Tagged: linen

Mar 30

Swaddling bands



For Mother’s Day, and at the end of Museum Week, I bring you a vision of babes past c/o the V&A which I visited Friday.


Italian swaddling band in the V&A


This Italian swaddling band, dated 1600-1625, is made of linen with an embroidered cutwork border. Its display card offered some almost contemporary (1671) advice to mothers and nurses on how best to dress newborn babies c/o midwife Jane Sharp: ‘lay the arms right down by the sides’, and then wrap them in bands of cloth ‘that they might grow straight’.



C17th Italian swaddling band, V&A


Leafing through my trusty Shorter Oxford English Dictionary I find that swaddle is first found in Old English as a noun for a length of bandage used to wrap an infant. The verb swaddle followed in Middle English. I’m not sure if it helps them grow straight, but very small babies do seem to enjoy the restriction of being tightly bundled. Perhaps it reminds them of the cramped conditions they left behind in the womb?

If you’re counting back from the Feast of Christmas, Mothering Sunday (the 4th Sunday in Lent) often falls around the the Feast of the Annunciation (25th March). And, still in the V&A, my eye fell on this rather comical painted and gilded oak sculpture representing my favourite archangel, Gabriel.



C15th oak Angel Gabriel in the V&A


The display card explained that he’s from Northern France, dated 1415-50, and probably comes from an altarpiece. His orientation is unusual because ‘Gabriel usually approaches from the left’. I’ve never noticed the left-ness of Gabriel’s approach to Mary in fine art but will look out for it from now on. He does look a little hesitant (a bit like the apologetic demeanour of the vicar in BBC’s Rev. series which, I’m pleased to note, is now back on our screens). Gabriel is, incidentally, the patron saint of journalists and communicators, and this Gabriel looks like he understands only too well the concept of shooting the messenger.



French C15th oak Gabriel in the V&A


On this trip to London, I also visited the Clothworkers’ Centre, the V&A’s new state-of-the-art facility at Blythe House, Olympia, West London. This is where the museum now stores the majority of its textile collection – some 100,000 objects, everything from buttons to carpets – and where items can be accessed for study by groups and individuals. The public can tour the centre on the last Friday of the month, though pre-booking is absolutely essential. I found my visit quite awe-inspiring, though (very sadly) I’m not allowed to show you any of my pictures. But next week I’ll share some pearls of wisdom gleaned during the informative tour – not least how best to combat those dreaded clothes moths.





Jan 14

Scrap of the week #35


Boussac fabric samples

1993 Boussac fabric samples

Boussac furnishing sample, ‘Tsunami’, 1993, New York


I have a stylist friend in New York who understands my passion for fabric scraps. When I visited her in 1993, she presented me with a huge stack of rectangular home furnishing samples jettisoned from the Third Avenue offices of French textile company, Boussac. Such treasures! I had to buy an extra case to get them home.



Third Avenue scraps – nothing but the best!


Poignant to think that I hadn’t even heard of the word ‘Tsunami’ when I was given these beautiful fabrics.

It can take me a while to find just the right use for a scrap. 21 years later, one of these Boussacs finally assumes its role as a patch for my student son’s jeans. He basically lives in jeans these days, and all his pairs are showing signs of wear. Here’s a typically shredded knee.


Jeans for repair

Jeans before


Jeans repaired

Jeans after


I love the rich shot effect of the red warp and teal weft of this fabric. And the 50% linen, 50% cotton feels great with the denim as it’s robust, yet yielding. I worked quite a traditional kind of reverse appliqué patch which should be super-secure (with 4 rows of stitching, though only 2 are visible). I hoped it would do justice to the Japanese influence of the fabric, with just a whisper of boro, the Japanese art of repair. What do you think? 

Jeans repaired plus Boussac samples

Jeans repaired plus Boussac samples


Jeans patch.

