Ghosts of Holidays Past

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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.

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What’s Your Style?

I wrote recently about stitching being like handwriting, so distinctive and impossible to copy. As I thought about this more, I thought about the most distinctive aspect of our handwriting—our signatures.

The idea is that our signatures are unique and, according to some people, reflections of our characters, who we are. But does that just apply to our handwriting?

I thought about some of the world’s best-known artists and how recognizable their styles are. I think I could recognize a Vermeer or a Van Gogh anywhere.

And I thought about the bloggers I read regularly—you folks. Honestly, I believe I could pick out who wrote what even if your names weren’t on your posts! Your styles are so distinctive!

What about the rest of the things you make? Your gardening? Your sewing? Your quilting? Even your cooking?

I bought a mixed lot of linens on eBay recently and got three items, among many others, I would swear are by the same hand—they have what, to me, is clearly a signature style.

The three pieces are a table runner, a storage pouch for a dressing table, and a “splasher,” a cloth designed to be hung over the bar on a washstand to keep water from splashing on the wall.

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A splasher would hang over a bar on a washstand, to protect the plaster walls.

Here’s what I think they tell me about the maker:

  • She loved color—bright, saturated colors. She didn’t adhere to a bunch of set rules about what colors “go together” but, rather, used what pleased her. Maybe she wasn’t one to follow fashion but had a strong sense of personal style.
  • She saw every blank piece of fabric as a canvas. She was looking for places to apply her skill and prettify her home. She actively liked embroidery, rather than doing it as a chore.
  • She was practical and wanted to make useful items. These three items all have a job of work to do, beyond being pretty. Even the table runner may have been designed for a specific table—the one in the sewing room. Look at those snazzy scissors added to each corner!

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  • She was patient and skilled and confident, and maybe a little vain about her ability. All three items have hems finished with buttonhole stitch, a time-consuming and fussy stitch. But she did it to perfection!

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  • She might’ve been rural or a little old-fashioned. The use of splasher cloths was really a late-nineteenth or early-20th century thing, when people had washstands and pitchers and bowls in bedrooms, rather than indoor plumbing. My guess is that these pieces were made later than that, probably 1930s or ‘40s.

I feel like I could recognize this woman’s work now if I came across a piece in a different setting. I feel like I know her a little and like her style!

I admit what I’m doing here is little more than a parlor game, speculating without ever being able to know whether I’m right or wrong.

But it also leads me to look at my own work over the years and wonder whether someone could say, “These things, these, were made by the same person.”

It’s harder to do with one’s own work, partly because I’m not just using the handwork itself but bringing in things I know to be true about myself.

I think my weaving so far shows that I am practical and value making things that have a function, the job of work to do. Of all I’ve made, probably 75% of it is dishtowels.

I like color, or think I should, but I am not confident. My weaving has a lot of neutral expanses with bands of color thrown in. Or I use a neutral and one color. It’s safe.

I like traditional style and am not adventurous. I choose straightforward, fairly easy patterns to weave and do variations of them rather than trying new things. I also use traditional natural fibers—no sparkly novelty yarn for me!

My quilting tells a similar story in some ways. Because I want what I make to be useful, I have, with one exception, only ever made bed-sized quilts.

I like traditional and tend to use the old-fashioned patchwork patterns that my grandmothers might’ve chosen.

I have issues with color. I am not confident choosing patterned fabrics and don’t really like them. I tend to make quilts with a few, limited, solid colors. It’s safe.

One thing that would connect a few of my recent quilts and would mark them as mine is the use of embroidered words. I don’t know if this makes my recent work more didactic and pointed or if it just means I like to take the time to ponder certain words. Or both . . .

In all my work, I see evidence of wanting it to be good quality but not necessarily perfect. I can see evidence that I subscribe to the notion that it’s good enough “if a man galloping by on a horse wouldn’t notice a mistake at 50 yards.”

I think I could take this further, to apply it to the writing I do and other things I make. Maybe even what I bake? Or the gardening I do? Actually, I suspect I could apply it to the clothes I wear and the way I decorate my house!

But I’m interested in your thoughts on the subject. Can you think of someone’s work that is instantly recognizable to you? What are the elements that give it away?

What about applying the idea to your own work? Are there elements that cut across the work you do? What would your work tell us about you?

Do you have a signature style?

A Weekend Steeped in Vintage

I had the kind of delightful weekend available only to the lover, and purveyor, of vintage linens.

Oh, it was a good weekend anyway—the temperatures in upstate New York reached a very unusual 60 degrees, my beloved Penn State Nittany Lions won at football, hand quilting and chocolate were on the agenda.

