buying antique french linens and a new magazine for our Box

by Sharon Santoni

If you have read me for a while, you’ll have understood that I have a rather troublesome linen addiction.   That is to say that I don’t find it troublesome at all, because I just keep buying….  but  if I hush the addict within, and listen to my quieter more discreet self who likes order in the house, then I’m forced to admit that I have run out of storage space for the many monogrammed bedsheets, the piles of tablecloths and the stash of napkins and tea cloths that I’ve smuggled into the house over the years.

I justify my addiction by using the linens all the time.  Every bed in the house is dressed with antique sheets (you cannot beat sleeping in heavy linen, warm in the winter and cool in the heat) and I love to use old table linen for my dinners, the napkins look so pretty on a plate and the tablecloths fall so perfectly.

In my kitchen, I have a drawer full of old red-striped tea cloths, and that is what I want to to talk about today.  Because I am still amazed, after all my years of buying antiques and brocante, at how often I can come across a pile of monogrammed tea cloths, over a century old and never used, not once.

I’m pretty sure they are often part of an original dowry chest,  the fabric woven and hemmed in preparation for a wedding,  monogrammed with the young bride’s initials, and put to one side to be used one day.   And for some reason that day never came.  Either she kept using the older cloths until they were completely threadbare, or could simply never bring herself to no longer have that pile of perfect linens in her armoire.

Whatever the reason, they come to our generation and present  us with a choice to make.  Do we return them to a back of a wardrobe or cupboard and promise to gift them to the next generation, or do we use them every day and enjoy them, and relish the quality of their fabric that is no longer produced?

I’ve told you what I do, I enjoy them every day, and trust that their fabric is still strong for years to come.   But how about you?   Do you believe in enjoying today, or putting aside for tomorrow?

And if you’ve bought some ‘new’ old linens and you’d like to read about how to wash them for the first time and how to care for them, then pop over to our new Magazine section on the Stylish French Box site, and all will be revealed

39 comments

Marilyn July 18, 2017 - 7:11 pm

I bought two gorgeous sheets that actually had my monogram in Provence some years ago. We have used them constantly to the point they are wearing out. How I love sleeping under them. I have several towels I also use on the back of chairs, so pretty.

Reply
Mary Hite July 18, 2017 - 7:14 pm

I too buy old/antique linens and use them. The only ones I have that are not used are some tea towels my Mother embroidered. Since i have others, I saved these for my daughter. The embroidery may not be to her taste, but she appreciates that time and effort put into them by her Grandmother.

Reply
pam July 18, 2017 - 7:26 pm

definitely use them every day as well! same goes for my china, crystal, silver (ice cream tastes heavenly with a sterling silver spoon!) and linen gets better the more it is used…thx for posting

Reply
Nancy Tirk July 18, 2017 - 7:27 pm

I too have a small addiction to linen teatowels and teaclothes, at first I carefully ironed them, used them wherever a flat surface presented itself and it was work to keep them up. Now, I wash them and leave the wrinkles, no one notices, or maybe I have polite friends?, Nope, don’t thinks so. Thank you
for your wonderful photos

Reply
Mary Crozier July 18, 2017 - 8:09 pm

I am so happy to have found a kindred linen addict! I love the ones I have collected and try to use them frequently. Thanks for the comment on using linen sheets….will need to try those on a bed vs. the other multiple uses I have found for them.
Thanks for sharing the gorgeous photos!

Reply
Kate de Vries July 18, 2017 - 8:12 pm

Oh how this post struck a chord with me – another linen and textiles addict! I also sleep under antique linen sheets, and have a huge white ironstone dairy bowl on the kitchen windowsill filled with the same wonderful old teatowels with a red stripe bought at a fair in Le Mans, and use a favourite fine red-checked one to cover my bread dough as it proves. I so enjoy reading your posts Sharon – greetings from the Cotswolds from an ardent Francophile whose early teenage years were spent living in St. Germain-en-Laye.

Reply
Deborah July 18, 2017 - 8:15 pm

I think your sense they were set aside so as to be long loved makes sense. Or maybe those used simply did not wear out! When I moved to a far off island my mother presented me with several potholders she had knitted to look like watermelons. I cried every time I saw them in the drawer for a couple years. One day my daughter grabbed one to remove a pot from the stove — and then they were used continually. Nearly 20 years later, and mom long passed, these pot holders still delight me. Curiously, in her trove of linens found after she died were two cotton potholders made by my daughters and given to her for Christmas. They came off those little steel looms children learn to weave on in the states. Still attached were the handmade gift tags each made for their grandma. This still brings tears to my eyes. She couldn’t bring herself to use them.

