For me, a special feeling comes from picking up a project, begun with good intentions by a woman who now can never finish her own work, and seeing it through to completion. I always imagine that long-gone woman smiling, to know that her effort was not wasted and that her work lives on.
If you love to embroider or quilt AND you love vintage AND you love the sense of a connection across time and place and experience, you can find almost limitless opportunities to work on vintage linens that need attention from you to be completed. It’s the best of all worlds—you can add your touch to the work, feel great about it completing a project that never would’ve gotten done without you, and be further rewarded by a vintage design done with quality vintage fabric!
Just as so many of us buy patterns and fabric with big plans but end up, instead, with UFOs (un-finished-objects), our foremothers did, too. Etsy and eBay are crammed with these projects, either never started or only partially done, and all are just waiting for a pair of loving hands to complete them.
If this all sounds appealing, you have lots of options to choose among, including the three I’ll cover here.
Vintage embroidery, waiting to be finished
I did a quick search on Etsy just now that yielded over 100 vintage items, ready to be stitched and turned into something lovely. You could find many more on eBay. The projects range from pillowcases to napkins to aprons to towels and the fabrics range from Irish linen to cotton and easy-care-options. Some of these projects are completely unfinished and some are nearly complete. You can even find sets that include the original thread.
This is an example that I found recently and will list on Etsy if I ever get around to it.
The embroidery here is finished and accents the colored cotton. The pieces are designed to be assembled as potholders and I think the girl’s face and bonnet piece is meant to be a caddy for the round potholders. The long piece with the embroidered word “holders” may be meant to be folded in half and stitched to the girl, as a handle that could be put over a drawer pull.
A couple of other examples:
Iron-on transfers were very popular in days gone by and a favorite technique for women to spiff up plain towels or other household items. These pieces of tissue paper had a design that could be transferred to fabric with a hot iron and each woman could choose her own design and colors for embroidering. Vogart was a huge purveyor of these designs and there are literally hundreds of sets of Vogart designs available on Etsy and eBay at any given moment.
If you are lucky enough to have some vintage towels or pillowcases that belonged to your grandmother or mother, you can replicate the work they may have planned to do by using these transfers and doing the embroidery. And, if you are NOT lucky enough to have plain linens waiting for your loving hands, of course you can purchase those in lots of places, from garage sales to antique stores.
Pin-Up Girls? You bet.
And how cute are these chefs?
You can even get transfers to create quilt blocks that can then be turned into a full-size quilt, just like one your grandma might’ve made.
Vintage quilt tops
And speaking of quilts, it nearly kills me to find a beautiful quilt top, pieced or appliquéd by hand, that was never completed and used. All that work! All that love! All that unfinished business . . .
I understand how this happens. Most people view the creative aspect of quilting to be making the top—piecing the precious scraps or appliquéing the thrilling colors. It’s a lot more fun to make the tops than to do the necessary, but long and nit-picking, work of the actually quilting together of top, batting, and backing. So many more quilt tops were made than ever got turned into a finished product. But, still, an unquilted top never achieves the essence of “quiltness”—keeping a person warm while brightening a room. It’s like a caterpillar that never gets the chance to be a butterfly! You can change that!
I was lucky enough to learn to quilt by hand on an unfinished top made by the venerable Grandma Van. She finished many quilts but wasn’t able to get this one done. I was learning to piece my first quilt top and was a long way from being done but wanted to try my hand at quilting. My husband had brought this quilt top home when Grandma Van died and I knew what I needed to do.
It’s fun to look at this quilt now because my learning curve can be tracked from the middle of the quilt, where I started with ragged, long stitches, to the edges, where I was getting pretty good at regular, tiny stitches. It was almost like Grandma Van was there, guiding my hand! And I finished the quilt—I brought it from a pretty, but basically useless, piece of pieced fabric to the finished treasure Grandma Van meant it to be.
If this sounds appealing but don’t have a Grandma Van in your past, there are thousands, and that is not an exaggeration, of quilt tops available on Etsy and eBay. Quilts in every style and pattern and color combination you could want, from the sophisticated to the folky:
All kinds of unfinished projects would benefit from your loving hands. The next time your fingers are itching for a new challenge, instead of starting from scratch with a new design and new materials, consider helping a “friend” finish her project. Trust me, she’ll want you to keep it when it’s done.
These projects need you. You complete them. And along the way, you may just find that they complete you.