Sunday, 29 March 2015

A square deal for pillows

teatime napkins used for pretty bed cushions

Elaborate damask weave with a frill
Pique and handmade red/white trim

I am aware that in the US 'pillows' are referred to as what we call cushions. Continental pillows are square, so English rectangular cases are not much use. French cases are usually made to take a 24" square filling and are buttoned one end, with small m.o.p. buttons but I have some that are 28" square, quite large.  The best have those linen-covered buttons, designed to go through a mangle or for pressing with a heavy iron.  It's worth looking at the details of a second-hand pillow case, however prettily embroidered and starched - hold it up to the light and you may find the weak lines where it has been folded and pressed many times and is wearing thin. Torn and damaged lace and initials are not worth restoring. Sometimes you can rescue a fine monogram from a corner and apply it to something else. Check any embroidery, as you may not want to rest your cheek on a well embroidered rose or highly elaborate initial in raised satin stitch, ( it could work like an  unwanted stencil!)and any hemstitching in drawn thread work can be risky if old and used, - if it is beginning to fray and some of the 'jours', the openwork slots, ditto the corners, are faulty, its life is quite limited. Linen is always the best, but quite difficult to find in first class condition and expensive, so cotton is sometimes the better buy for everyday use. Some of the old vintage pillowcases have the most exquisite and fine embroidery on them - initials, crests, trails of finely worked flowers and then openwork borders and lace trims - a sight to behold - but they are best used, as many Americans do - as pillow shams and not slept on.  It is a sad fact that the grease from peoples' heads  and hair does cause problems, and shortens the life of these exquisite creations.
I often make pretty little 'bed' cushions in fine materials: I have used blue bordered damask linen tea napkins with fringes for one lot, white vintage pique (a sort of embossed heavy white cotton), backed by fine white striped damask sheeting for another lot, parts of a torn Marcella white bedspread with tassels for some others and added red and white hand -made frilly cotton lace trimmings to others where Toile de Jouy has been used for the bed curtains. All have pure down fillings and have zips hidden under the trims for easy removal and washing. They make nice presents. You can get pure down out of good old (clean) eiderdowns, but do the filling in a dust bin in your garage or you will resemble a snow goose when you emerge from the job.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015


Sorting linen, tea towels and oven cloths.  Hotch-potch of tickings   

     Although my grandmother was running a large household most of her life and entertained her husband's business and banking friends on a big scale, she was extremely frugal and wasted nothing.   My mother inherited these habits but very much by necessity - a rambling unoccupied, un-modernised Welsh country house had to be run with the minimum of domestic help and yet everything had to be done in a very proper old fashioned way.  The attic floors had to be scrubbed  on your knees for the great Spring Clean, all paint washed, all furniture polished back and front and every drawer re-lined with clean paper; the leather books in the library polished,  the furniture cream itself was made in the pantry with a mix of castile soap, beeswax and parafin and bottled for a year's supply:  every brass fitting on the doors, windows and all light switches  were polished with Brasso (my job - "and don't you dare spill any as it marks the wallpaper and carpets for life" !
 The carpets were brushed with used tea leaves to freshen the colours and  remove the dust, all the glass lampshades taken down and washed carefully, blankets and bedcovers washed and treated with mothballs, windows cleaned in and out with chamois leathers.  While an awful lot of this care-taking might seem pointless today,  I think it did inspire me with a love of sorting everything into good  order and  piling things neatly in the drawers and on the shelves, all of which continues with my work in the textile business.  I remember quite vividly being taught when I was about 10 years old how to clean a pine kitchen scrubbing it with a mix of sand and Vim (scouring powder) and being told I was wasting too much Vim which was expensive, (6d. a big canister!) when sand was better and for free. See more housekeeping memories in BLOG titled UPSTAIRS AND DOWNSTAIRS and my 'economic' lifestyle!