But the best part of the weekend involved finding a plastic bin full of wonderful linens I didn’t know I had.

How is that possible?

It’s embarrassing to admit but I have been known to hoard such things. I buy linens at garage sales, flea markets, thrift shops, and on eBay. I buy them when I find them and often don’t deal with them right away. I may have as many as 10 large plastic bins stored, waiting . . .

I thought I sort of knew what was in those bins and it did not fill my heart with gladness.

Recently my dealing with old linens hasn’t been much fun. I have a lot of plain white damask table linens—elegant and of high quality but, frankly, they all look alike unless you are a real aficionado.

I have a LOT of tablecloths. Tablecloths are time consuming and a pain to iron and I can only deal with them on days when I can move them straight from the ironing board to the big table and take photos right away.

And, lately, I seem to have had a lot of items that have damage, some of it small but some of it serious. The serious damage means giving up on the piece altogether but the small damage creates the conundrum—do I try to sell it anyway? I have to take photos of the flaws and list it “as is.” Is it worth it? Will it bring the overall look of my shop down if I include such things?

And I admit, I have a tendency to “cherry pick” when I go looking for linens to smarten up. I open bins, rummage around, pull out the unusual, the striking, and leave the mediocre or common. This means I have a lot of mediocre and common waiting around . . .

So, I was thrilled when I opened a bin, thinking it would be more of the same, and instead found a treasure chest of lovely items, vintage but in unused condition—towels with bright printed designs, napkins with perfect embroidery, all manner of unusual and striking beauties.

All the stars aligned.

The sky was bright so I could take photos in natural light.

The days were warm so I could work on our glassed-in porch where that natural light is abundant and the big table awaits.

I could iron tablecloths because I could move them to that awaiting table on that porch where the day was warm and the natural light was abundant.

And I could enjoy all the variety and quality that are the best aspects of dealing with vintage linens.

Over two days, I ironed and took about 300 photos of items ranging from large tablecloths blooming with printed red roses to small tea cloths delicately embroidered.

From sassy chickens to sweet pansies.

From understated elegance to napkins of every stripe.

Of course, I still have work to do. The photos must be edited and listings written before these pretty things are available on Etsy. But the linens gave me something I needed this weekend.

I started with a pile of chaos and ended with crisp, sweet-smelling, beautiful order.

Lately, it seems, little things mean a lot . . .

What made your weekend delightful?

For All It Represents

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I love this dresser scarf. Or is it a table runner? Or a doily?

It doesn’t matter what we call it, I love it all the same.

Do I love it because it’s pretty? Not really. I can see why some people would find it lovely but it is not my aesthetic at all. It’s a little too fussy, a little too pretty and flowery and girly, for my taste.

Do I love it because it’s rare and seldom seen? Not at all. This sort of hand embroidered fabric, meant to decorate a dresser top or sideboard, is pretty much, literally, a dime a dozen. In the world of vintage linens, the only items more plentiful are crocheted doilies.

Do I love it because it’s practical? No. It comes from an era where women seem to have felt compelled to cover blank surfaces with “décor.” Antimacassars, doilies, runners, piano scarves—the philosophy seemed to be “let no piece of furniture go naked.” Some of these items had an ostensible purpose—antimacassers on the backs of upholstered furniture, for instance, were designed to keep a popular male hair product—macasser—off the fabric. But, really, most of these items were just meant to look pretty.

I have lots of reasons not to love this runner and yet I do love it.

I love it for what it represents.

  • A woman seeking to beautify her space. Whether this was made by a Yankee, to hold dark winter at bay, or an Okie, facing dust storms or a lonely road west, this woman wrought her own scene of beauty.
  • A woman with enough leisure to time to be able to think about beauty. Whoever did this piece had done enough of the daily chores, the must-dos, to feel justified in taking her leisure on a want-to-do. I’m happy she found that time.
  • A woman who found a way to “be productive” while sitting quietly and beautifying her world. I can relate to this and I know some of you can, too. If you are a person of action and you like to point at what you’ve accomplished, you relish a job of work that can be done while sitting in the shade and allowing your mind to wander.
  • A woman who took pride in something made by her own hands that would So much of women’s daily work was work that was undone—beds made that were unmade each night, clothes washed and dirtied again, meals made and eaten and made again. To embroider something or stitch a quilt was to create a lasting object, something that might, even, outlive the maker.
  • A woman, perhaps denied other ways of asserting her individuality, finding a voice in her handwork. She chose the pattern, the colors, the embellishment. It was unique and it was hers.

