Tuesday, 19 February 2013
If you look at any mixed collection of old French clothes and linen, you will almost always find that a great many are decorated with initials - and I use the word seriously because the letters are usually beautifully neat, often in bright red cotton and range from simple cross stitch to quite elaborate affairs, sometimes decorated with scrolls, flowers and fruit. The patterns for these designs were printed in the women's magazines of the late 19c. every month, and the complete alphabet was often drawn life-size on the back page for housewives to copy. The linen and clothes for the dowry were hugely important to every girl; Mother would start it as soon as a little girl was born and would add to the collection until her marriage - the linen cupboard would be part of the marriage contract and much might depend on its size and value - a rich dowry might secure a good marriage to a man with goods and land and the girl could look forward to a life of comparative comfort and ease, whereas a poor dowry might lead her to a life of drudgery and physical hard work with incessant child-bearing and no domestic help with the washing, water carrying and other menial tasks. Very, very small cross stitch initials in the corners of towels, napkins and other fine linen cloths denote an early date in 19c. the florid ones belong to the end of the century - satin stitch in white on good linen are usually turn of the 19c. and plain inch-high red cross stitch were common on peasant rough linen and hemp sheets of about the same date. Those of the 20th c. are obviously Art Deco style, angular and in geometric frames, sometimes quite difficult to decifer - some are quite impossible; they were produced as 'false' initials and crest-like decorations by the big department stores for brides who could neither do the embroidery themselves or could not afford or wait for the fine work of the convent nuns who produced some of the best work. The very best initials were infilled with regular lines of tiny French knots, beyond the skill of most amateur needlewomen, and the flowers and ornamental patterns are smooth and perfect in a variety of stitches, with hidden knots and thread endings.