Four rows of stitching (two invisible) make this a really strong patch


And here are those jeans alongside another pair, patched with raw-edged scraps from my husband’s worn-out pyjamas. Both pairs had been in my mending pile (well, it’s more of a spreading mending cairn) for a while but were finally completed and delivered to the diligent student yesterday. He’s very happy  with them, despite their ostentatious repairs (which I suspect would be a little full-on for most blokes).  Their new wearer just told me that the patch is really comfy, hugging his kneecap and actually feeling much nicer than the non-repaired knee. So, a great result!

Two pairs patched

Two pairs patched

Would you like help repairing your jeans?

I’ll be teaching jeans makeovers to small groups in Bath this spring; Jean Genie sessions will show you several patching techniques (some very visible, some not) to re-knee your favourite jeans, plus the best way to shorten hems, narrow legs etc. Do get in touch if you’d like further details.

Patch-ology: I also teach a comprehensive selection of patching techniques for your whole wardrobe in small workshops. Do get in touch with me for more information.



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Dec 31

Scrap of the week #27


This little heart is made from a small scrap of window-cleaner’s scrim, a leftover from a waistcoat I made twenty-something years ago. Yes, a waistcoat; I really, really like utility fabrics: ticking, scrim, hessian, calico, cambric: plain, simple, honest, serviceable (that wonderfully old-fashioned word) fabrics, and I have a habit of trying to use them in unusual ways. I think I pushed the envelope a bit with that waistcoast which sagged and bagged enough to test the sartorial patience of a hobbit. But it’s good to experiment. Anyway, if evidence were needed that I really do cherish all scraps, this little piece of insignificant scrim is it. Remember: there are no worthless scraps, just scraps waiting for the right project to come along.

Love heart

Scrim is a loosely woven light canvas cloth made of cotton, hessian or linen. The only version I’m familiar with is the linen window-cleaning type, held in high esteem by glass cleaners because of its absorbent, lint-free and and non-smearing properties. I bought this way back whenever in John Lewis, but you can also find it sold by the metre at upholstery suppliers or in packets from purveyors of old-fashioned cleaning supplies, and very good value it is too. The handle improves as it is washed and worked. Scrim of a slightly different variety is also used much in the theatre as something onto which or through which to project light for various effects; there seems to be a wonderful product called sharktooth scrim which I’ve yet to encounter, but when I do I’ll count my fingers and toes afterwards.

A word full of chewily onomatopoeic potential, ‘scrim’ sounds like it should be anglo-saxon or medieval but is actually late eighteenth century, and of unknown origin. If there hasn’t been a Dickensian character named Scrim (of spare physique and mean as mustard) there really should have been. Please put me right if there’s a literary creature out there bearing the name and you’ll really make my day.

To create this little heart, I wanted to use counted cross stitch technique, something I’ve only done in small amounts but which I’ve long admired, particularly in the form of classic marking stitches, the day-to-day needlework which would have eaten women’s time a century of two ago. Time for me to have a go. I first embroidered my motif, following an old DMC handbook of marking stitches, carefully counting my threads. Note that I left my small square of scrim intact for the embroidering – didn’t cut out my heart until I’d completed the embroidery part, because I needed all the fabric I could muster to hold well within my tiny embroidery hoop. When cross-stitching, it’s good to place your work in an embroidery hoop to keep it stable and supported, particularly on something as flexible (for that read ‘wayward’) as scrim, or these soft linen scraps featured as my previous Scrap of the Week. It’s also worth lining your hoop in white cotton seam binding or strips of cotton if you’d prefer (as shown below – you can see towards the bottom how it’s been stitched to secure it) to minimise creasing of your work caused by the hard edges of the hoop. It will also help your hoop grip the work securely.


For the stitching, I used regular skeins of embroidery cotton. And you know what? It was fun. There’s something very satisfying in simply following a chart. All you have to do is crunch the data.

Amongst my most treasured sewing books are copies of these old DMC needlework books: The Embroiderer’s Alphabet is one of my favourites. Just look at this beautiful page picked at random.


