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.