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

The One That Got Away: Love on a Dishtowel

A hardworking, conscientious girl. A boy with a massive crush. The sweet story of young love. How do you capture that in a few stitches?

It can be done—just look at these funny towels!

A great many vintage items pass through my hands, as I poke around garage sales and thrift shops and as others scavenge for me, as well.

I can’t keep everything, of course, so I sell a lot of what I find and keep only what I consider to be really special.

But sometimes I don’t realize a thing is special until it’s gone. Absence, it seems, really can make the heart grow fonder.

Such is the case with these adorable towels.

My mother picked these up for me, at a bargain price, from a white elephant sale—one look told her they were not to be left behind.

These three towels were probably originally part of a set of 6 or 7 “day of the week” towels, each depicting a housekeeping chore assigned to a different day of the week.

Towels like these were popular in the 1940 and ‘50s and many iron-on patterns were sold, so a person could make her own set according to her tastes.

Of all the many sets I’ve seen, this is one of my very favorites.

I love these towels for the craftsmanship and the details that are included—just look at the boy’s tiny spurs and bandana and the fringe on the girl’s split skirt!IMG_2652

But I love them even more for the narrative contained in them, the story between the boy and girl that we’re invited to participate in. It’s that age-old story of puppy love!

Some people might look at these towels and say they simply reinforce negative, outdated gender stereotypes—a boy bringing a girl his mending and ironing, while he dawdles around, getting in the way.

All I can see, though, is the sweetness. He fills his 10-gallon hat with mending and she throws her hand to her head and says, “Oh! The things I do for you!”IMG_2645

He takes a broom and offers to help with the cleaning, but it’s only a ruse to stand by and moon over the object of his affections. And she, playing hard to get, turns her back and pretends she doesn’t know the turmoil he’s experiencing.IMG_2654

She tries to iron and he shows off for her, trying to impress her with his skills with a lariat. You can almost hear her saying, “Get away, I have work to do!,” while she secretly loves every moment.IMG_2666

It’s all here—drama, emotion, whimsy, the human story. And it’s an ongoing story, developing over the days, as their clothes change in every setting.

I also can’t help but wonder, when I think of these towels, about the loving hands that did the careful stitching. Was the maker a young woman, stitching a romantic story and hoping it would materialize in her life? Was she a new wife, feathering her nest and honoring the thrill of a recent courtship? Or was the maker a care-worn housewife, reliving the sweet memories of what she felt when she first met her husband?

For this little cowgirl and cowboy, the moment never passes, the bloom never leaves the flower of first love.

I hope the new owner of these towels loves them and the story they tell!

Spooky Dudes

It’s Halloween and a girl’s thoughts turn to vintage linens . . .

IMG_7480What’s that? You can’t think anything less terrifying, or spooky, or nightmare-inducing than vintage linens?

Ah, but have you met these guys?

He looks harmless . . .

IMG_2640But, wait—what’s that in his hand?

IMG_2639-2A knife. A big knife. A big butcher knife.

Is he cute? Or just a little . . . creepy, in a sociopathic kind of way?

And he’s looking right at you.

And, speaking of creepy, who, and what, is this guy?

gnome - Version 2 A harmless, kitchen gnome? I think not. Look at those eyes. gnome - Version 3 Spooky, and he’s looking right at you.

And sitting in your cereal bowl.

Be careful when you open the cabinet . . .


They Sang As If They Knew Me

Morland_Maid-IroningI love linens. I love ironing. I love folk music.

And I love a man who loves a woman who irons.

Imagine, just imagine, how I would feel about the melding of all four of these loves! Can you imagine?!

Well, my friend with a Vintage Attitude could imagine, and she rocked my world by introducing me to this song:


(YouTube video)

‘Twas on a Monday morning
When I beheld my darling,
She looked so neat and charming
In ev’ry high degree
She looked so neat and nimble-o
A-washing of her linen-o
Dashing away with the smoothing iron
Dashing away with the smoothing iron
Dashing away with the smoothing iron
She stole my heart away.

‘Twas on a Tuesday morning
When I beheld my darling,
She looked so neat and charming
In ev’ry high degree
She looked so neat and nimble-o
A-hanging out her linen-o
Dashing away with the smoothing iron
Dashing away with the smoothing iron
Dashing away with the smoothing iron
She stole my heart away.

‘Twas on a Wednesday morning
A-starching of her linen-o
Dashing away ……….

‘Twas on a Thursday morning
Ironing of her linen-o
Dashing away ……….

‘Twas on a Friday morning
A-folding of her linen-o
Dashing away ……….