Friday, 20 March 2015


This book, which is a compilation of photos by Edwin Smith and his wife, Olive Cook, is one of my favourites when I have a few minutes to spare and I dip into it, remembering some of my own finds which were similar to their big collection of treasures, great and small, rare and some as common as pebbles on the beach.  In fact they loved the seaside from Norfolk to Weymouth and there are lots of fishy things, shells and sailors'  tokens and many are shown in their cottage setting on mantlepieces and crowded shelves.   They elevated these charming objects to a 'collection' level when they were two-a-penny in junk shops and markets and many of them are now highly collectable for their charm and sometimes their rarity ..
The Circles of your Mind?
Whetting your appetite!
   I met Olive who lived near Dunmow in Essex when my Uncle Clough, aged 90, visited me for a week, while his wife Amabel was visiting a granddaughter in India who was under the influence of Hare Krishna.  Clough Williams-Ellis was a very memorable and lovable character and the architect of the Welsh Hotel Village Portmerion.  Olive  and Edwin had been great friends of his and we drank her very strong coffee with all the grounds in the bottom of the cup and he told me I should make coffee like that for his breakfast!  He also had a mission to visit Bishops Stortford College because they had removed 4 urns on the front and top of the first modern building to be listed (for Health and S. reasons) which made him very cross.  Luckily they were later found  in a nearby garden and restored to complete the facade and Clough felt that honour had also been restored.  He went on to Caius College Cambridge from my house, as guest of honour for a Dinner, although he had been rusticated there when he was a first year undergraduate, and that delighted him!

Tuesday, 17 March 2015


   Napery is an  old-fashioned word for table linen in all its forms.   This was an office, like others for laundry and other domestic duties, in large households, in medieval and later dates.  The folding and arrangement of table linen was a serious business and all kinds of creations to decorate the centre of the table were made for the guests' enjoyment.  Some were very elaborate in the form of birds and animals with extra parts and pieces added to make centrepieces for banquets and feasts.   The napkins, similarly,  were worked and shaped into elaborate designs and the tablecloths were often pleated in different ways to hang in folds from the edges of the table - if you look at some of the Tudor portraits you can see this, and some of the pictures of the Last Supper show fine pleating of the cloth all round the table.  We are all familiar with the tern 'linenfold panelling' and the origin is obvious.   In French households, the linen was often only washed in the Spring and later in the Autumn. - an army of  travelling launderers dealt with the washing, rinsing, and drying on the green grass, before ironing and folding it all away, sweet and clean.   The French Royal Court at Versailles actually sent all their laundry by coach to Holland where  they had so much pure clean water and clean grass banks (unlike the muddy rivers, full of dirt and waste products near most French cities,), and thought that their linen was the whitest in the land.   These arduous and lengthy  processes meant that the big and grand households had to have enormous stores of clean linen in their houses and there were huge wardrobes and cupboards in special rooms devoted to their collections of linen.  Some of the large farmhouses also had amazing stores of handed -down family linen, and every dowry was added to the stacks.   Some of the linen was in rolls;  tea towels, napkins, face towels etc. ready to be cut up and sewn by hand when household chores were done, and initials and numbers were then  added, with the tapes for hanging on a hook.  Sometimes I would buy completely unused bundles of nightdresses still in their brown paper or blue sugar paper tied with fine hemp string , either outgrown with too many pregnancies or just surplus.   These usually came from the convents where the nuns undertook the sewing of the girls' dowries.  I once bought 72 all identical in a tiny size and thought of a sad story to go with them.
My Regency period Irish linen cupboard  now empty and now SOLD

    I was recently on a fascinating special textiles tour of the house at Longleat, the home of the Marquis of Bath, and our expert guide showed us some of the linen stores - it was a truly wonderful sight to see the dazzling white sheets, all with beautifully worked monograms and crowns, piled high on every shelf, all tied up in pairs with pale blue ribbons.  I remember them in much greater detail than the very sumptuous other textile treasures that we saw that day.
           I have always had a good stock of fine French linen, sheets, pillow cases and hand towels in the very finest cloth with wonderful lace and embroidered frills and insertions, and I am finding that there is a new interest in these heirloom pieces  - proud housewives are arranging their best spare bedroom to show these off and combine them with old patchwork quilts, lacy bedspreads to give pleasure to their guests.   I have recently had many enquiries from overseas from my Website readers and they too, are thinking they must acquire some good pieces before they completely disappear from the market. I have now  sold out of all these lovely pieces of linen and closed my linen stores - now empty!

