Linens provide trip down memory lane

#493 in a series of true experiences in real estate
July 2005, Hills Newspapers

In the last couple of weeks, in between other things, I’ve been laundering batches of old linens. I’ve had the linens for years, in boxes in the basement, not even sure how they came to me – from my mom, maybe, or bought at second hand stores — saved them because I admire the fancy work on them – embroidery, applique, drawn threadwork, cutwork and lace.

Occasionally I’ve gone through my stash enjoying seeing again the pretty white embroidered luncheon cloths, pillowcases, dresser scarves and dishtowels. I have rarely used even a tablecloth (I have no table the right size), nor have I added, for awhile, any new pieces to my collection.

But for my birthday recently, friends gave me a batch of flour sack dishtowels, old ones but never used. Each towel is embroidered with a scene, a little Dutch girl – wooden shoes and cornered hat – at some task, and each is named with a day of the week. On Sunday, the little girl picks tulips; on Saturday, she washes floors. Friday is baking day, and so on.

The designs look so familiar to me, I’m pretty sure that when I was learning embroidery as a child, I used these same iron-on transfer on dishtowels, bought them from the dime store. Bought the big white towels there too.

Receiving the Dutch girl towels was one reason I got involved in my recent laundering venture. Another was an especially beautiful tablecloth the stager used on the round dining table of our latest listing. We sat at that table for an hour or more with our sellers one day and that gave me the chance to look closely at the cut work and the wide lace edging of the cloth.

“Tatting,” I told Anet, “I’m sure this lace work is called tatting, but that’s all I know about it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it made, don’t know what tools are used.” I wondered as I talked if the older people who used to do tatting taught their children, and if they did, is anyone still making lace by hand?

The lacy edge is about five inches wide and very intricately looped together, almost cobweb-like in its complexity. The lace was made in a strip, then sewn onto the cloth with stitches so small and delicate that I cannot imagine how slender the sewing needle must have been.

Curious to see what linens I’d saved and wanting to remember the handwork on them, I retrieved from the basement my two cardboard boxes marked Linens.

Most pieces had been put away freshly washed, or had never been used at all, so I was surprised and sorry to see that there were brown spots on almost all of the linens. I guess the spots were from being closed up for a long time.

Over the next few days, I soaked and washed and de-spotted quite a few of the old pieces, working on them in small batches. I started with Biz dissolved in cool water in a dishpan, soaked tablecloths and dishtowels. I pulled out individual pieces and rubbed the stains with a bar of Fels- Naptha soap, then, for good measure, rubbed on a little Quick & Brite gel.

When, the next morning, a few stains remained, I added Oxi Clean to new water and soaked some more. Still, there were a few lingering brown spots, so I laid the pieces out on a rack in the sun, and this worked great.

When everything was snowy white and still damp, I ironed each one until it was crisp and dry and smooth.

It’s been awhile since I’ve ironed anything damp. The steam smells so good. And flat pieces are easy and satisfying to work on, the eyelet and embroidery and appliques, beautiful.

My system worked wonderfully well on the first few batches. I’m not sure which of the products worked best because I used them all on everything. But on my last batch, something went wrong. Suddenly the pieces were brown-spotted all over – all of them – discolorations appeared where nothing had shown before.

I panicked and raced them to the washing machine. As all were white and all were made of cotton, I decided to try washing them with a little bit of bleach. I knew it was a risk. I hoped I wouldn’t be sorry.

I turned on the machine and waited through the first wash cycle, then stopped the machine and pulled out each piece still dripping to see what had happened.

It worked! All of the spots had disappeared, everything was white again. I ran the load through a rinse cycle, then laid them flat in a stack with a dry towel on top to keep them damp until the next day when I’d have time to iron them.

When I pressed the pillowcases and cloths, the sights and aroma were delicious.

Next, I am going to try to repair the lace on an old curtain panel I’d saved long ago. It looks as though the bottom edge of the curtain got caught in a door or window and was torn.

I have no idea what I’m doing, nor do I have a use right now for the curtain, but it’s so pretty, I’m going to give patching it a try.

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