Reply
Holly July 18, 2017 - 8:48 pm

Je vous remercie pour ce post. I visit France yearly to see family and am always in search of vintage / antique linens here in the states and abroad. I consider my obsession for these items at times an affliction. I was thrilled upon my visit last year to find some old linen postal sacks at the flea market in Toulouse for 6 euros. Thanks for sharing your story and beautiful photos and letting me know I am not alone.

Reply
Taste of France July 18, 2017 - 8:54 pm

My grandma gave me some sheets nearly four decades ago, and they just recently were retired. They weren’t even antique; the quality was just very good.
For our vacation rentals, I bought antique French monogrammed or embroidered sheets, in cotton and linen. They are gorgeous, especially when ironed, and feel incredible. I made pillowcases from sheets that had imperfections, because it’s hard to find enough pillowcases in the right size. As you say, they feel good in both winter and summer. We’ve adopted antique sheets for home, too, now that Grandma’s have been reduced to dropcloths.

Reply
Katacradul July 18, 2017 - 9:22 pm

Embellished white handkerchiefs. Oh, so many of them.

Reply
Dianne Adams July 18, 2017 - 9:23 pm

As you know, in California we have these terrible fires and my son, who is a fire chief once asked the owner of what was, just hours before a very lovely home, what thoughts were going through her head as they stood looking at nothing but ashes. She simply replied “drink your stored wine, use your fine linens, they can all be gone in the blink of an eye”.

Reply
Clavel Avery July 18, 2017 - 10:55 pm

I too suffer acutely from the linen addiction! When I had an antique store in beautiful Carmel, California I had so many linens I should have sold them by the pound instead of by the piece.
I would return from the Paris flea market and also markets in the south of France with yet more boxes of beautiful monogrammed sheets, hand towels, those beautiful red stripes, children’s linen smocks, tablecloths, napkins. All to love.
The “thin” pieces I double and have linings made for iron oyster baskets or old wool and grape baskets. These store yet more beautiful and useful linens or…..?
I launder all myself also in very hot water and line dry. I iron them using a spray mix of fresh grass and lavender. Heavenly.
I confess….I love to walk by and peek in the armoire or drawers just to see the stacks and smell the fresh, clean fragrance! I store cloth bags of dried rosebuds and lavender in the armoire and drawers. Even in the kitchen.
I use as many as possible every day! Sheets are always on the beds. Also used for duvet covers. So beautiful. Friends love to stay!

Reply
Sandra July 18, 2017 - 11:00 pm

It is so good for the soul to use all of your lovely linens, china etc all of the time. Enjoy.
I am now retired and living on an island off the coast of Queensland Australia. Love your posts. When I travelled in France I loved shopping in the markets.

Reply
david terry July 18, 2017 - 11:24 pm

I know, Sharon…..it’s probably more than usually naive of me to assume that, just because two people were born and bred on the same island, they must know each other, but?….

Do you know of Elizabeth Baer? She’s British, and she founded/owns a textile company that imports lots (or so I gather) of old French textiles. I was reading about her just this morning, in a book I bought recently. She seems to be the doyenne (at least according to this book) of using old French linen sheets and lengths of ticking as curtains, cushions, and upholstery.

It all looks wonderful to me (there are many photographs of her house in Wiltshire in this book).

Amusingly enough, though, I couldn’t help but consider what my grandmother and great-aunts would think if they saw a sofa expensively re-upholstered in mattress ticking (however old or imported the ticking might be). They’d probably react just as they would if they saw another woman blithely walking around town with her undergarments worn on top of her dress.

Hope all’s still well in Normandy,

David Terry

Reply
Irene G Peterson July 18, 2017 - 11:38 pm

Ever think of sharing some by selling?

Would love to hear from you.

Reply
Reneelynn July 19, 2017 - 1:16 am

Oh please use all your beautiful things…I work in a thrift shop and sooo many china sets and linens and handmades come to us after someone has passed away and we can see they were saved for someday ….and they now have ended up in a thrift shop for very little money…use your lovlies and let your children and grand children see you using them. they may be more inclined to want them after you are gone….

Reply
Melissa July 19, 2017 - 1:59 am

Oh me to. I just love antique linens. when you pick one up I immediately imagine where it has come from and the stories behind it.

Reply
MARLA July 19, 2017 - 2:46 am

Is it possible to purchase a large antique linen tablecloth through you, Sharon? I have my French grandma and great grandma’s few things. They are lovely and I feel so special when I layer them on the table. I don’t have anything large enough to use alone. I was wondering if an antique sheet would work well as a tablecloth. Let me know I I can order from you. Thank you…the blog is so gorgeous!!!

