A Second Chance For An Old Tablecloth

I found an old vintage tablecloth at an estate sale and despite its wretched appearance, I bought it anyway. Something about it endeared itself to me, the same way some people are endeared to homeless cats.

It’s a patchwork tablecloth. It alternates an embroidered square of flowers with another square of lace. It’s handmade and from the 1940’s or there about.

And you know, it reminds me of a time I can’t put my finger on, either a time I lived through, or one that I’m imagining. Something about a pretty porch, where a table is set for a luncheon. Egg salad is being served on white bread without crusts and with lemonade in tall bumpy glasses you’d find in a Parisian flea market.

The last time the tablecloth was used it was put away without being cleaned, and there were stains in lots of places. Maybe her grandkids came over and got mustard everywhere, or it was chicken divan casserole for the bridge ladies and they had one too many afternoon appertiefs. I’m guessing it was was very unlike this woman to be careless with her things. Perhaps she wasn’t feeling well and promised herself she’d clean it later and never did. So, I did it for her.

There’s a cleaning solution called Retro Clean and you take all those yellowed linen napkins and tablecloths you have and you soak them in the solution for a day or two and they emerge like they’ve been hanging on a clothesline in the Midwest somewhere, like Kansas, where Dorothy lived, or maybe on a sun-soaked island off the coast of France, like Corsica, and they smell a little like I imagine a perfect world should smell. Fresh and clean and tidy and good. The kind of fresh and clean we don’t get anymore because we have heavy chemical powders and liquids to wash our clothes in and because clotheslines are a thing of the past.

Every time I walk by this tablecloth now I stop and smell it because it reminds me of something better–a better life, a better time, a better world. It smells like a clean farmhouse where someone who really knew how to keep a house lived, someone who kept on top of things, who baked good bread, who ironed her sheets, who set vintage teacups out with fresh sweet rolls, next to a vase of yellow daisies.

So, the dirty old tablecloth has been made new again, and the lady who once owned it must be smiling down at me, happy someone of a caring nature found it. I decided to make it my mission to rescue old linens from garages and basements and drawers and bring them back to life. The kind of fabric they used before, say, 1960, has no comparison to the fabrics we have today. They’re just better. You can’t go to Walmart and buy cloth napkins like the ones in your grandmother’s hutch. So I’m encouraging you all to head to the basement or the attic and find those vintage napkins, buy some Retro Clean, and bring those linens back to life. And then use them. It’s a nice little ritual you can restart—cloth napkins at every meal. Something pretty and sweet and comforting. Something old. So much of what is old is better–before beauty was comprised for profit.

I’ve looked at textiles all over the world: the alpaca wool of Peru, the block print of India, the fine linen of Ireland. Textiles tell a beautiful story of mankind. The stories are about tapestries and vintage clothing and shearling boots and silk robes and gold thread. They’re about the rich Maya costumes of the kings and growing flax and making headdresses to scare away angry gods. They’re about pinafores and cotton and French dish towels and the silk of the queen’s royal robes.

And they’re about your little table in the kitchen and how you live everyday and the fabrics that you touch. Bring back the tablecloth, the real linen napkin, and also egg salad without crust.


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