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.

“It’s All About Me” Monday: The Balsam Pillows

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Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.
–Vladimir Nabokov

When I was a child in upstate New York, I took naps on a sunny glassed-in porch at the farm. On my couch was a special pillow. It was small and floppy and not soft. In fact, it was lumpy and sort of scratchy but . . . it had the most amazing smell.

The smell was faint, just a hint of something special remained. If I squeezed the pillow, I could coax a stronger breath of it out but just for a moment. The fragrance was of all outdoors and mountains and pine trees. It spoke of my grandmother’s house, of the farm, of the region, that place of my birth.

The small pillow was filled with needles of balsam fir. Then, and still now, these small pillows can be found all over the northeast, and especially, it seems, in the Adirondack Mountains of New York and in Maine. They were, and are, sold as souvenirs of a particular kind of wilderness.

I’ve had a thing for these balsam pillows all my life. I wander around my house and can count at least 35 of them—some are vintage, with corny sayings, like “I pine for yew and balsam, too,” printed on the pillows. Some are newer, made of bright Pendleton wool, embroidered cotton, and even one of velveteen.

Of the pillows lying around, probably 10 or more are ones I’ve made over the years. I can buy balsam needles locally for $5.50 a pound. It’s fresh and aromatic and condenses forest-mountains-lakes-sun-breeze-summer into one sniff.

I have usually made my pillows using a quilter’s technique called Cathedral Windows. A solid-colored fabric is folded and sewn in a particular way, until small bits can be turned back to frame an inserted scrap of special fabric, which is featured like the glowing pieces of stained glass.

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A Cathedral Window quilt. Photo by Kristen

Over the years, my featured fabrics have been of Adirondack images—apples, acorns, and pine cones—but my most recent pillows are a little different.

Of all the vintage linens that go though my hands, some of my favorites are classic, hard-working, striped linen dishtowels. They look tailored and efficient and elegant in their perfect design for a job of work.

But some of the towels I handle are damaged by a big hole or dark stain. It pains me to throw such a towel away so I use scraps to decorate my balsam pillows. Some plain muslin fabric, a small square of dishtowel, a random old button—together they make a perfect envelope for that special fragrance.

These are very small pillows, less than 4 inches across. I can use them as sachets and tuck them almost anywhere so that, unexpectedly, I’ll walk through a room and get a hit of that astringent fragrance, evocative, not too sweet, full of memories.

When I smell balsam, it’s always summer and the sun is always shining onto fir needles. I’m a small girl again, taking a nap in a cozy, secure place in the country. When I smell it, I smell home.

But, enough about me! Let’s talk about you. How do you like my balsam pillows? If you craft and make things, is fragrance a part of the making? Is there a smell that transports you back to childhood?

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Afghan: A Blanket By Any Other Name . . .

For me, it doesn’t get much better than finding a treasure that is both handmade AND vintage. The idea that an item is a tangible expression of affection, made by someone who is no longer living, gives that item a special resonance. Of course, those makers DO still live on because they created something beautiful that is still cherished by the living.

I think it’s especially neat to find handmade afghans. An afghan is a crocheted or knitted throw or blanket, made by hand, often as a gift. Think about the symbolism of receiving such a gift, made by someone who loves you, and sort of wrapping yourself up in that love!

Not everyone appreciates these beautiful objects—I find a LOT of vintage knit and crocheted blankets at garage sales and estate sales. It seemed sort of sad to me at first, as if here were these items, made with love, full of love, but floating around without anyone to bestow that love upon.

But then I realized that I wasn’t the only one who appreciates the old-school charm of these throws—I’ve found “forever” homes for a great many of them.

These are some of the beautiful vintage afghans I’ve had the pleasure to know, all handmade, all special.

I have afghans made by my grandmothers and even made one myself, in my only real attempt at crocheting. Do you have any in your home?

Around the World, With Vintage Linens

As I iron my thoughts wander, all around the world. I think about how my linens have traveled, and I wonder where the next ones will go.

My linens been many more places than I have!

These napkins are on their way to Norway.5 dam dinner naps mums-2

These perfect, exquisite cocktail napkins just went to Abu Dhabi.white delicate cocktail naps-2

I got his flat-out gorgeous set from a woman whose grandfather was a linen importer. So the placemats and napkins made the trip to the U.S. from another country, I can’t guess where, but now they grace a table in Australia.