‘Twas on a Saturday morning
Airing of her linen-o
Dashing away ……….

‘Twas on a Sunday morning
A-wearing of her linen-o
Dashing away ……….

Oh. My. Goodness. I finally have a theme song.

The lovely lassie spends every day of the week working on her linens—I can relate!

But who would write a song about ironing linens??

Ah, the British, of course. The song seems to have been first published by the musicologist Cecil Sharp (1859-1924) and appears to originate from Somerset.

Those Somerset gals knew their linens!

I love that the song has a long history but, more than that, it’s a song about being adored for taking good care of linens. You don’t find a lot of folksongs honoring the hard work women did!

And work hard this woman did, to keep the linens clean.

She washes them. She hangs them to dry. She starches them. She irons them. She folds them. She airs them. And she even wears some of them, on Sunday, when she rests from the other tasks and steps out on the town!

Maybe I should change the last two verses of the song, to reflect the other steps I take—that’s the very essence of the oral/folk tradition, right?

My last verses will go like this:

‘Twas on a Saturday morning
Taking pictures of her linen-o
Dashing away ……….

‘Twas on a Sunday morning
A-selling of her linen-o
Dashing away with the smoothing iron
She stole my heart away!

Now if I can just get my husband to learn to play this song on his guitar. And to agree to gaze adoringly at me while he sings it . . .


How about you? Do you have a theme song that sums up large chunks of your life?

If It’s Thursday, It Must Be Market Day

coffee potDo you do your household chores on a schedule, taking care of one big job on a specific day every week? Oh, to be so organized!

It may not work for me, but, traditionally, American homemakers did seem to have set-aside days for the major chores of their week. Of course, meals had to be cooked and dishes done and beds made every day, but some chores could be handled less often.

According to American author, Laura Ingalls Wilder, the chores in her day were set on this schedule. Ingalls Wilder chronicled her family’s pioneer life in a series of books, the most famous of which was Little House on the Prairie. In Little House in the Big Woods, she wrote:

Wash on Monday,
Iron on Tuesday,
Mend on Wednesday,
Churn on Thursday,
Clean on Friday,
Bake on Saturday,
Rest on Sunday.

The more pervasive list, which substitutes “market day” for the very rural “churning day” is this one:

  • Monday – Washing
  • Tuesday – Ironing
  • Wednesday – Mending
  • Thursday – Marketing
  • Friday – Baking
  • Saturday – Cleaning
  • Sunday – Day of Rest

Out of this “day of the week” schedule grew another tradition—the making of “day of the week” (DOTW) towels.

These towel sets were usually embroidered by “loving hands at home”—one towel for each day, one towel for each chore. Sometimes the sets include seven towels, with one designated for Sunday as a day of rest or church, while other sets include only six towels, presumably because, if Sunday was really a day of rest, a towel would not be needed.sunday

As a lover of vintage linens, I can tell you that there were dozens, if not hundreds, of DOTW designs, sold as iron-on transfers, that women could choose among to make their set of towels.

The towels were often created from recycled feedsacks, the cotton of which was highly absorbent and lint free. And you thought “upcycling” was a 21st century phenomenon!

Many of the DOTW patterns were very cutesy. Puppies, kittens, snails, piggies, and duckies abound on the towels.

puppiesThe ubiquitous Sunbonnet Sue makes many, many appearances (after all, that’s what ubiquitous means!)

sunbonnetMany patterns that would now be considered in poor taste were available, too. A recent search on eBay produced towel sets of stereotypical African-American women, Native Americans, and Mexicans with sombreros, all doing their chores.

If you like vintage DOTW towels, they are readily available on eBay and Etsy. You can even buy unused iron-on transfers and make your own. Single day towels of puppies and kittens are inexpensive, full sets of more unusual design are more expensive.

Some of the favorites I’ve run across in my years of collecting are these:

cowgirl mending cowgirl dustingI love these cowgirl towels because of the incredible detail in the embroidery and the fact that the scenes include the flirtatious cowboy as well.

girl cleaning girl restingThese towels have a sweet little miss who is much more authentic than that pesky Sunbonnet Sue. And she has a fashion sense!

printed bakingI love the bold graphics on this printed set. The scenes are not so “old-timey” and cutesy but there is a cat in every one!


And these are my favorites, a set I’m sorry I sold. They’re done with wonderful, detailed appliqué and embroidery, they have a more modern vibe, and they include two chores I love—gardening and serving cocktails!

Now, let’s hear from you! Do you set aside days for your chores or are you just glad to fit them in whenever you can? Did your older relatives have a schedule? Is this an American thing or did your culture have similar traditions?