Issues of the books are undated but the first was published around 1910. It was reissued time and again in English, German, French and Italian. Most of the book is cross-stitch charts, running to some 90 pages. The designs are eye-wateringly elaborate.

Imagine monogramming your sheets, towels or hankies like this?


Maybe adding a suitable crown?


Or just embroidering a seasonal scene on a cushion, or nightgown case?



I am listing some DMC cross-stitch books on Etsy. This 8th edition of The Embroiderer’s Alphabet is sadly missing its back cover, but the pages are clean and tight in their binding still. And, wonderfully, all of the glassine transfers are intact.



Back to my scrim heart, once finished with the embroidering (it didn’t take long), I cut out two heart-shaped pieces (my template was a large cookie-cutter) allowing a small quarter-inch seam allowance. I seamed the two together, remembering to leave a biggish hole down one side of the heart for turning and filling. I clipped the curved edges at the top of the heart to ensure that they would sit nicely, trimmed the point at the bottom of the heart (same reason), then turned my heart right side out and filled it with wadding (but it would have been lovely with lavender). A quick slip-stitch of the opening and it was complete.

Sending you love and cross-stitchy blessings this New Year’s Eve! Roll on 2013!


Nov 19

Scrap of the week #26


This is another little something I nabbed at the Selvedge Winter Fair.

Dyeworks scrap bundle

It set me back all of a fiver: not bad for Chelsea! But just feast your eyes on the scrumptious array of naturally dyed linen and hemp scraps. They really are textile treasure, the handiwork of Polly Lyster of Dyeworks, based almost in my neck of the woods in Gloucestershire. Polly is a dyer who also sells wonderful antique textiles. You may have seen her featured in the pages of Selvedge magazine. Her wares are impeccable; even her card is simply beautiful, painstakingly printed on an old-fashioned letterpress.

Dyeworks scraps

Polly went through all the scraps with me, kindly telling me what product had been used to dye each piece. Foolishly, I didn’t write it all down at the time and forgot some of what she said in all the Selvedge excitement. but I remember that the top one is madder, the yellow has some onion skin. Most have been dyed and then over-dyed, so colours achieved are endlessly, subtly variable.

What will I use them for? Well, I may combine them patchworkily with some indigos bought last year at the quilt show in Birmingham. I’d love to embroider on them. They are so tactile that they positively cry out to be handled, so I think they’d make lovely purses or tool wraps. I’m imagining these would come in handy should I ever be called on to visibly mend an antique shepherd’s smock. Yes, a little unlikely, but you never know. Don’t you think that the next time Monty Don snags an ugly hedge tear in his favourite Old Town gardening jacket, this type of fabric would make the ideal start to an artisanal patch repair? Nothing too perfect, mind. Do keep watching Gardeners’ World and just remember that you heard it suggested here first!



Jun 15

Carlyle’s clip

Giant clothes peg

Big peg on '40s linen


I found an outsized wooden clothes peg this week in a charity shop, alongside various old linens marked with blue embroidery transfers. One of the latter also carried a World War II utility mark which is always exciting to see. Both of these methods of marking were designed to wash out so their survival is a time-capsule treat.


Utility mark on linen tablecloth

Utility mark


I’m collecting references to the humble clothes peg, and happening across this very big peg reminded me of one of my favourites. It’s a recollection about historian and political philosopher Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) taken from Conversations with Carlyle (1892) by Charles Gavan Duffy:

Speaking of his method of work, he said he found the little wooden pegs, which washerwomen employ to fasten their clothes to a line, highly convenient for keeping together bits of notes and agenda on the same special point.

The sprung clothes peg was invented in the US in 1853, so it’s possible that this was what was being referred to, but don’t quote me.




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Feb 21

Scrap of the week #18

I haven’t been sharing any vintage scraps with you for a while, so here’s a floral curtain (late 1960s or early 1970s, I’m guessing) to kick off my 2012 offerings. This is one of my latest lucky finds at the charity shop.