It never occurred to me, when I started selling vintage linens, that I’d be sending these lovely things around the world, to Japan, to New Zealand, to Italy, to South Korea. Not only are they valued in many lands, they are valued so much that people are willing to pay the often exorbitant shipping costs.

I ask myself why? Why would international buyers want these items?

Maybe it’s because some of the countries are young-ish, like Australia and New Zealand, and have less homegrown vintage than we do.

Maybe it’s because American culture and design, at least from certain periods, has a vibe that folks in other cultures value.

I can make some generalizations—Australians go for understated elegance. Usually all white, high-quality, and expensive linens that bespeak an old-world charm.

Many Asian buyers like the funkier look of American mid-century.

I have my ethnocentric moments, when I think, “Oh, but this belongs here. I don’t want it to go to another land, far from its home.” And then I remind myself that valued items have been traded across the world from time immemorial. If we could have a Silk Road, why not a Linens Road?

And I remind myself that the really important thing is that these pretty things be loved and valued and used, wherever they find a home.

This little, bitty, pretty one, a spoon keeper, is on its way to New Zealand. It will have a loving home where it will, once again, protect treasured spoons and be treasured itself.spoon keeper-5

Goodbye linens! Safe travels! Fare thee well.

The Linens Call Me, And I Must Go

I hear their little voices, calling from the spare room.

Some voices are clear and strong, the voices of the ones on the top of the pile. Some voices are muffled, barely audible—these are the voices of the ones buried deep down in the stack.

The vintage linens are calling me. And they have accusations to make.

They claim to have been forgotten. Neglected. Left to wrinkle.

Their beauty and craftsmanship is going unrecognized and unappreciated, they claim.

They say it’s all my fault.

I brought them here only to ignore them, to turn my focus to chocolates and weaving and blogs and things.

That’s what they’re saying, in their whiny voices. And, you know, they’re right!

I had cause to go into that spare room the other day, searching for napkins to meet a buyer’s request, and was . . . well, a little horrified, actually! I came face to face with gorgeous items I’d completely forgotten about! Many, many of them . . .

I have definitely been remiss. I have all kinds of excuses, of course—I’m busy with other things, it’s “candy season,” it’s too cold on the glassed-in porch to take the photos I need in order to make listings on Etsy.

But, as the linens told me, they deserve better. So, I’ve been making time for them lately and enjoying their company. When they’re not pouting, they are really quite delightful to be around!

From the Permanent Collection: The Holiday Linens

IMG_3050One of the best things about the holiday season, to me, is seeing how people choose to decorate their homes. I really believe that, when you show me how you decorate, you tell me who you are.*

Do you buy new ornaments every year and switch up your color theme? Do you have a white tinsel tree that channels the 1970s? Are your most-treasured ornaments those that your children made of pipe cleaners and marshmallows?

Christmas trees, and holiday decorations, in general, seem autobiographical to me, as if our personalities are imprinted in our choices. And, I expect, a lack of holiday frippery sends a message about our priorities, too.

It probably will come as no surprise that at home, here at Love Those Hands at Home, we tend toward the vintage, the handmade, the natural. I am in no way suggesting that our choices are the best or the prettiest or to be emulated—just that they are highly predictable, when you know the people who live here.

The handmade ornaments will have to wait for another year to have their story told—I had not world enough or time to fit them in this year, alongside the candy and other priorities.

But the red and white vintage linens have made their annual appearance, and they tell a large part of the story of who I am at the holidays.

I value traditional, old-school, quality. All the holiday linens in my permanent collection are red and white. It’s the classic color combination of the winter holidays for me, evoking peppermint sticks and holly berries against the snow. It hints at Santa, an ideal of generosity and giving we can embrace, even if we don’t share points of view about miracle births in mangers.

I love this long, long piece of fabric.

IMG_3059It is heavy and sturdy, of fine quality. It was probably originally sold as yard goods–the pattern repeats regularly and, if cut and hemmed, each piece would be the size of a dishtowel. In its length and understated elegance, it serves as a mantel cloth here every year.

IMG_4153I love this hand-embroidered runner, with dark red and pink pinecones.

