A few weeks ago, I bought FIVE big boxes of old Irish linen damask tablecloths and large dinner napkins, in our local saleroom. I don't know exactly how many tablecloths there are. Thirty? Forty? I keep losing track because I get distracted by the beauty of them. (And the weight. My God, but they're heavy!) And that's not counting the small mountain of napkins. Some are perfect, some are a little thin but on those, the patterns are so strange that I think they must be very old indeed.
They are big tablecloths - more than big - huge, some of them 6 yards and more long, old damask banqueting cloths in the finest, smoothest most beautiful linen imaginable. Old linen of this kind - grass bleached, I reckon - feels like glass under the hand. Cool, impossibly smooth. The patterns are woven in, intricate and very beautiful. I think they were laundered a very long time ago, stored away carefully in tissue paper and not brought out into the light of day for many years. Some of them date from 1870 (the date is woven into the ends) with the names of their previous owners, Eliza and Edward Ellice but some are clearly even older. All textiles have a story to tell, but some are more intriguing than others.
A little research revealed that this was a late second marriage for both of them, that Eliza was Eliza Stewart Speirs in September 1867 (some of the linens have the initials ESS embroidered on them). Eliza was born to the 'beautiful Miss Stewart of The Field' as an old Glasgow book tells us. That must have been around 1817 or 18 and her father was Mr Hagart of Stirling. (Jean Armour was still alive, Robert Burns had died only some 22 years previously. ) Her grandfather was Thomas Stewart of the Glasgow Field, a calico printer. Was The Field, then, a bleach field?
Eliza herself married Archibald Speirs on 22nd June in 1836 but he died in 1844 at the age of 39. They had two children.
Archibald's mother was Margaret Dundas, who was born in 1772 and who died (after her son) in 1852.
Somewhere in these boxes of linen is a set of her napkins, or at least they have her name woven into them.
Somewhere, too, is a fine but beautiful tablecloth woven with unicorns, lions, anchors and harps and the date 1849.
Clearly, then, my boxes contain a whole collection of one family's linens, preserved, laundered, labelled and some of them very beautifully mended - obviously much loved pieces. And as you can see - I can never resist researching things, trying to find out something of their history. It's what brings them to life for me and - I hope - for their new owners. I love the rehoming aspects, because textiles, especially old linens, are so often thrown out, or cut up, or used as dust sheets for decorators!
As a break from fiction (even I need a break now and then, much as I love writing novels and stories) I'm working on a little guide to buying and selling antiques and collectibles as a way of making some extra cash in these difficult times - not just textiles, although obviously, that's the subject I know most about! It'll be a few more months before it's ready to go, but I've learned a lot over the last decade or so, and I reckon I might as well pass some of it on to my readers.