Reply
Bronwyn Lee-Coward July 19, 2017 - 2:50 am

Almost 20 years ago now I bought home from one of our trips abroad a tea towel as a small gift for a friend. This was mentioned at lunch one day by the friend to our little group and of course requests were made by other members of the group that they also wanted a tea towel from my next trip away. So after bringing home several tea towels next time, I tried to make them different from each other, we decided on a plan. The plan was that who ever went away had to bring home a couple of tea towels mostly souvenir style we would raffle them and when we attended our yearly Breast Cancer Luncheon we would donate the proceeds to Breast Cancer Research. We lost a dear friend in 2002. We have been doing thais for years now and I have even sent tea towels to friends I have met on trips overseas. It is great fun and I thought that I would like to share this with you today after reading about the tea towels. If anyone would be interested in sending over a tea towel from your home town or country we will auction it and reciprocate by sending you one back from Australia. I have a tea towel from Venice, which is a particular favourite and recently sent a lovely tea towel to Frances Schultz (Decorator and Columnist) who resides in the USA.

Reply
Kerrie Roberts July 19, 2017 - 10:49 am

Hi Bronwyn, I’m an australian living in southwest France. When ever we travel here I buy a teatowel from our destination and send it to my mother and she says they remind her of us every time she uses them. I’d be happy to send one to you from our area.

Reply
Bronwyn Lee-Coward July 19, 2017 - 10:31 pm

Hi Kerrie, that would be so nice. I would love for you to do that. Would you like a little reminder of Australia. Where did you originate from? I live in the Blue Mountains in NSW. Just relocated from Sydney. I am on Facebook/Messenger if you would like to make contact. I look forward to hearing from you.

Reply
Nancy Brantley July 19, 2017 - 2:52 am

Oh my, I sure would like to know if I could purchase some sheets from you? I have never slept on French sheets..I have heard they are luxury.

Reply
Donna July 19, 2017 - 3:25 am

Helen Sharon
Thank you for te interesting hints on storing and washing these beautiful linen sheets. I visit
France annually and plan to purchase some next trip. Could you assist me with a sizing query please? Do most of these antique sheets fit a queen size bed or are they more suited for the smaller double sizing?
Thank you!

Reply
Dottie Monta July 19, 2017 - 6:57 am

Ah, I thought it was just me (drawers filled to capacity)! From wearing it all Summer to layering it on tables indoors and out, and sleeping in it, linen is the very best. (Did anyone’s mother and her friends enclose handkerchiefs in birthday greeting cards? It’s why we have so many of those, too!)

Reply
Kerrie Roberts July 19, 2017 - 10:55 am

Sharon, I was once told that much of this unused linen is the result of the world wars. So many young men were killed that there was a dearth of potential husbands so many young women remained single and , I suppose, left their marriage linen in the attic. It is also the reason why there are so many spanish and italian surnames in the south of France. Refugees from the spanish civil war and the second world war found refuge here and married locals.

Reply
Janet Lee Hoerst July 19, 2017 - 12:50 pm

I have drawers full of antique linens of my great-grandmother’s, who was born in 1875! I even have an old lavender quilt she gave me for my bed as a child. I use her beautifully embroidered linen sheets with her monogram as tablecloths for art shows and parties. Of course, I layer a less sentimental small topper over in them in case of spills. Seeing them remind me of Nanny and her beautiful workmanship.

Reply
MARIANNA CHRYST July 19, 2017 - 1:04 pm

I HAVE MY MOTHERS AND GRANDMOTHERS ANTIQUE LINENS . I USE THE TABLES CLOTHS AND TOWELS.I FEEL MY MOTHER AND GRANDMOTHER CLOSE TO ME.

Reply
Jane Golding July 19, 2017 - 3:54 pm

I, too, share your addiction for French linens! I recently bought a set of French linen napkins, which are embroidered with a monogram and the number 12 – for the date 1912, I suppose. I have never seen a date on napkins before. I use my linens every day, and, like your other reader, I also use my French crystal glasses and silver cutlery on a daily basis. They go so well together! Everyone loves the antique Champagne glasses.
I once met a very elegant French woman in the market who was wearing a beautiful dress that she had made from an old linen sheet!

Reply
Nina Singh July 19, 2017 - 4:58 pm

Hi Sharon

Enjoyed reading your post.
I went back an re-read your post from a while back about the French wash houses.Thank you for sharing these amazing stories and pictures from the days gone by with us.

