Earlier this week I got a box from France.
The box was from Laurence Casalta. Laurence and her mother, Francine, run La Boutique de Francine, a vintage linens shop in the town of l’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue in southeast France. Francine’s shop is beloved by vintage linens collectors. Not being a vintage linens person, I did not know of it, but after a week of hearing about it from linen-crazed traveling companions, I was excited to see this shop.
In the week leading up to our trip to Francine’s, we had done a fair amount of poking around the brocante, or flea markets, in other towns in the region. We were amazed at the quantity and quality of embroidered linens at these places. Where did they all come from? Many were 80-100 years old or more, in beautiful condition, or at least nicely laundered and pressed. My workshop companions and I picked up nighties and napkins and pillow cases at these markets. The ones in poorer condition were perfect for the woad dye vat. Dyeing does not erase stains or holes, but it does obscure them.
Part of the fun is searching for monogram initials that match people in your life. I found these napkins with Carrie’s initials in tiny cross stitches.
Not sure when (if ever) my girl will be excited about monogrammed napkins, but they were too good to pass up. I wondered who embroidered them, and for whom, and how long it took. Why weren’t they used, or if they were used, used so gently? Had they been saved for special occasions? The mark of the human hand is so strong. I can visualize these napkins locked into an embroidery hoop, and imagine what an endless task it must have seemed, to work the same monogram on 12 napkins. In my mind, a mother or aunt must have embroidered them for a bride.
These small-town flea market piles did not prepare me for Francine’s.
Francine’s is stacked to the rafters with second-hand linens. As described on the shop’s website, these linens are “not necessarily precious,” but they are old. Many are in original condition, while others are overdyed in saturated colors. I went in thinking I’d look for a couple of overdyed old linen sheets (blue, of course) to use as blankets or throws.
But then I saw this sheet. Laurence saw me staring at it, standing next to it, petting it. The CB monogram, again. The most perfect satin stitch I’ve ever seen. Graduated dots, stylized roses, drawn-thread work, all the way across the top border.
The crazy monogram design that surely must be one-of-a-kind. I asked Laurence what time period she thought it was from. 1920s, she said, the Art Deco era. I don’t know much about vintage linens, but to me this baby was a tour de force. It’s so perfectly made that I wonder if a machine was involved. The threads on the back belie handstitching, but I’m not sure I really care.
When I picked it up, Laurence said: “I’m sorry, though, this one is reserved.” Oh well. Saved from buying something, right? KonMari was smiling on me, right? But then Laurence said, “I have others from the same house.” DAMN.
Hard to believe, but one of these others had Joseph’s initials on it, and the other had a single letter C. KonMari was going to have to hush up and let some joy spark. I got the C and the JB. They weren’t as over-the-top as the CB, but they were beautiful. As I bought them, I used my best schoolgirl French to tell Laurence of my love for the Art Deco period and how unusual these monograms looked to my eye, compared to the other, older things in the shop. And then I asked that if the person who had reserved CB did not come back for it, would she let me know? Of course, she said.
The night before I left France, Laurence texted me: the CB sheet was mine. She was putting it in the mail to me, and I could pay her when I got home. I trust you, she said. I guess I must have looked reliable, in addition to lovesick, when I was giving that sheet the heart eyes.
So now, I find myself with a small collection of vintage French linens–three sheets. Again I wonder, who embroidered them? Where did these designs come from? Who were they for? Why weren’t they used?
I’m not going to save them for special.