Saturday, 7 March 2015


  This clever advert for No 5 brought back a happy wartime memory and I thought the laced ribbon design of the current advert. background merited inclusion in a Blog to show how even a long length of something so mundane could create a stop- and- look page.  When I was just 15,      during the last war, my much admired cousin in the Royal Scots Greys (he was very handsome and my        idol!)   went to Paris after it was liberated and on his return gave me this small box with a small bottle of the fabulous  scent in it - I was over the moon!  I kept it with my hankies in my top drawer ever after and I still have it!  Next time I see him - he is now 95, I will tell him how I have treasured it and there is still a little whiff when you remove the iconic stopper!


 It may seem odd that my pin-up girl is really a lady who became a celebrity only after  the considerable age of 72,  with amazing eyesight, very dextrous hands and an imagination and skill which were unique in their time and no one else has ever equalled.    She is Mrs.Mary Delany, needlewoman and designer who flourished in her later years as friend and confidant of George III and his wife and produced hundreds of  the most exquisite flower reproductions in paper, cut and painted by herself in the most  accomplished way and which have never been equalled in skill and charm.    After an unhappy first marriage and then a very successful one to Mr. Delany she retired to Ireland and but kept an address in London.  She was extremely popular in Court circles and a friend of Mr. Samuel Pepys and I illustrate here a coverlet she made in white corded embroidery which I believe she made for him.  I find this a really beautiful creation and have kept this auction catalogue picture for many years as something that gives me pleasure every time I look at it.  Her three hundred or so flower creations (accurate in every detail of bud, stem and leaf,) are in the British Museum,and you can Google for much more info. about this remarkable old lady.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015


    I have told elsewhere how I accidentaly became a white linen dealer after I hung up two old French hand-woven sheets as temporary curtains in my daughter's bedroom, and they were such a success that I realised, luckily , that there was a demand for hand-woven creamy linen, both in this country and especially in the USA, playing into the mood for simple minimalism rather than the frilly excess which we had in the previous decade.  Luckily it looked and felt very expensive, and could be successfully dyed in most colours, so it was very adaptable and the French sheets were then very cheap compared to the very expensive and exclusive new linen fabrics produced, mostly in Belgium, for top-notch firms like Pierre Frey.
   I was therefore on a steep and long learning curve to find out what was saleable and what to avoid and thinking about it all now, I thought it might be useful for anyone dealing in white linen to read of my own do's and dont's when buying linen.- not just sheets but all other household linens as well:
Sheets be sure you have the sizes right; French beds are often only 4' wide and sheets are made to match them - check they will fit minimum 4'6"  or wider English beds.  Be sure you are buying linen, not cotton or metis which should be much cheaper    Metis is like our union linen, a mix of cotton and linen.
Avoid sheets which have any serious damage to the embroidered ends. ragged ladderwork cannot be  
 repaired and small holes in embroidery will get larger with washing.  Hold them up to the light to avoid missing repairs and also cloud-like stains caused by bleach.
Pillow cases, check corners are solid and buttonholes in good order - missing buttons are easy to replace.  Fabric must be clean and solid as they take a lot of wear and soon split if too thin.
Hand towels best sellers are those nearly new and with one initial - people often buy them as small presents
I found the best sellers were A, B, C, M.P.S. 
Handkerchiefs  Only buy those with hand rolled hems and a single initial in linen  Difficult to find but
   always popular man's present, also coloured silk 'neckerchiefs' in good order
Tablecloths, check very carefully for small holes and large wine stains as most people now only use damask cloths for parties and they need to be large and perfect.  Extra large Banquet cloths in damask are always in demand for wedding parties - they are worth a lot, and always wanted at short notice!
Table napkins  always very popular but should be in big sets for dinner parties - minimum 8.  Large double
  initials in red or white embroidery are sure sellers to Americans, especially if first class condition and
  hand-rolled hems. Check every one for stains - wine stains can be difficult to shift.
Tea towels (torchons)You can find these on any good linen stall at French fairs.  Only buy unused ones with good stripes - avoid the very stiff ones which are too rigid for glasses and fine china and make sure you only pay good money for linen - the cotton and metis ones are not so good and not so smart..