And, most important, will you be making your own set of towels now? I’d love to make a modern set. Monday is Blog Day, Tuesday is Listing on Etsy Day, Wednesday is Going Out to Lunch and Having a Beer Day . . .

Little Bitty Pretty Ones: Vintage Risque Towels

These vintage towels are not only pretty, they’re a little sexy!

Often labeled as “risqué” towels, these fun vintage linens were popular in the 1940s and were placed in guest bathrooms.

When I saw these first I thought they were made by those loving hands at home and just reveled in the image of proper 1940s housewives having a little fun by making these and feeling a little scandalous.

I have since seen many of the towels, and cocktail napkins with similar designs, with original labels and price tags and know that, while they were made completely by hand, they were made by experts, probably as part of the Madeira linen tradition, which was begun on the Portuguese island of Madeira in the 1860s. Madeira linens are known for exquisite quality of materials and handwork.

So, I had to re-vamp my mental image, from women making these and feeling scandalous to, instead, spending their egg money on them and feeling scandalous. Not much of a difference when it comes right down to it!

To me, in the 21st-century, when our ideas have changed about what defines titillating, these towels are a charming reminder that a sense of humor and a love for a little fun know no era. I display them in my guest bathroom, as my foremothers might have, and smile every time I see them!

A Tale of Two Towels

It was the best of towels, it was the worst of towels . . .

Have you ever seen a gorgeous handmade item and, because you couldn’t afford it, tried to make it yourself? Of course you have! Isn’t that what all the do-it-yourself boards on Pinterest encourage us to do?

This impulse isn’t new. People seem always to have wanted to possess beauty beyond their means to afford. Evidence of this came home to me in a poignant pairing of vintage linens recently.

One huge category of vintage linens is towels—kitchen towels, dish towels, tea towels, bath towels; mostly these towels were meant to be used and used hard.

But another whole category of towels exists in what is often called “show” or “display” towels. Display towels weren’t meant to be used—they were designed to show off. These towels were usually made of highest-quality linen, often in damask. Damask linen is often very fine linen with a subtle white-on-white (or any other single color) design that is created by weaving.

Understated and elegant damask combined with long, gorgeous (and impractical) fringe and with some sort of hand-worked embellishment combine to make a towel that should not be touched but simply displayed to communicate about refinement and good taste.

The hand craftsmanship in these expensive display towels was superior. The long fringe was hand braided and knotted to perfection. When other embellishment, such as drawn thread work was used, the threads seem to magically twist and turn, without any evidence of a human hand at work.

But what if you couldn’t afford that lush fabric? What if you didn’t have access to the beauty and craftsmanship of these stunning items but still understood the impulse to make a statement about your love of pretty things?

What if you were striving to move up, to transcend your roots, to show you understood beauty and refinement and taste, even if you couldn’t really afford to indulge in items that would demonstrate your understanding? What if you wanted a pretty show towel but couldn’t afford one?

You might try to make it yourself.

In my imagination, that’s what happened here.

homemade display towel-4This towel mimics the key elements of the expensive, high-quality towels.

It’s made of linen but, instead of very fine damask, this one is made of plain weave, possibly homespun, linen. It hasn’t been bleached pure white and slubs are apparent.

homemade display towel-2High-quality display towels have the damask tone-on-tone weave to add interest. Because this towel is not made of damask, the maker added color with red stitching. The stitching is the most apparent sign that this is handmade by an inexpert hand.

The maker used a lot of blanket stitch to finish edges and you can easily see how uneven the stitches are. The maker seems to have been counting threads to determine where to place stitches but, because the weave is uneven, the stitches look uneven. Also, the person who stitched this had trouble deciding what to do when she came to the end of a thread. Knots are all too noticeable.

homemade display towel-3High-quality towels have long, hand-braided fringe. This one does, too. The braiding is less meticulous and the fringe is shorter. (The fact that it looks meager is due to the fact that this towel was used and laundered. The fringe tangled and broke when it was combed out.)

Both towels incorporate the same drawn thread work to create open bands across the width of the towel. This is created by horizontal threads being cut and pulled from the weave. The vertical threads are then twisted and held by the introduction of a new horizontal thread.  The use of red thread in the homemade towel highlights the twisting white threads but also draws attention to unevenness in the design.

Both of these are handmade; one is obviously homemade.

Which one is better? Which is more treasured?

I have to admit, I admire the expensive fine towels—they draw me because they are simply so gorgeous. Lush, high-class, expensive, understated, yet elegant.

