Loving Hands and Embroidered Monograms

mono napkinI’ve heard it said that the sweetest sound to a person’s ears is the sound of their own name. The popularity of monogramming certainly supports this! Humans have added their initials to coins, clothing, china, and all sorts of personal objects for thousands of years.

On that topic, I simply love vintage monogrammed linens. The idea of a woman carefully stitching her initials onto a tablecloth or set of napkins, to prepare for an upcoming wedding, really appeals to me. Women readers, remember when you were a teenager and had a crush on a boy? You probably doodled on your notebook and tried out your first name with his last–what would it sound like when you were married and took his name? I imagine our foremothers stitching their soon-to-be-wed initials into beautiful fabric with the same anticipation!

The monograms we see on vintage linens offer a staggering array of styles—understated elegance, over-the-top complexity, single initials, full names spelled out. The history of monogramming is long and combines art and practicality. Royalty used monogramming, of course, as a symbol of authority and power, but everyday folk used initials stitched on fabric, in part, to identify their belongings when laundry was a communal activity or, later, when laundry was sent out to be cleaned. The monograms made sure you got your own sheets and towels back!

The artistic aspect of this was probably inevitable because blank towels and napkins were a perfect canvas on which women could first practice their stitching and then, later, really strut their stuff. Some of the later 19th and early 20th century monogrammed linens are spectacular examples of craftsmanship! It’s kind of fun to think of embroidery as a competitive sport, with each young woman trying to out-do others in this stitched expression of taste and refinement.

The stitchers were helped along in their work by metal stencils—they weren’t creating those elaborate designs freehand! You can find these vintage stencils, made of copper and brass, in tons of different combinations of letters, on Etsy and eBay, so you can try your hand at monogramming, if you have that kind of skill and patience!

from linensbysabine.etsy.com

from linensbysabine.etsy.com

And, of course, you can purchase vintage monogrammed linens in a variety of places. The Internet has made searching out the right combination of letters a lot easier! In selling such linens, I’ve found that single-letter monograms sell very promptly, while it’s more difficult to find buyers for items with double or triple monograms.

But I have a solution. If all else fails, I keep them! For me, I simply don’t care if the initials are my initials or not. They are so lovely and so representative of the principle of “loving hands” making beautiful, hopeful items to show affection—who cares if the initials are someone else’s? And sometimes I make up ancestors to fit the initials—surely, someone in my murky past has the initials “MST” and “LV”!

In the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, The Pirates of Penzance, the Major-General lives on an estate he purchased, with a chapel and grave yard, and he has “adopted” those buried therein. As he says, “I don’t know whose ancestors they were, but I know whose ancestors they are now.” When I look at my vintage linens, with the alphabet soup of monograms, that’s exactly my attitude: I don’t know whose great-grandmother did that stitching but I’d be proud to call her my great-grandmother now!

For a more detailed, really interesting overview of monogramming, you should check out this article: http://belovedlinens.net/monograms/white-monograms-1-1.html

And if you’re interested in adding monogrammed linens to your collection, you can visit my Etsy shop at www.etsy.com/shop/KerryCan or type “vintage linens monogram” into the Etsy search bar and see hundreds of offerings from the sellers there!