This little dresser scarf packs a lot of meaning for me.

I also love it because I saved it.

Those of us who have pets will probably admit that the ones you saved from a grim fate always seem extra special. The stray one, skittish and fearful, the abandoned one, in pain and alone, those pets have our hearts in particular ways.

This runner came in a box of linens found, as usual, under a table and ignored, at a garage sale. The box actually held many pretty and quite exceptional items but, there, at the bottom, was this country cousin of a runner. And it was stained and filthy. It was a stray, unlikely to be noticed or to find a forever home.

I soaked it for hours in three different washes. I progressed from regular washing through my big guns, the Biz and Cascade combo. It was still stained. I did the Biz and Cascade again and added boiling water to my already very hot washing machine. Finally, the stains faded and disappeared. I ironed it carefully and spiffed it up for its glamour shots.

And now the runner is beautiful.

Was it worth the time and energy? It was not, at least not because it was exceptionally lovely or rare or useful.

But, yes, of course, it was worth it! It was worth it because of all it represents, because of the woman who crafted it and all the women like her, and like us, who make our marks by making a mark with thread or yarn or fabric or paint, or any of a multitude of other media.

I won’t keep this little runner—a person can’t adopt every stray and be fair to them all. I’ll show it to friends and see if there is a worthy home among them. At some point if need be, I’ll list it on Etsy in order to match it up with a good home.

One way or another, I’ll find it a place where it’s appreciated for what it is and for all it represents.

Redwork–Mine, Old and New

I fell in love last year.

I was at my quilt guild’s show. Among the antique quilts being shown was a quilt made up of many small panels with simple scenes, done in red embroidery.

Then I noticed two similar quilts, modern ones made by fellow guild members. Redwork quilts, all of a sudden, seemed to be everywhere!

As I looked at these quilts, and coveted the old one, something niggled at my memory . . .

I’ve mentioned that I go to garage sales, estate sales, flea markets and, like everyone who spends enough time at such places, I’ve found treasures.

In 2012, I bought a pile of old linens and fabrics at an outdoor sale. I was busy and distracted at the time but vaguely aware that, in the pile, I had picked up a redwork quilt for a dollar.

I remember seeing that it was in rough condition but figured I could cut it up and sell some of the blocks. It got put away, with stacks of other old linens, and forgotten.

But now my interest was piqued about redwork quilts, so I went searching for the quilt I’d bought.

I found that old quilt and looked at it carefully for the first time.

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Just one section–it’s so faded I couldn’t get a good photo of the whole thing!

It’s faded, it’s ripped and patched, it’s stained. In one block, the design has disintegrated entirely.

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It was finished in April of 1889.

IMG_2753And, to my 21st-century eyes, it is peculiar and quirky and wonderful.

If you went looking for redwork quilt designs today, you’d find countless patterns that look like they were designed by Disney.

My quilt looks much more like Grimm Brothers had a hand in it. The difference between the aesthetics of the late 1800s and the early 2000s couldn’t be more striking. The old quilt is hard-edged, sort of harsh, not at all cute, really quite gritty.

I love it. And it’s clear that it’s been loved before, and loved nearly to death. It’s fragile and unstable.

So I have decided to remake it, to preserve a version of it for a couple centuries more.

I have been using an inexpensive child’s lightbox to trace the redwork panels on to paper, so I can keep them. Then I trace from the paper version on to off-white cotton fabric.

As I trace and then stitch, I enjoy the designs. There are flowers, lots and lots of flowers.

And there are animals; some are the ones the maker would know from the farm and some are exotic, known only from books or dreams.

My favorite blocks, though, are the ones with the people, and, especially, children. The children depicted are not the cute and pampered and romanticized children of modern America but are serious and, often, awkward-looking.

A girl jumps rope.

 

Two boys blow bubbles.

The children in my quilt are all focused and intent. Only one panel shows a child with any hint of a smile—a small person (not especially childlike), listening to a large person read. She stands at attention; no cuddles here.

Looking carefully at these old panels has given me a lot to think about. Do these older quilts reflect a fundamental difference in the perception of childhood, then and now? We can’t attribute the differences to design ability or sewing skills—this seems to be a difference in seeing the world.

It’s true that, by the turn of the 20th century, the shift to gentler and “cuter” designs had already begun. Even then, the Sunbonnet Sue girl was taking over and designs by illustrator Kate Greenaway seem to have dramatically changed, and romanticized, the image of childhood.

Some stitchers chose one depiction of the world and others chose another, even as we do now, I suppose.

