johanna,
Joanne, Jon, Hayley and Dawn
It was the trip of her lifetime. She had scrimped and denied herself small pleasures at home so she could fly Braniff.
So she could stay at the Waldorf.
And at the Lake Placid Club.
And the Copley Plaza.
So she could ride the Pullman Railroad and let the porters bring her tea.
And as she left each place, each adventure, she knew she’d never be back. This was, for her, the last hurrah.
So, she slipped a little something in her case, just to keep as a small memento of this special time.
It wasn’t that she was a thief. No, never that! She had just looked forward to this for so long and spent so much money, surely a small souvenir would do no harm.
Do you know this woman? There must’ve been many like her, to judge by the vintage linens I’ve come across from hotels and airlines and resorts.
These linens all speak to an era of travel that is long gone by—elegance and attention to detail.
I’ve never brought home a pilfered souvenir from a trip, although I was almost seduced once by the heavy silverware at the Saturn Club in Buffalo, with the tiny stamp of the planet on the handle.
But I admit I’d’ve been sorely tempted by these lovely items of a bygone time.
*My blog post title was apparently the title of an episode of the old Perry Mason TV series!
It’s a project that fits me perfectly.
I mean, I love all the projects I engage in but this one . . .
This one, this making of small squares for a so-called fusion quilt, is a perfect match.
It combines so many ingredients that make me happy.
The pile of pretty squares grows. I have about 24 blocks finished and 8 more ready for crochet. Each block makes me smile. Some are subtle, some are simply gorgeous, some are a little odd.
I know that I should be crocheting them together as I go. I know when I am faced with doing that stage, for all of the blocks, at the end, I will regret not keeping up with it.
But I am not prepared to make decisions yet about that final product. I don’t know if I’ll end up with 40 blocks or 150. I find new bits of prettiness that could be included almost every day. I’ll probably keep making squares as long as the squares keep making me happy.
And I won’t know how they should be organized and put together until I have them all in front of me.
Right now, I like seeing the stacks and shuffling through the squares, like a deck of cards, an encyclopedia of needlework techniques done by a sisterhood of stitchers and lace-makers and crocheters.
My work and theirs . . . a perfect fit.
In your world, is there one activity, one project, one creation, that’s simply a perfect fit for you?
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.
First of all, it declares what it can do for its owner.
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.
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.
An older post that I dust off every couple of years to encourage you to dig out your grandma’s vintage table linens and USE them this holiday season!
This is the time of year that we all start thinking about setting a nice table for whatever holidays we celebrate. Thanksgiving, Hannukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa—you name it, it involves a meal and we want the meal to be special in both the foods served and in presentation.
It will surprise no one who has been following along, that I like to use vintage linens on the table at these big holidays. A few of the items I have belonged to one or another ancestor but, mostly, I’ve accumulated my linens second hand.
Over the years, I piled up dozens of damask linen napkins to use at parties and many tablecloths as well. Good-quality damask is like no other fabric—it is heavy and crisp and has a beautiful sheen. It looks good in any setting and doesn’t compete with the rest of your serving items.
Another benefit of these beautiful linens is that you can find superior quality at very good prices—just take a look at Etsy or eBay and you’ll find tablecloths in all sizes and napkins ranging from cocktail size through the huge size that some people call “lapkins.” The lapkins were often as big as 25 inches square and were used both to cover expensive clothing, in a time when laundry was a lot more difficult to do, and as a display of wealth and refinement.
One problem with buying vintage linens, though, is that most of them have been used and, if they were used for meals, they probably have some sort of spots or stains.
In my time as a purveyor of vintage linens, I’ve learned a lot about getting stains out; most of the techniques involve patience and a willingness to let the items soak, for long hours, in hot water and whatever concoction I’m using.
I’ve also learned, though, with my own linens, to leave the spots alone. I see it this way—the spots on the cloths came from a family having fun. They were sitting around a holiday table, maybe the only time all year they’d all be together. The men, at least in my family, were talking about the farm and the herd and the women were talking about how they shouldn’t have another piece of pie but maybe just a sliver . . .
The kids were at the “children’s table” in the kitchen and, mostly, glad to be there because the grown-ups sat around the big table FOREVER, talking and talking and drinking coffee and talking.
And in all of that family time, things got spilled on the tablecloth. Maybe it was when the gravy boat was going one direction and the cranberry sauce headed the other. Or someone was laughing and sloshed the coffee.
And the spills left the shadow of a spot. The proof, really, that a good time was had and people weren’t worried about the furnishings when there were stories to tell and relatives to get caught up with.
So I pretty much think of the faint spots on my table linens as the ghosts of good times past. Good times that left little marks on the linens but made a far greater impression on the people around the table.
It’s not easy raising children in an urban environment—so many dangers and pitfalls! But with smart parents, careful planning, and the kindness of friends and stranger alike, all can turn out well.
Such is the story told in the children’s book, Make Way for Ducklings. Written in 1941 by Robert McCloskey, the book won the Caldecott Medal for “most distinguished American picture book for children” in 1942.
The story is set in Boston, Massachusetts, and that town has embraced the story and the eight ducklings, named Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack, ever since the book was published.
In the book, Mama Mallard leads her ducklings across some of the busiest streets in the city and their friend, the policeman, stops traffic to allow them to make it safely to the park.
On our recent visit to Boston, we visited the venerable Museum of Fine Arts to see the “Matisse on the Studio” exhibit. While we were there, we found the ducklings honored, too.
A gallery featured McCloskey’s delightful drawings and paintings done for several of his books for children and the ducklings took center stage.
Then on a perfect morning walk in the Boston Public Garden, we visited the ducklings themselves, and their proud mama.
Yes, it was Easter, and, yes, those are Easter bonnets.
Do folks make way for ducklings where you live?