Panoply on The Linen Sisters - The Hunt for Vintage & Antique Linens

While collaborating in business with two of my six sisters, we each have our preferences when it comes to picks in the marketplace of vintage and antique shopping. But one common thread we all share is the love for vintage and antique linens. Oh, what joy and time we three share when we come across bulk or lot purchases of cloths from the past! We very typically have made whole weekends of dividing up linens one of us has purchased for the benefit of all, which has led us to our self-proclaimed “Linen Sisters” name. Fresh from one of those weekend get togethers, it goes something like this…

First, let’s rewind anywhere from six days to six months prior to a linens weekend together. We have a picker in the Midwest who is passionate about old textiles, and she has been a steady source of wonderful linens for us for nearly two years. She goes to country auctions, and one of us will purchase from her. Or, we may scout local auctions, and anytime there are linens, we patiently wait, and hope the sales will be in choice lots (many items included at the auction block and highest winning bid allowed purchases of more than one grouping at a time, if desired). One exclusion to our hunt for textiles are quilts, as they typically are auctioned one at a time, and usually at very high prices, so we don’t engage in “group therapy” when buying these. Estate sales, flea markets and yard sales are also very good sources of vintage linens. Our mission is to search and rescue what the generations before us so lovingly invested their free time in creating, and whose heirs apparently have lost sight of the faces behind the needle such that they discard these works of art into the universe. And, of course, online auctions and vintage shops are other means of picking vintage linens, though not as cost- or time-effective in our experience.

So, after a given purchase is considered complete, either by standards of quantity gathered or money spent, we linen sisters plan for a weekend of what my husband terms as “incestuous shopping”. Yes, you read that correctly, so tagged because one of us usually buys (pays), and then later we each shop individually from the pile, and then spend time dividing and reconciling the money spent, reimbursing the one who paid for the lot purchase. We gather at one of our homes, spread the picks out like a little store, and perform a round-robin style shopping spree among ourselves. This is where the fun really begins! Can you say laugh? I’m talking rolling on the floor and nearly wetting ourselves, usually over some hideous linen in ghastly colors or nasty stains or holes that can’t even qualify as a crafter or cutter, but sometimes just for a comment made or a memory stirred while going through the pile! Can you say hungry? All that work makes a shopper ravenous, depending on the snacks available, and so we break during the shopping for snack foods and meals (that we’ve recently come to gather in potluck style, just like the linens, in anticipation of one of these weekends).

We will create subsets of our linens while shopping, trying our best to come up with multiples of three to choose from, making choices as equitable as possible. There are tablecloths, napkins, towels – dish, tea, fingertip – and table scarves, runners, toppers, potholders, bun warmers, doilies, antimacassars (arm & head covers which prevent soiling of chairs or sofas). There are sheets, pillowcases and the ever-popular hankies – many so painstakingly trimmed in crocheted, tatted, cross-stitched, embroidered or even hand-drawn threads – all there for us to ooh and ahh over together, admiring the beauty of the needlework and the investment the women had in their articles for their homes. Many are folded with tissues still intact, so cherished by the original owner that they were stored quite professionally; others bear a provenance evident of having been repurposed from a former use, whether it’s a feedsack turned into an apron or table topper, or baby pillowslip from a standard pillowcase. When we’re lucky, we’ll even get some provenance on the faces behind the needles, learning a little of the history of the woman who so lovingly invested herself in her home economics. All the while, we exchange ideas we’ve scoured, by either reading articles or in actual practice, on how to treat stains, launder and press the linens. The whole weekend event and the events leading up to it is a sort of convention, or seminar. And the take-aways are the best!

When the weekend is finally over, we each separate our piles according to our own methods of madness, and delight in the time spent together and the emotional affairs we each are about to engage in – in laundering, pressing, and generally readying our linens for either our personal inventory or retail availability.

By RP Cobb

Panoply: “A Wide-Ranging and Impressive Array”


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