Apparently I am sucked into the Throwback Thursday vortex, for amid my housework wanderings I stumbled across some dish-drying towels that brought a flood of memories over me. The first thing that came to mind was curiosity about whether there are many others who grew up using tea-towels like these made of flour sacking material and hand-embroidered, often with a small posy or aphorism in the corner, and usually by Mom or some older relative, at least until we ourselves were conscripted for the task.
My mother enjoyed embroidery as a relaxation mode as well as art form, and the last batch of dish towels that I know of her having made were a series of line drawings of local native flora, based (with the author’s permission) on a book of lovely little watercolors of the same plants and flowers. I chose one representing a favorite alpine blossom, even though the creamy white blooms were guaranteed to fade quickly against the pale fabric, and the outline of them remains faintly visible even after many years of hard use. That’s a perfect representation, in its way, of how my memory works. I began to reminisce, seeing this embroidery, on the alpine plants that have always signaled peace and freedom to me as I day-hiked on the flanks of Mt. Rainier. So I meandered over to search online for native alpine plants of the northwest, and as soon as I began looking at the images I was struck with an infusion of the very scent of those hikes, a spicy, earthy, fresh and herbal blend of tree resins—cedar, pine, alpine fir—and sun-baked earth, lightly perfumed flowers, crushed needles and fallen leaves underfoot, the brisk dash of elevated air. What a lot of fine things to be contained, in addition to the treasury of love and family history, within my mama’s embroidered dish drying cloth.
You might think I’d’ve inherited an embroidery gene, because in addition to my mom’s fine handiwork, I grew up seeing and using Grandma’s embroidered towels and pillowcases and enjoyed them, too. I did not, and since I had these two sources readily available, I didn’t mourn the gap in my skill set. I could always go to one or the other of them and find some new kitchen linens in a time of need.
My father’s mother never got so inventive as to design her own embroideries based on book illustrations like Mom’s were, but Grandma chose for her projects the resource of hand-me-down and found patterns, most of them quite out of date already (hence the ease of her collecting them), and almost all of them much quirkier and tackier than her normally refined taste would have allowed. These were, however, mainly destined to be given to charity or sold for the proceeds that would go to the charity in their stead, so she had no attachment or agenda for showing them at home. I, on the other hand, bought a few not only out of any little do-gooder intentions but because the sheer silliness of some of the designs so delighted me.
This one, for example, that was my inspiration for joining now in the Throwback Thursday brigade, was highly amusing to me in its ridiculously fantastic subject, its period style, and its girly goofiness. I couldn’t resist it. I found no other Days of the Week as companions, so I can only imagine what happened on those days, but it was enough to find this towel that could simultaneously remind me of my grandmother and my youth and make me laugh, all while getting my dishes dried.
Fashions change, and with them, the decor and even tools that fill our lives and homes. Yesterday’s dish towels are probably more often machine-made of some high-tech sort of microfiber or super-absorbent bamboo fiber blend with an artful printed-on design in the proper Pantone colors of the year. But do they do a more artful job, as well, of wiping dishes dry after washing? Can they strain soup broth into crystal clarity? Do they make perfect wraps for ice packs when a sore neck or bruised arm is in want of one? No better than the old standbys of my youth, I imagine. Old as I am, I come from good stock that valued something a bit quaint and very handmade, and if it managed to accomplish the task and carry memories for decades at the same time, why, I suspect I’ll do well to try to be a human imitation of it myself.
Reblogged this on The Federation of Women's Institutes of Canada and commented:
I used to embroider tea-towels. I remember the transfer tissues and ironing the pattern to the linen or pillowcase. My eyesight is too poor these days to do needle work, but I am grateful to be able to read this lovely piece from Kathryn.
Thank you so much for the re-post, Maggie! Yes, those transfer patterns! What a struggle to get them to imprint properly sometimes—and I think perhaps the weirdly misaligned T on Grandma’s ‘Thursday’ might have originally been an oversized capital whose bottom disappeared from the print. She was generally more meticulous than that. 😉 I’ve probably told you already about the *end* of my embroidery career, when I was in about junior high or high school, sat laboring over a pillowcase or tea-towel all of one evening, stood up to go to bed, and realized I’d embroidered the thing to the lap of my nightgown. 😛 !!!
Talk about a lovely blast from the past…embroidered tea towels:):) xx
If I’d thought of it, I should have posted the prettiest one I have by far, but I was sitting with my arms leaned on it while I typed! Maybe later…. 😉
I have one of my mum’s tea towels covering my printer, and two keyboards……… good on ya mum
So funny! As I just mentioned to Janet, I discovered after I’d put up the post that the one real beauty in my collection was literally under my nose, since I rest my arms on it while typing at the laptop it normally protects from dust. Ha! Great minds think alike, eh?
Cheers to all our mothers and grandmothers who did this labor of love! 😀
Oh I love this post! I remember these very well. I actually love the second one here, there’s so much character to it. Quirky it definitely is! Fabulous. And like Maggie above I remember the tissue patterns to iron onto the fabric be it a pillowcase, tea towel or a cloth to cover what we called a tea trolley! Throwback Thursday indeed! 😊
If I get to choose, when it comes to things like these, the quirkier the better! So glad you enjoyed. I may just throw in some more, come next Thursday—or would that constitute ‘throwing in the towel’?? 😉
OMG! I didn’t think anyone else had these! I’ve got so many towels, handkerchiefs, pillow cases and doilies that my mom and grandmother stitched up. I still use a few, but wish I had more uses for them. I did learn and made a few, however those have been misplaced years ago.
I’m starting to think of fun ways to make simple, fun little summer tops and/or aprons out of the not-so-raggedy ones…wheels turning…. 🙂
I used to have several embroidered flour sacks given to me by my Aunt Pansy. She was quite the embroiderer. Sadly I used them till they fell apart. Now I buy the plain white ones and never even consider embellishing them.
Me too. Now I merely paint mine with all sorts of food stains. Not that beets and curries don’t make their own pretty fabric patterns.
Not discounting the beauty of such hand-work, how much lovelier they seem wrapped in memories – especially, the way you so charmingly and lovingly share them, Kathryn. XO ❤
🙂 Everything is made better through love, as you know so well, sweet Diane! 😀
another very good read