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.

Made by Harriett

IMG_4551In one of my piles of vintage linens was this treasure—a tray cloth of fine white linen, embellished by hand with embroidery and fancywork. Very pretty, very delicate, probably made in the early part of the 20th century.

Lovely, but not so unusual, except . . .

IMG_4546It was made by Harriett.

Who was Harriett?

I so wish I could tell you she was my paternal great-grandmother or a maiden aunt who entered the convent after her heart was broken. But the truth is, I have no idea who Harriett was. I don’t know her. I’m embarrassed to say I don’t even remember where this cloth came from.

But I know there WAS a Harriett. She put her talent and skill into making something lasting, and knowing that this cloth was made by Harriett gives me a different sort of connection to this piece.

So many things I come across were made by hand—but whose hand? We can’t know. Those details are lost to time. Making was such an integral part of daily life, such a staple in what people did, that most things weren’t signed in any way. No note was attached to document the maker and connect her or him with that which was made.

And because we can’t put a name to the maker, we may fail to think about the person. We admire the tangible product in an abstract way but forget to think about the flesh and blood that created such beauty.

These were people so much like us, with the same urges to create, to brighten a room, to clothe a family, to leave something lovely in their wake.

With this piece of linen, we at least have a first name to remind us of a specific woman, Harriett. I can’t see her clearly; it’s as if she’s in one of those old tintypes photos that has become faded and cloudy. But she’s there. And she’s real.

Her name makes her real. I can imagine her looking forward to a quiet moment in her day, when the chores are done, to pick up her embroidery and sit by the window for the best light and put in a few tiny stitches. I can see the ghosts of her hands, her touch left in the work she did.

This tray cloth tells me that Harriett was a maker of a special order. Whatever else she could or couldn’t do, that woman could sew. The work on this cloth is done completely by hand—the embroidery, the cutwork, the hemstitching—but more on her work soon.

For now, let’s just think about Harriett.IMG_4545