Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Linen old, linen new...

You know me, I do like a nice bit of linen. Living in France has educated me fantastically about how linen is actually produced - it is a long and incredibly labour-intensive process, and the Basque people of the area we visited have a really passionate relationship with the flax plant and its processing into fine fabric. A father would plant a flax field for his new baby daughter, and would tend it until she and her mother could begin to turn to flax fibres into a trouseau for her marriage. We learnt all this here.But who are this fine couple, embroidered onto linen about seventy years ago?
Here they are in all their finery - poor King George V, who by that time seems to have been in pretty bad health, but still managed to have plenty of Silver Jubilee celebrations. There are great photos of King George and Queen Mary here, with some great social history from one family to go with it.
Linen is all about social history for me, as I've implied. Look at the back of the embroidery - the grey detail shows how a loyal housewife stitched the raised features of the faces and crowns.And how about a bit of political history? The detail in the opposite corner shows the English rose, the Scottish thistle, the Welsh daffodil and the Irish shamrock - George V was king throughout the one of the most dramatic phases of Irish history: war, Home Rule, the Anglo-Irish Treaty etc. The south of Ireland finally became a Republic two years after this embroidery was completed. All that history in the work of an accomplished housewife!
Like some other bloggers, I was privileged to be given two tea towels from All Tea Towels this summer. Ireland has a part to play in this half of the story too, as it's another centre for linen production in Europe. All Tea Towels is based in Northern Ireland and posts free to all parts of the UK. I'm just going to talk about the linen tea towel I chose here - linen is such an absorbent fabric that it has made the best drying cloths and towels for millennia!
You can see that the design on this tea towel is an absolute winner for me - blue, linen and gold, in a vintage advert for gardening. What really impressed me along with the teatowel was the Linen Care Guide provided. I've had plenty of vintage linen in my time, and have worked out how to care for it through a combination of trial and error and good reading (such as a fantastic article in BBC Homes and Antiques that I can't currently find!).
So now, here's how to care for new 100% linen tea towels, thanks to Al of All Tea Towels:

"Your new linen tea towel contains natural starch in the fibres. Firstly, you need to steep your linen tea towl in a bowl of mild detergent, and rub it gently against itself with your hands. Leave to steep for a couple of hours which will remove most of the starch and will help improve the linen fibres' absorbency. Rinse thoroughly to prevent soap/detergent residue brown spots appearing. Repeated usage and washing will further increase the linen absorbancy. There will be a noticeable increase in absorbency and softness after 4 or 5 washes, so stick with it."

I loved reading that - it tied in so well with everything I'd been learning about the Basque love for linen. It's a passionate fibre, one that repays a bit of effort in a way that cotton (of which I'm very fond too) really can't. I followed the advice and it was easy, and I also enjoyed getting to know the linen and how it was changing as I worked with it. In fact, it's still yet to have its full quota of washes, so I'll post later to tell you about the increase in absorbency and softness after it's had its full prep!

You can see Al's collection of linen teatowels here.


Lululiz said...

How amazing to find all that history contained in such a small embroidery. Thank you so much telling us all about it.

helen tilston said...

I am, like you, in love with linen and I have a collection of linen tea towels. I have more linen blouses and skirts too. My sister used accuse me of thinking I had to have every piece of linen ever made. Linen tea towels are a definite weakness on my part.
Thank you for this post

Grateful4Crochet said...

That was really interesting- thanks for sharing!

Frances said...

I am another linen fan checking in with you, and thanking for your very good lesson on how to tend to new, starch-infused linen. It's so timely because within the past few weeks I did find some lovely new tea towels that I was just going to set aside for another day.

Now...I am going to give them that proper soak and gentle massage, and have them soon ready to take part in the present tense.

Many thanks@

Mom Walds Place said...

One of the best things about vintage linens is the stories behind them. Thanks for the information on the flax tradition. I'm definitely going to visit that site.

My daughter asked me what a hope chest was. This could be the beginning of something wonderful.

Apron Senorita said...

Hi Floss, the post is beautiful. I know it was about linens and the loving work of the women who created them, but I couldn't help to think of my situation. The linen is the empty canvas called life. We are to create and express ourselves. The tea towel is me through the grieving process. It will take several washing with tears to soften my grief. We are beautiful creation of God and with his tender hands he will soften our heart.

Beautiful post my dear friend,
Yoli :)

Floss said...

Wow Yoli - it's really special to read your comment - thank you.

Lorrie said...

Linen is a wonderful fabric. I love the way it softens over time.

Betty The Wood Fairy said...

Your post triggered a memory of my grandma boiling all the whites and then of helping her pass everything through her mangle with it's big rollers, then of spraying the salted water on the sheets for her as she ironed. I don't think I could manage all that hard work of 50 years ago in 2011!

Vintage Jane said...

Interesting post. I shall follow your links later when I have a little more time. Love the tea towel .. so much so that I tempted to buy one! M x