Household Linens

I am one of those people who have a huge stash of rescued embroideries and linens. They have mostly been retrieved from the anonymous wasteland of the thrift store doily bin, often priced at 25 or 50 cents. I inherited a stack of such linen from my Great-Aunt Margie, and I treasure it, but it seems that many heirs and heiresses out there just don't know what to do with these decorative cloths, so they drop them off at the thrift store. The stores don't seem to want them either, and so the hand embroidered tea towels, pillow cases, serviettes and doilies are priced to clear.

As I have said before, it breaks my heart that all that dedicated stitching gets tossed aside. Somebody's aunt or grandmother spent hours with their needle, dreaming of finer things for their home, of a life just a little more elegant and beautiful. Then, so often, the results of this work are considered too good for everyday, or perhaps too fussy to wash, so they get stored in a drawer until their maker moves to a care home or dies, and then a stressed and/or grieving person must deal with all the things left behind.

But my own drawers are now overflowing with my well intentioned linen salvage operation. I feel a little like one of those ladies who has too many cats - loves them all, can't bear to part with any, can't afford the vet bills, quite possibly a little bit nuts. It's time to actually consider an act of transformation, reparation and resurrection.

This works both ways. The cloths get to emerge from the shadowy confines of the cedar chest, and I receive the therapeutic benefits of touching old cloth. My fingertips can trace the path of stitching made by needles of long ago, my heart can absorb the hope and good intentions imbued in the thread. The fabrics contain space to add my own story, a story that might belie the sunny, flower-filled landscape of embroidery. A story of the other side of domesticity.

The title "Airing the Dirty Linen" comes to me, but is probably too obvious and punny. We tend to look on these kind of household linens as evidence of a gentler, kinder bygone era. That may well be, but I have considered that perhaps the makers embroidered as talismans of protection, that sitting still and stitching quietly was one way to avoid simmering conflict, that pursuing a womanly art presented little threat to a husband's manhood, that fine sewing was one way to achieve recognition during a time when work outside the home was not an option. I have myself found a lot of comfort by immersing myself in a stitching project while my heart was breaking, or my voice not being heard.

Hmmmn, there's more there...

In any case, to begin I chose the least precious pieces from my collection, the ones with stains and discolouration, and laid them in a pile. The pillowcase hems became borders - that was easy. Fill in with tea towels. Overlay with delicate bits of lace. Add those flower appliques I have been hoarding. This will become the base. I haven't worked much with this spontaneous method, being such a control freak, but it feels right this time. This cloth will be about process, not product.


  1. I'm always on the hunt for these treasures, as you say, tossed aside by most folks. I've taken the re-purposing one step further and dye everthing before integrating it into my work.

  2. hey there spooter. it looks like a board game, story garden piece to me. I used to have strawberrys hortake sheets, and there were pictires of the little girls and boys and their animal friends traipsing through the garden along the path all through my ed. I would walk with my fingers and I pretendedthat each character asked me a question and my fingers would stop, and I would pretend to talk with the character and answer. You could make it a garden trip through Jungian analytical questions....but have the questions couched in the ways our grandmothers would have asked such delicate things as, " You know, don'tyou find yogurt helps for feminine needs?"

  3. Anonymous9:26 PM

    Another wonderfunk piece in the making. Looking forward to seeing it completed. Or maybe it never reaches completion. Maybe you just keep on attaching these little pieces of embroidery and it grows and it grows until it covers the earth( or at least your island).

    By the way, don't you think the idea of applying images to cloth with a needle and thread is not dissimilar to applying images to skin with a needle and ink? Have you ever thought that embroidery and tatoos might be related? Did our grandmothers wish they were apllying images to their own bodies, or their husbands/lovers, instead of cloth? I bet some did.

    Great work, as usual Heather. Jean-Pierre

  4. There was a show at the Textile Museum in Toronto several years ago where Robert Windrum showed his embroideries of very macho tattoos. There certainly is a connection between the touch of a needle on cloth and on skin. Interesting.


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