IMG_3077It was made by hand, not by a family member of mine, but by someone’s mother or grandmother. The careful work seems symbolic of all handwork done to add color and vivacity to plain cloth.

IMG_3218And I love this exquisite show towel.

IMG_3069It is ostentatious and would’ve been purchased and displayed, never used to dry hands, to make a statement about the wealth and superior taste of the owner. It’s not those characteristics of the towel that appeal to me, though. It is, simply, the quality and beauty.

This towel is finest-quality linen, almost crispy, with a glorious sheen on the natural-colored fibers. The bands of red add interest and depth. The fringe is as showy and untangled as the day the towel was made. The intricate weaving shows wildlife, both in the red bands and, more subtly, in the tone-on-tone field of natural linen. Sheer vintage linen perfection.

IMG_3075These linens come out every year, as reliably as the Christmas stocking my husband stitched for me and the wreath on the lighthouse outside.

IMG_3130When they have been ironed and placed where they show to advantage, I feel my house reflects my taste and my values.

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Are there holiday decorations that communicate about your closely-held values?

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* This is to borrow liberally from Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who observed, “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are.” I believe that is true, too!

From the Permanent Collection: A Forest Fantasy Tablecloth

IMG_2232A lot of vintage linens cross my path. I’ve been looking and loving and buying them for 35 years and, while I’ve seen many that are stunning, my own collection is small. Our lifestyle is very casual so we have no need for formal or fancy linens. I tend to keep the plain and homespun, the quirky, the practical.

I only keep a couple of tablecloths around. To achieve a spot in my permanent collection a tablecloth needs to be good quality, have a design or look that fits the rustic camp aesthetic, and isn’t too fussy or cutesy or precious.

One special tablecloth meets all my standards!

It features a printed design in two understated colors of brown on a just-slightly-off-white background. The design is of a serene and happy fantasy forest with spotted deer, and the odd fox and bunny boy, frolicking amid the pines and birches. Small cozy cottages are tucked in, with smoke rising from the chimneys and the center of the cloth is strewn with falling leaves, dancing on a crisp, autumn breeze. Can you feel the breeze? And to top it all off, no motif is repeated—every border and every corner features different deer.

I find the graphics on this tablecloth endlessly appealing—so much has been accomplished, visually, with so little! The design is charming and nostalgic, without saccharine sweetness. And the simple, stylized elements are consistent with other influences that inform my aesthetic (doesn’t that sound grandiose!)—Arts and Crafts Movement, Art Deco, the artist Rockwell Kent. In fact, look how great the cloth looks with these plates I bought years ago!

IMG_2249 IMG_2246I first saw this cloth on eBay and fell for it immediately. As you may know, eBay has moved beyond the auction format and some items are now for sale at a set price. This tablecloth was one such item and the set price was high! At least it was by my standards. I’m used to finding linens at garage and estate sales so a tablecloth that was priced at over $100 produced instant sticker shock. No way, I thought.

And, yet, I kept going back to it. And looking at it again. And loving everything about it. My husband urged me to buy it. Sometimes I listen to him.

The next morning I decided this was one such time and logged on to make that pretty thing my own.

And it was gone. It had been bought by someone else and I was bereft!

I thought about it and pined for it. I stomped my feet and gnashed my teeth. I even pinned it on Pinterest, lamenting that I hadn’t bought it. If I couldn’t have it, I at least wanted to keep a picture of it.

And then, a couple of weeks later, I was on eBay and there it was! Apparently, it hadn’t been sold, but, rather, the listing had ended or something (much about eBay is a total mystery to me!)

The tablecloth was still available and still stunning and . . . it was priced at $30 less than it had been! Still expensive but . . .

I know a propitious sign when I see one! I hit the “buy it now” button and never looked back!

I have to admit, I’ve never put this tablecloth on an actual table, except to take the photos here. We have been known to spill, at our table, and the perfection of this tablecloth is daunting. But buying it did light a fire, to create a display space I’d been thinking about for awhile—vintage glass towel rods on the side of a pantry, which hold some of my favorite linens.

IMG_2237Autumn is the perfect time to pull this cloth off the shelf, touch up the ironing, and feast my eyes on my fantasy forest.

I smile every time I look at it. And is that isn’t a fine criterion for admission into the permanent condition, I don’t know what is!