Orange petals, green stamens

Orange petals, green stamens

Flower Power curtain

Flower Power

Leaf motif

Leaf motif

Orange flowers

Scalloped vertical

All my pictures are crooked (it’s been one of those days), but you can still see the charm of the textile, I hope: the bright orange flowers ( which are about 4.5cms across), the insistent vertical stripes. The fabric is substantial yet quite supple – definitely a furnishing weight – in either cotton or linen or a mixture of the two. There’s no marking at all on the selvedges so that could indicate an artisanal piece. The slightly wonky pattern placement here and there points the same way. If you know what this is, where it’s from, or have anything similar in your stash, I’d love to hear from you.

Now, what would you make with this? It screams “GYPSY CARAVAN CURTAINS!!!” to me (in the very best possible way), maybe with giant apple-green ric-rac or bobble edging and a lovely contrast lining. But then, I’m badly in need of a holiday. This fabric’s a little too much for most uses without a little judicious dilution, I reckon. Paired with the right solid or two (and restrained use of aforementioned jumbo ric-rac) it could make a really vibrant cushion, apron, tea-cosy or hand bag. It’s a little bigger than most of my scraps. In fact, there’s quite a lot of it (two curtains, each 88cms wide from selvedge to selvedge and 2 metres long) so plenty of scope for ingenuity.


Jun 03

Laundry & roses

It’s been a frustrating week of half-term and half-completed to-do lists. But in between the chores and the childcare I’ve had glimpses like this.

Roses & laundry

Roses & laundry

Rather appropriate in the week that DH & I celebrated twenty years of marriage.  Passing that particular milestone makes our relationship vintage — at least by Etsy‘s criteria — roses, thorns, laundry and all. What a thought! Have a good weekend. I do hope the sun shines on you.


Feb 14

Threads of feeling

Threads of Feeling catalogue, John Styles

Exhibition catalogue showing red woolen cloth heart for Foundling 10563, a girl, admitted 22 November 1758

‘5,000 rare, beautiful, mundane and moving scraps of fabric’ is how curator John Styles describes the extraordinary archive inspiring Threads of Feeling, an exhibition of the textile tokens left with abandoned children 1740-1770 which is currently showing at the Foundling Museum, Bloomsbury, London.

Being a foundling was a cause of great shame in eighteenth-century London. So, in an attempt to avoid the associated stigma, a baby’s name would be changed on admission to the Foundling Hospital, and the mother’s name would not be recorded. Instead, a textile swatch (or ‘token’) would be given by the mother, or cut from the foundling baby’s clothing, and pinned to the printed registration form (‘billet’) issued on receipt. As the hospital emphasized in 1745, ‘if any particular Marks, Writing or other thing shall be left with the Child, great care will be taken for the preservation thereof’. Despite the anonymity of admission, a mother retained the right to reclaim her child, and a small textile scrap might be all there was to facilitate identification. Sadly, most mothers didn’t return: of 16,282 admissions between 1741 and 1760, only 152 came back.

Putting aside the human stories for a moment (which is difficult), and approaching this archive with the mindset of a textiles historian, these scraps are very exciting indeed. They represent a rare survival of everyday textiles worn by ordinary eighteenth-century women, forming Britain’s – possibly Europe’s – largest collection. There are about forty different named fabrics catalogued, their variety illustrating that the poor had access to a surprisingly wide range of colourful fabrics, even before the Industrial Revolution. It may be that the collection is somewhat skewed towards the colourful and patterned as their purpose was the later recognition of a child, but the collection is so vast that it also contains quite plain, mundane fabrics. What makes the Foundling archives so special is that the object (the swatch) is united with text (the Hospital’s clerks’ handwriting)  and the two together form the only means we have of identifying many everyday eighteenth-century textiles. The clerks’ jottings include the rather familiar sounding calico, flannel, gingham and satin (though their eighteenth-century counterparts weren’t very much like the fabrics we know today) and the now lost-to-us camblet, fustian, susy, cherryderry, calimanco and linsey-woolsey. The printed billet form itemised the ‘Marks and Cloathing of the Child’, offering an intriguing glimpse of the everyday dress of the period, most of which I can only hazily imagine: biggin, forehead-cloth, head-cloth, long-stay, bibb, frock, upper-coat, petticoat, bodice-coat, barrow, mantle, sleeves, roller etc. Some scraps were cut from the mother’s clothing, some were taken from the baby’s own (caps, cockades and topknots, detachable sleeves). Baby clothes might well have been made from a mother’s worn-out garments, upcycling being nothing new. And a mother’s clothes might be surprisingly fashionable: her gown might be made from one of the new cotton or linen printed knock-offs of an unaffordable and impractical (unwashable) silk.

