A Girl and Her Linen Closet
Text by Liz Walker
Photography by Nicole Danielle
I am an object person. A sentimental materialist, you might say. Not too long ago, I was pursuing a career in the museum field, which makes a lot of sense. Museum people, as you might imagine, place a lot of importance on physical objects. It is, not surprisingly, a fundamentally different experience to stand in the Sistine Chapel than it is to look at a postcard of Michelangelo’s fresco, we would argue. On a smaller scale, doesn’t one get a stronger grasp on history standing before a mummy or spinning wheel or even a tiny shard of pottery than from flipping through a textbook? Yes, because objects resonate. Objects can provoke memories and even illustrate times we never saw, by establishing scale or materials or intricacy of workmanship. A well-curated object embodies an entire story, with an immediacy found in no other way. Maybe you have a shoe box of old love letters and dried corsages tucked away in your closet; a sampling of things you do not “need” and yet cannot part with. Do you hold on to photographs of your ex’s? Favorite childhood toys? Now, I’m being completely serious - is there anything better than looking through that personal time capsule? Than holding small fragments from the best moments of your life in the palm of your hand? Personally, I can’t get enough of it. That feeling is the dragon I’m always chasing.
Which brings me to the linens. I have a (let’s call it “small”) obsession with vintage linens. Yes, those dusty old doilies and tablecloths and aprons (oh, the aprons) your grandma has stashed in the attic and nobody knows what to do with. Honestly, I haven’t come up with much use for the doilies, either. But there are few things more enjoyable than when my aunt sends me another vintage tablecloth (as she is very kind to do). The rich colors! The perfect fabric! The dated vignettes of fruit! These tablecloths are my aesthetic ideal. In my mind, any house filled with these lovely throwbacks is a home worth envying.
This raises the question – What the hell is wrong with me? It is not my dream to be a happy homemaker; I am not some kind of Stepford Wife. My housekeeping skills are, uh, let’s say “lacking”. But I am drawn to these relics of women before me. It breaks my heart to see a hand-embroidered table runner selling for $0.25 at the thrift store. Do you know how much f-ing time that took to make!?! Anonymous was a woman, right? We all know this by now: the skill and artistry of “women’s work” has been historically undervalued. But my interest in linens is not academic. It doesn’t come from my head – I feel it in my gut. I feel inexplicably drawn to them.
Once upon a time, I utilized vintage aprons in my artwork in the place of canvases. Today my “collection” (which sounds like too nice a word) serves no such grand purpose. I have no plans to make any more apron art, but I do have a suitcase of frilly, frankly ridiculous, aprons sitting in the closet. I can hear the echoes of the television show Clean House urging me to pass them along. This is a perfectly reasonable point of view, but I just can’t. Never! I will take them to my grave.
Fabric is intimate. Fabric is woven and dyed and cut and sewn and worn and loved. It clothes people, it warms people, binds people. A wedding dress, a baby blanket; these props play import roles in our lives. Textiles, in particular, can take us back to another time and place specifically because they are tactile. It is also worth noting that they don’t last forever; even in pristine, temperature-controlled museum environments, fabrics age and degrade. It’s only when thinking about the historic importance of fabric that I realize I’ve been missing the big picture. The problem isn’t that I have too many aprons. The real problem is that they are locked up in a suitcase, hidden from everyone - even myself.
Vintage fashion is, obviously, a great way to incorporate the past into your daily life. But beyond the party frocks and rhinestone brooches we all drool over, there are other ways to enjoy the special allure of history. Out with the new, in with the old, I say. As much I want to preserve and respect old things, in the end I think it’s best to leave conservation to museums. Enjoy your vintage items by using them, by making them a part of your routine. Take your grandmother’s tablecloth on a picnic? Include actual linens napkins alongside Christmas dinner? The options are endless. You can appreciate the quality and character of vintage textiles with use, instead of sticking them in a box in the attic, doomed to be unseen and unloved. Treasure them, sure, but make the most of them as well.
To me, a vintage lifestyle is a happy lifestyle. Vintage is thrifty and good for the environment, sure, but it also fun and colorful and full of joy. A love of vintage encourages sharing, as we pass along family heirlooms and their stories. There is a sense of adventure in vintage; the thrill of the hunt, the wonder of what you will discover. And that’s the way I want to feel about my whole life, even my linen closet.