Last year when in a small village in France I came across an antiques and old wares shop hidden away on an island situated in the middle of the Loire river. It didnâ€™t look like much of a shop from the few trinkets they had placed by the road. A soft rain fell on the stacks of old plates and glasses lined up on trestles under a quince tree. The rain sent me further into the shop and I poked around the displays of crockery, brass, glass and wooden bits and pieces. Two elderly French women sat gossiping in a room where the most valuable items were displayed. We exchanged greetings as I drifted through into another room. This final room was full of neatly ironed and folded table linen, bed sheets, napkins, serviettes and all manner of cotton and linen undergarments as well as rows and rows of coarse linen farmers smocks, boxes of buttons, cottons, darning eggs, lace collars and cuffs, babies christening gowns, curtains and other items I couldnâ€™t identify.
I spent a lot of time in that room examining the old embroideries and cut work, the lace and the crochet, the beautifully handmade, delicately stitched nightgowns and undershirts and wondering about the people, mostly women, whoâ€™d made them. They would have had to have been local farm women because thatâ€™s where I was, in deepest darkest rural France. Or maybe much of it came from surrounding towns, I couldnâ€™t ask the two old women, but it didnâ€™t matter. These objects gave me a greater sense of the people who had lived in this region, greater than any monument or museum or guide book could provide. I was surrounded by their possessions, handling the fabric over which they had laboured, making myriad creative decisions while they worked.
For most of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century women had to sew if they wanted new clothes and could not afford a dressmaker. Women who could afford a dressmaker embroidered or did fancy work; those who couldnâ€™t did plain work â€“ hems, seams and so on. Those who could least afford the time to sew had the most need, despite being probably worn out at the end of a long working day. The sewing of table linen, sheets and the like was mainly a middle class occupation, usually as part of preparing a trousseau. Bringing whole linen sets, hand-made over the years, was quite a valuable contribution to a home when you consider the pre-World War 2 level of material goods people possessed. Fine quality linen was prized until recently as an heirloom, now those hours of labour and artistry end up in dusty piles, along with the heaps of rusting scythes, steam driven machines and cast iron cooking pots.
I didnâ€™t buy any of the French linen, although I would have once. Buy buying it, would I be trying to claw back something of a past that is slipping away too quickly for my own comfort? Would I simply be staving off the linenâ€™s inevitable end in an old wares shop?
Some years ago I helped a friend go through his motherâ€™s possessions after her death, always a sad process. Objects once important and full of meaning are in a moment reduced to rubbish, bric-a-brac or at best, keepsakes. Piles of â€˜stuffâ€™ were assembled in the back yard, one pile destined for the tip and one tiny pile for keeping. This woman, in her late seventies when she died, had kept all the hand sewn tablecloths, napkins, table runners, and handkerchiefs sheâ€™d made for her trousseau.
All of her sheets, towels and tablecloths had been edged with crochet, some of the napkins had been done as cutâ€“work, (very hard to do) and some were covered in exquisite embroidery. Hours of her youth had been spent making these things, maybe anticipating a happy marriage and family life. But her marriage was very unhappy, her children never had children of their own and there was no one left who gave a toss about all this handiwork. So it was thrown out or given away to second hand shops.
Maybe I didnâ€™t buy any of the old French linen because it all seemed adrift from its true meaning and value. They were in that shop because nobody was interested or cared about what their female ancestors had made and what the continuity and stability the linens symbolised. So they become bleached of meaning, bought for their surface appearance and to express a consumer taste for the â€˜old fashioned.â€™
I didn’t buy any because possessing the linen would bring me nothing … or maybe it was just the rain.
- Does Hard Work Work?