The display isn’t vast (I overheard some other visitors registering their disappointment) but forms a representative sample of an enormous archive; to give you a sense of the scale of it, the storage boxes containing these billet forms line 250 metres of shelving in the museum’s archive. It took me a couple of hours to look around Threads of Feeling plus the permanent displays, so I couldn’t really have wished it so very much bigger. And I didn’t get anywhere near the Handel collection which is housed in the same building on another floor. But that may be explained by the more accessible lure of the cafe (left as you enter the museum) which does a very nice selection of cakes; I’m sure Handel – himself an infamous glutton – would have approved.

Back to the swatches, some samples contain needlework and embroidery, varying from the crude to the expert. Some are ribbon, a universally recognised symbol of love in the eighteenth century, especially resonant in circumstances of separation and loss (think ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree’: a much later song carrying an 18th-century sentiment). Ribbons were the currency of romance and courtship, witness ‘fairings’ (gifts bought at fairs), the subject of the song ‘Oh Dear, What Can the Matter Be?’ which is played as ambient music through the exhibition (suitably atmospheric, if slightly annoying once heard half a dozen times). I discovered that there were gender-specific ways to tie ribbons: military-style cockades for boys, loosely tied topknots for girls (see below). Interestingly, colours which have since become gendered were not so defined in the eighteenth century; pink and blue were used for boys and girls alike.

Foundling ribbons

Four silk ribbons tied in a bunch with a knot, Foundling 170, a girl, 1743


I visited this exhibition last month and really loved it, though I found that every so often the weight of sorrow and heartbreak implicit in these textile scraps became overwhelming. Each and every swatch represents an unbearable pivotal moment of separation and loss. It is the notes left by arguably the more fortunate literate mothers – or in this case, a father – which break your heart, this one accompanying a pink and white flowered ribbon:

Ann Gardiner, Daughter of James and Elizth. Gardiner, was Born in St Brides Parish Octr. ye 6th and Baptizd and Registerd in the Parish Church Octr. ye 10th 1757. Begs to have Care Taken on ehr [sic] and They will pay all Charges in a little Time with a handsome acknowledgement for the same and have her home again when they Get over a little Trouble they are in: She is not a bastard Child your Care will be most Gratefully Acknowledged by your most obliged Humble Servant  JG

And this note accompanying a 1760 cotton or linen swatch – printed with a green and black leaf on a shelled background – for a baby girl of just a few weeks old:

…She has had the Breast and tis humbly hop’d it will be continued as she will not in all probability live without it.’

Whether one of the stalwart wet-nurses managed to pull this little girl through isn’t told.

Threads of Feeling expo

Striped camblet featured on Threads of Feeling flyer


As it’s Valentine’s Day today, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the heart was just as much a symbol of love in the eighteenth century as it is today. Seen as the literal source of the emotions, it turns up with unsurprising frequency on foundling tokens. There are suit-of-hearts playing cards, hearts drawn on paper, metal hearts, embroidered hearts, hearts cut out in fabric (see above), and even – in the case of one baby boy – a gown cut from a print of heart playing-cards. Fittingly, the only token in the exhibition which figured in the reunion of a mother and her child was a patchwork strip with half a heart embroidered in red thread. Sarah Bender, the mother, who admitted her child on 11 February 1767, kept the reciprocal half -heart on its corresponding patchwork scrap, and ventured back to reclaim her 8-year-old son on 10 June 1775. Alas, I have no picture of this token to show you, nor any artist’s impression of the no-doubt teary reunion, but the token is featured in the small-yet-beautifully-formed exhibition catalogue by John Styles (shown top).