But I love the homemade towel; it speaks to me on a much more basic level. It reflects the hands of the maker in every stitch. The fancy towel was made by expert hands but the homemade towel was made by hands, loving hands, at home.

It’s homey, far from perfect, a little awkward, and out of place in a world that values beauty and money and perfection. But authentic.

It makes me a little sad to think that, of the two, the world will value the pretty and perfect towel.

My little handmade towel is like a homely, mixed breed puppy, likely to be overlooked as unlovely, especially when compared directly with a haughty, perfectly groomed purebred.

But I’ve always been a sucker for a stray. I’ll appreciate the beauty of the perfect towels, and then pass them on to others.

And I’ll keep the other towel, and display it, to serve as a tangible reminder of who I really am.

Just like the towel, I’m homey, far from perfect, a little awkward, and out of place in a world that values beauty and money and perfection. But authentic.

It was the best of towels . . .


Cocktail (Napkins), Anyone?

cock tailIf I were going to start a new collection of vintage linens (and I’m not!), it would be cocktail napkins.

They are so small, easy to store, and utterly, utterly perfect. They speak of attention to detail and elegance of a time gone by.

Because a cocktail party is a special, showy occasion, cocktail napkins tend to be special and showy as well. And just as cocktail parties can take different tones, so can the napkins. Some are arch and clever, some are a little naughty, some are self-consciously elegant.

All of the napkins are designed to be noticed and to communicate about the party-giver.

Many, many of the napkins reference the point of the party—drinking. Roosters are extremely popular on cocktail napkins, presumably because of the connection with the “cock’s tail.”


Elegant “cocks” on super-fine fabric, with handmade lace

red blue roosters

Jaunty printed “cocks”

Other cocktail napkins depict all aspects of drinking. You’ll find designs of glasses and liquor bottles.

Madeira linen glasses, with tiny red cherries

Hand embroidered on linen, with tiny red cherries

Madeira bar accessories!

Madeira bar accessories!

You’ll also find pink elephants

pink elephant

A pink elephant, hugging his cocktail

and fish that are drinking like fish!


Partying goldfish!

A whole subset of cocktail napkins is the risqué or naughty category. These turn up on eBay and Etsy pretty regularly and can be very expensive.

One napkin, two views

One napkin, two views

Four girls with padding

Four girls with padding

A woman in a bottle

A woman in a bottle

Another direction in cocktail napkins is that of sheer elegance and opulence. These napkins were used as a way to demonstrate taste and refinement.

pastel F mono naps-5

The tiny “F” monogram is created by hand-pulling threads

These napkins are the finest-quality and most perfect I’ve had my hands on. The linen is like gossamer and the monogram “F” has been added, not with embroidery, but by drawing and tying those tiny threads.

The napkins pictured in this post were all wrought by handl. This work is not “hands at home” but, rather, done by experts and highly prized.


Madeira hand applique on organdy

Because of their appeal and craftsmanship, cocktail napkins can sell for pretty crazy prices, especially the very detailed ones that are cheeky and whimsical. But you can also get lucky and find wonderful surprises at tag sales and thrift shops. These superb napkins with embroidered champagne glasses came from an estate sale in a small town in the middle of nowhere.

my champagne

Tiny stitches form the champagne glasses and bubbles!

And the F monogrammed napkins shown above were thrown into a mixed lot in an eBay auction.

So, keep your eyes open and see if you can add some fabulous cocktail napkins to your life! Or, if you just like looking and enjoying the glimpse into a bygone era, feast your eyes on this specialty shop, as well as this one!


Life Lessons from Linens: A Blog Series to Visit!


Susan Nowell and My Place to Yours

Hey, lovers of “hands at home,” all things vintage, and especially vintage linens! I want to direct you to a fun and interesting blog series that I think you’ll like.

Susan Nowell, the blogger behind My Place to Yours, has been doing a series this month called, “Life Lessons from Linens.” As she says, “This is a series of 31 posts dedicated to life lessons I’ve learned (or been reminded of) while working with vintage linens.” The lessons range from “We learn about Life when we look beyond ourselves” to “Look for the beauty in every season of life” to “’Imperfect’ is okay”.

The most recent post, “Figural Linens Told Me: People Matter,” is one of my favorites and, no, not just because Susan includes some of my cool linens in the post. When she writes, “When I see figural linens, I always wonder *who* the person was–both the person who designed and sewed the piece…and the person depicted in the design,” it makes me think of some of the posts I’ve written about the human touch, the people with the “loving hands at home.”

Check it out if you have the chance—the posts are very readable and include beautiful images of all kinds of vintage linens!