In the Back Room of the Past

Young Woman Sewing by Vilhelm Hammerchoi

Young Woman Sewing by Vilhelm Hammerchoi

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 didn’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 couldn’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, who’d made them. They would have had to have been local farm women because that’s where I was, in deepest darkest rural France. Or maybe much of it came from surrounding towns, I couldn’t ask the two old women, but it didn’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 couldn’t did plain work – 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 didn’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 linen’s inevitable end in an old wares shop?

Some years ago I helped a friend go through his mother’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 ‘stuff’ 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 she’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 cut–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 didn’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 ‘old fashioned.’

I didn’t buy any because possessing the linen would bring me nothing … or maybe it was just the rain.

The Ladies Waldemeer by Joshua Reynolds

The Ladies Waldemeer by Joshua Reynolds

2 thoughts on “In the Back Room of the Past

  1. Helen Branton

    I was trawling through the the excellent library system we have here in Melbourne Australia, on Vanessa Bell and others, and came across your book title, so I did a search to see if would put it on hold and was let to this beautiful and thoughtful site.
    Your writing on reasons for not having bought the linen resonate with me, but I probably would have bought something. Having packed up both parents homes, watching some of my fathers kitchen ware crushed in the local collection was one of those moments. When my mother, very suddenly went into a nrusing home her possesions were scattered in only two weeks. She is still alive and apart from a set of three coloured tea cups that I would chose to keep from all the things I have from her most of which will go to her grandchildren, I wish I had all the things she made. She was dressmaker and that work which was undervalued in the keeping is what defined her the most. The whole story of women and their craft is one thing but the existential shock of loss and grief is watching a life disappear, as you described and feel keenly this most transient life.

    A lovely, lovely moment to pause amogst the business of the internet is a rare and appreciate the time and effort of your words – like turning over a piece of lace work. with thanks and oh yes the book is on hold.
    Helen Branton

  2. Phillipa

    Hi Helen, thank you for visiting my blog and leaving your lovely comment.

    Losing people we love is, as you say, a shock, no matter how long we have prepared for it. What they leave behind -particularly the things they made – become so precious, as if some part of them still resides in it.

    My mother and sister knitted masses of clothes for my sister’s children and my own. As the children get older getting rid of the inevitable piles of outgrown clothes is a regular event. But I have kept every handmade item that they wore – cardigans that were knitted by my mother and handed down through five grandchildren ending with my daughter, frilly handmade romper suits and little animal beanies with pompom ears. I cannot throw these clothes out, just can’t do it. Will the children want these some day? I hope so, but even if they don’t, when I take the time to look at this pile of baby clothes I remember those baby years and how treasured the kids were, and not just by their parents – but by the grandmothers and aunties who made all these sweet little garments.

    I hope you enjoy The Book of Love, and the sequel, The Fragment of Dreams will be out soon (May 1) and I hope you enjoy that one too!


Leave a Reply