So, I stitch and ponder. This is slow stitching, a project with no deadlines, only for me.

I am trying to copy the old blocks precisely but realize that, without wanting to or trying, I am smoothing rough edges, making things “prettier” than they were. I am influenced by a 21st-century way of seeing without wanting to be.

I am thinking that I will, eventually, add some personal and modern panels to my version of the quilt, to let it reflect both centuries in which it was made. I’m thinking about a panel depicting an iPhone (because I love mine so!), maybe one celebrating 100 years of women’s right to vote in the US, and, I hope, a panel celebrating the first woman president of the United States.

We’ll see. For right now, I have my plan and my focus. I have 40-some-odd blocks to do before I worry about moving back into the 21st century.

I’m curious about what you think of this old quilt. Do you like it or think it’s creepy? Find it interesting? Or is it ugly to your eyes? Do you prefer the cuter, softer images we see today? What kind of redwork can you imagine yourself doing?


As I’ve plunged, head first, into the rabbit hole of the Internet, I have found all kinds of redwork resources.

An amazing resource for old embroidery patterns, a catalog published in 1886 and including many of the designs in my quilt: New Sample Book of Our Artistic Perforated Parchment Stamping Patterns, from publisher J.F. Ingalls. Available as a free download.

Some of the Ingalls designs, reproduced on Flickr.

A blog featuring many great examples of redwork quilts and patterns.

So Lovely and Yet . . .

A beautiful damask bath towel, probably part of a hope chest.

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A gorgeous goose eye twill weave.

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Elegant hem stitching, done by hand.

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Satin stitch monogram; again, done by hand.

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But an unfortunate monogram.

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Was the young woman dismayed at the image her initials brought to mind?

Or did it make her laugh, because she knew she was no such thing?

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Egg Money

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My grandmother kept hens.

I sell on Etsy.

Two women, separated by years and changing times, earning “egg money.”

The concept of “egg money”* (or butter-and-egg money) derives from farm life, where the woman of the farm typically took care of the chickens. Any money she made from selling the eggs was hers, to use as she wished.

Egg money could be set aside for emergencies or could be used for something a woman wanted but didn’t need. A little luxury, a special treat for a child, a gift for one’s husband that wasn’t purchased with “his” money.

In a lot of ways, egg money would seem to be an outdated concept. Like so many women, I no longer live on a farm, don’t raise chickens, had my own career and made a good salary of my own, so why would I still think in these terms?

I don’t know but I do! When I consider my motivation to keep going with my 5-year-old shop on Etsy, selling vintage linens and handmade chocolates, I always think in terms of egg money. Around here, we call it Etsy money.

When I began selling, it was not with the idea of making money. I had a huge collection of vintage linens, almost embarrassing in its scope, and I wanted to lighten that load while finding good homes for the pretty things.

Similarly, I had taken up candy making as a hobby and was enjoying trying all kinds of concoctions but I couldn’t justify doing it just for my husband and me.

Both endeavors also gave me focus and purpose in my new retirement, when I was trying to figure how to focus my energy and use my time with purpose.

So, I didn’t start out to make money but . . . along the way, I’ve made quite a lot of money, much more than I would ever have expected.

My husband and I have kept this money separate from the “real” money of the household, our savings and retirement incomes.

And I think we’ve treated it exactly as egg money has traditionally been used. For fun, for the frivolous, for pet projects.

As a couple, we’ve used Etsy money to fund our travel, to Boston, to Maine, to Ireland, to Scotland. It is sending us to an upcoming weaving workshop. When a friend’s cat needed thousands of dollars of emergency vet care, Etsy money was used to make the donation to her GoFundMe account.

We could’ve done all of these things with “real” money but we might have hesitated more and wondered if it was practical. We might’ve worried about unpredictable emergencies to come and decided to forego our desire to spend in favor of frugality.

Having the Etsy money is wonderfully liberating. It really feels like free money, even though I’ve done real work to earn it. It’s money I enjoy spending, instead of feeling a little guilty, a little profligate, a little reckless.

And I know I’m not alone. One friend teaches piano lessons and pulls out that cash when we go out to dinner. Another works as a substitute librarian and the money is designated for fabric purchases. Many of the women I know, it seems, although they had careers and have retirement incomes, also relish the guilt-free freedom provided by egg money.

Do you know this freedom? Was there a source of egg money in your foremother’s lives? Is there in yours?


* “Egg money” is different than “pin money.” Women earned egg money but pin money was an allowance given by the husband, intended for a women to use for personal needs.