Remarkably, the work of Thomas Coram, the merchant who established the original Foundling Hospital, continues today in the charity which still bears his name – an unbroken thread between those eighteenth-century foundlings and today’s vulnerable children.

Threads of Feeling runs at the Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, London, WC1N 1A until 6th March 2011.


Nov 13

Linen: 100 days of thought

I made the happy discovery a little while back that I’m descended from a 17th century North European linen weaver. It’s pathetically atavistic, I know, but I like to indulge myself with the notion that I can’t help it: my blood simply appreciates fine linen and any resistance is futile. I’m drafting a letter to this effect for my bank manager.

Vintage linen sheet label

Vintage linen sheet

Fashion Incubator has brought me something rather wonderful, and not for the first time this week; it was even in the same blog post as yesterday’s corduroy story. Despite its title, there’s nothing B about this little movie on the subject of linen. It brings such wonderful words: ‘retting’ (softening by soaking in water or exposing to moisture) and ‘scutching’ (dressing by beating). And if you’ve ever wondered where the phrase ‘flaxen-haired’ originated, all will be revealed. Prepare to be riveted by its beauty.


May 22

Waste not Want not

It’s a beautiful drying day in Bath today and I have 5 eiderdowns airing on the line, wafting gently and picturesquely in the breeze. Maybe the local tourist board should be paying me!

I wanted to show you a linen tea towel I’ve had for years, though it’s not as old as it looks. It was designed by Deborah Phillips and is called Kitchen Maxims.

Waste not Want not

Lazy laundry-drying day

It’s now in a bad way and should really be put out of its misery. But before I consign it to rag oblivion, here’s what it says:

Waste not Want not

1. Never waste or throw away anything that can be turned to account.

2. Pare potatoes as thinly as possible.

3. Save all pieces of fat to melt down for frying or pastry.

4. One egg well beaten is worth two not beaten.

5. Put spare crusts in the oven to grate for breadcrumbs.

6. Always save the liquor in which a joint of beef has been boiled.

7. Make tea directly the water boils.

8. Clear as you go: muddle makes more muddle.

9. Pour nothing but water down the sink.

10. When washing-up is over for the day, wash the tea-cloth; it saves the cloths and cleanses the hands.

Waste not Want Not tea towel

My housekeeping isn’t quite as good as this: I don’t think I’ve ever cleared as I’ve gone, for instance, nor do I oven-dry crusts nor melt down fat,  though I do hoard everything that has even the slightest possible utility (and much that doesn’t) and tend  to make tea directly the kettle boils (have you ever tasted tea made otherwise? Ugh!). I can’t find anything about Deborah online but would love to know where she dug up these precepts. They remind me of my grandmother-in-law’s turns of phrase (she worked in service in the 1920s and was a font of common-sense wisdom) and of Enquire Within Upon Everything, the encyclopedic household guides repeatedly published in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; I have a 1920s copy kindly given me by Alison at Eco Eco in Hope, Derbyshire.

Though I’m slightly ashamed to admit it, I really enjoy hanging wash out on a line. My last house (an Edwardian semi in West London) had an old restrictive covenant on it which prohibited the pegging out of laundry, presumably as it would have let the original neighbourhood down, implying (Heaven forefend!) that one was reduced to making ends meet by taking in washing. Needless to say, I ignored this and hung out my tea-towels with pride. Anyway, if you enjoy wash-day paraphernalia as much as I do, come back  to Scrapiana.com often as there’s sure to be more. Off now to play at being Mrs Tiggywinkle as my white load’s just finished.

PS Must admit that I took the tea-towel pictures at the end of last summer, hence the echinacea, sweet pea and fennel flowers. It’s still a little early for them. Otherwise, garden and washing-line look much the same as today.

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