The language of linens

This beautiful essay appeared in the latest issue of The Jewish Week, written by my friend   Sandee Brawarsky . It is worth reading by anyone who ever had a mother or cares about textiles. 

I think often about the language of linens that Sandee refers to.  This week I was asked by two different people to interpret family textiles.

My friend Pearl's mother lived to be more than 100. She was one of the women  mentioned in this beautiful piece about hospice care. Before she had become incapacitated by old age, Pearl's mother was a world traveler and a collector of stuff, including linens.

Pearl asked me if I would be willing to take some of the linens. She brought me a large carton of linens in her shopping cart one evening last week. There were stacks of hankies I will talk about the hankies in a different post. There were tons of doilies crocheted in the familiar pineapple crochet pattern that was so popular for most of the 20th century. It was probably the most popular doily pattern for decades. I don't quite get why but I think it is the doily equivalent of those arm-waving tap dancing moves that always elicit applause. It isn't necessarily that difficult, it just looks really impressive.
But the box also held over a dozen of these linen napkins.These napkins, despite their monochrome are a riot of different  embellishment methods. The napkins were bordered with a wide band of filet crochet, that is a netting is created out of thread and parts of the netting are then filled in with needle weaving.

The little corner medallion is made up of of eyelet embroidery with some flourishes of embroidered stems and flowers and then in the center of the eyelet composition  is a shield and flower where each petal of the flower is made using a different needle lace technique. There is a whole lot going on  in this napkin.

The napkins all have their original labels.

Pearl believes that the napkins were bought during her mother's trip to China over thirty years ago.  The workmanship is really impressive. When I look at the design I think about the stern words of advice about tastefulness in linens given by some of my home books from the 1920's. They go on and on about good taste and good design but are not all that good about describing the principles of what makes for good design.

I admire the workmanship in these napkins. the person who designed them threw the embroidery technique kitchen table at these napkins and never figured out when to stop. Three design elements less and these napkins would have been spectacular.

My mother probably would have chosen to not use these napkins, not quite knowing why. I will probably use them and admire their quirky nature as I use them .These napkins are the linen napkin equivalent of Edie from Ab-Fab.

More treasured from the box include this tablecloth
 made with lots more filet work made out of linen thread.
 I love the mix of the sturdy solid areas and the lacy open areas.

The filet work cloth is something of a mystery. I can't identify the fibers, and I will ask my wise fiber -geek pals to help me out.

It has a great sheen. It isn't cotton or linen. It may be a silk or a rayon thread.

The design too is unusual.
It is made up of roses and musical putti. Pearl asked me to date this piece and I haven't a clue. Do any of you have any ideas?

A week or so ago we had friends over for Shabbat dinner. They commented  that the flower basket motif on the table cloth (embroidered by my cousin's mother in law) looked remarkably like a bit of embroidery that my friend's grandmother had made.

This Shabbat my friend tucked the napkin her grandmother embroidered into her tallit bag and asked me to look at it after services.  The designs were nearly identical, curved handled baskets filled with multi-color stylized flowers.

My friend's napkin though was embroidered with fine thread and tine delicate stitching. The flowers were indicated by tiny pinwheels made up of buttonhole stitches all going into a center hole. When I mentioned that I was really impressed by the skill of the embroiderer's hand, my friend mentioned that her grandmother had for a while supported herself with her embroidery. I could see that her work was good enough to be the sort of thing one purchased at a fancy shop.  My friend recalled seeing her grandmother skillfully sew name tapes on to camp clothing. My friend, even as a little girl, was struck by how her grandmother's fine work was a little incongruous on name tags, like having a world class chef make peanut butter sandwiches for a pre-school play group.

We looked at another piece of embroidery also made by my friend's grandmother. My friends were happy that I could decode what the pieces were, the purpose for which they were made and how they were used.

Sandee in her essay about her mother's linens talks about the language of linens being a lost language. She is right, it is a language that most women understood. Linens were their wealth and a way of expressing who they were and their competence. I love how Sandee compares the crisp folds in her mother's linens to the folds of the flag awarded to her veteran father at his death. Both are bits of fabric that are symbols of much larger things.

I feel fortunate that my work has given me the skill to decode this language that is now mostly lost. 


Popular Posts