Old linens, antique laces, and exquisite embroidered pieces are being sought and appreciated once more for their intrinsic beauty and exquisite craftsmanship. In this modern era of toss-away paper, wipe-off plastic, and easy-care manmade fibers, whatever could have happened to bring about this phenomenon?
Sentiment and nostalgia are part of the picture. But the chief reason is a resurgence of interest in handwork of all kinds, particularly the art of the needle. And also, a rediscovery of the charms of natural fibers such as cotton and linen flax.
For a long time, people who loved old laces and linens managed to pluck pieces out of bins at thrift shops and Salvation Army stores, and to find them at yard and estate sales and flea markets. Also, for years, plenty of beautiful old household linens went for a song at the country's auction houses, underprized and undervalued. Many great tableclothes, damask napkins, crochet lace bedspreads, and embroidered sheets were thrown out, or retired to trunks or the backs of closets.
Now there is a new breed of collector that says it still cares and that it is willing to carefully wash and iron for the joy of possession and use. Some of these came via the route of antique clothes. They first learned to love vintage lace wedding dresses, blouses, and finely stitched silk camisoles, and then expanded their interest to include old textiles for the home.
Patricia Anichini, whose studio loft is at 7 East 20th Street, began her business with antique clothing, but a few months ago made the switch to antique linens and textiles (along with art and antique furniture). Already she is selling to private collectors, specialty shops, interior designers, and play and television producers who are looking for period props.
Miss Anichini grew up in Italy in a family that nurtured fine needlework traditions. Her mother, aunts, and grandmothers developed rare embroidery skills, which she has always loved and valued. "We won't see these European needle and lacemaking skills duplicated much in the future," she declares, "so it is time that we preserve what we now have."
She offers handwork of different varieties from many countries, including the US, Madeira, Italy, France, Belgium, Germany, and China. She buys the pieces, with the help of her partner, Susan Dollennaier, at auctions and estate sales and from people who have heard about her and simply call or write to offer her old family linens.
"I try to give people the quality and beauty that they cannot buy now in the stores," she says. She does a lot of washing and ironing, but what she sells is in perfect condition and ready for use. Prices range from $5 for an embroidered hand towel, to $500 for a 75-year-old embroidered bedspread, with lace inserts, that was once part of an Italian girl's trousseau.
Miss Anichini always gives instructions on how to care for the linens she sells, and although she says many of the young women who buy from her do considerable entertaining, they are willing to wash their fine linens, or have them washed.
She washes her own in warm water and mild soap, rinses carefully, and then irons them almost wet (after about five minutes in the dryer). She pads her ironing board with towels, then irons linens on the wrong side with a not-too-hot iron in order for the embroidery to stand out.
Harriet Love, whose boutique is at 412 West Broadway, in the arty neighborhood SoHo, is another dealer who has added antique household linens to vintage clothing.
"I am selling linen and cotton sheets, with fagotting, and embroidery, and hand-crocheted hems, for $90 to $150 each," she says. "These were made in the years from 1900 to 1930, and nothing like them is being made today."
"Young women come in here and exclaim, 'Oh, that's something my mother, (or my grandmother) used to have. I've got to own a few pieces, too.'" Miss Love explains. "What a change! This has all happened in the last year or so. Now we have lots of people actually asking for hand-embroidered pure linen pillow cases and sheets, handmade bedspreads, table napkins and cloths, and yes, even those fancy dresser runners that we recall from our childhoods. And a few have even asked for old lace curtains."
Miss Love, who buys in various states, says this hunger for and appreciation of old handwork is showing up all over the country.
Uptown, at 864 Lexington Avenue, Barbara Milo Ohrbach and her husband, Mel, have for four years run a little shop called Cherchez. It is well stocked with great handworked textiles, including both wearables for the person and household linens for the home, and all made between 1830 and 1918.
During the years Barbara Ohrbach was vice-president at Vogue and Butterick patterns, she traveled to the European collections four times a year and always scoured the flea markets and street markets in Paris, London, and Rome for those "incredible old fabrics and laces that I thought were such a natural extension of the fashion business. I collected them for years."
Then about six years ago, both Barbara and Mel Ohrbach decided to quit their jobs in the corporate world of fashion, and to go on their own, selling his antiques collection and her collection of old laces and textiles. They have been successful beyond their dreams, from the beginning.
"We found," Mrs. Ohrbach said, "that there was a vast group of people out there who had good taste and who loved and appreciated old things that were handmade."
She says customers range from young girls who come in to buy an old lace graduation or wedding dress, or a petticoat or camisole, to chic women who like the quality and the intricacy of what they are buying and recognize that it is often something that one doesn't find often, any more. Customers include Jane Fonda, Grace Kelly, Katherine Hepburn, Madeline Kahn, Ali McGraw, Lillian Hellman, and numerous other well-known people. The shop also sells to museums, antique dealers, collectors and decorators.
Today's trend may be only a trickle, but it is countrywide. Even antique fairs in Iowa now offer growing assortments of old lace and linen, and shops are springing up in many localities that specialize in old textiles. Opening Thursday, for instance, in Sausalito, Calif., specializes in antique lace.
Magazines are beginning to publish room settings and table settings that feature "heirloom linens" of one kind or another. Top interior designers are finding new ways to display, in functional ways, these beautiful examples of needle art. Draping a small round table with an old lace cloth is one way of exhibiting fine handwork.
A few years ago, a reader of this newspaper who lives in California wrote and asked what to do with her drawers of loved and lovely but unused linens. I would like to let her know that, at last, there is a growing number of persons who recognize their beauty and value and who again want to own and use them. And, yes, even devote a few hours to washing and ironing them.