Reply
Rene E July 19, 2017 - 8:42 pm

Oh my, it’s amazing how many of us textile junkies are out there! I too have antique steamer trunks filled with fabulous antique and vintage linens (as well as clothes). However, I must admit to being one of those people who “saves” the perfect bedsheets, towels, cloths etc. I have so much that several years ago, I went through everything and set aside the pristine pieces for someone in the future to find. I know what a thrill it was for me to find the beautiful specimens, and I want someone else to have that same feeling.

An old friend once said, “Rene, I want to be around when they dispose of your estate. You have so many beautiful pieces.” For her birthday that year I gave her a set of french sheets and a full table service to fit her dining room. She was thrilled and I loved sharing the beautiful pieces with her. It was the birth of another linen addict!

Don’t get me wrong, I use beautiful old linens every day. Like everyone else replying to this thread, I love considering the stories they could tell. However, I am also a saver. So, one day there will be a fabulous estate sale for future linen addicts to come away with some wonderful finds!

Reply
Charlotte Des Fleurs July 19, 2017 - 10:12 pm

I think it might be a “generational” thing. My mother, who grew up in the Great Depression, had cabinets full of nice towels, sheets and others linens she received as a bride or was given by her mother.

My mother NEVER used them. She said she was saving them for a nice occasion. Consequently, I grew up sleeping on cheap poly cotton sheets which were used until only the “poly” was left. My sister and I inherited all the linens. Some were so old and musty that they could not be cleaned. I used the ones I received and ALWAYS use nice linen for everyday use.

What can be a “nicer occasion” than to sleep every night on wonderful sheets! Happy to hear that others feel the same.

Reply
Lara July 20, 2017 - 5:38 am

We are living in Canada, but my husband’s family is from the Italian countryside outside Trieste. His mother’s sister never married, and still lives in the family home. One one of our recent visits she pressed us to take home some heavy linens hand embroidered for her “trousseau”. We struggled with the weight in our luggage but managed to get them home, and I haven’t spent a night without them since. The weight and texture and substance of those sheets and shams, plus the love and care put into all that handwork, 60 plus years ago, makes my dreams sweet every night. Some addictions are completely understandable!

Reply
Emm July 21, 2017 - 10:07 pm

Such a good reminder. I’ve been meaning to get out and start using a number of embroidered hand and tea towels that keep getting passed down in the family, and they’re probably at least 65 years old. And a number of monogrammed linen napkins from the (probably) ’40s, although a number are stained. Some work to do, methinks.

Reply
Dorka July 22, 2017 - 11:00 am

Once upon a time I inherited some linen bedsheets with initials embroidered by my mother in law.This turned to be a never ending story, since I constantly look for every type of old linen, fist of all pillow cases.I use them every day and my guests enjoy them in my cottage. love from the heat in the Great Hungarian Plane. Dorka http://www.dorottyaudvar.co.hu

Reply
david terry July 22, 2017 - 3:45 pm

Okay…..True Story/Question:

A local friend of nine has, for years, scoured the American equivalents of brocantes for old, embroidered linens. I’ve gotten quite a few pieces from her over the years as presents……including a number of matching-sets of “His” & “His” pillowcases. “His” is, as you might guess, embroidered on each pillowcase….and, yes, a pair of these do make amusing house-presents for gay-male couples.

According to my friend (a woman, herself), pillowcases (and these generally look to be from the 1930’s-50’s)embroidered with “Hers” are REALLY uncommon. So, she rarely has a set appropriate for a married, heterosexual couple, and certainly never a matched-pair of “Hers” pillowcases.

Why the scarcity of vintage “Hers” pillowcases? My friend claims this must be the result of ladies lying around in the bed at least twice as much as the men, who got up to go to work every morning and didn’t take naps, take to their beds with a “sick headache”, etcetera. All the “Hers” pillowcases must have simply worn out long before the matching “His” pillowcases did.

I’ve told her that her theory isn’t exactly the most convincingly feminist analysis I’ve ever encountered, but she insists she’s right. She IS right, nonetheless, in the simple fact of there being about twice as many “His” pillowcases as there are “Hers”.

What would you speculate is the reason for this phenomenon???????

I sincerely doubt that many Southern ladies were sitting around, laboriously embroidering pillowcases for gay-male couples in the 1940’s.

I have wondered if, just maybe, most women started the project with a pillowcase for their husbands, and simply never got around to finishing the set (that sounds likely, to me; housewives stay BUSY with a lot f chores/duties other than embroidery).

Inquiringly yours as ever,

David Terry
Hillsborough, NC
USA

Reply
Jill July 23, 2017 - 1:50 am

I collect the red-striped torchons and make lavender sachets out of them! And out of other antique linens, as well… it’s a wonderful way to use them and love them again (although I will admit I sometimes have to take a deep breath before I cut into the fabrics).

Reply
Emm July 23, 2017 - 8:44 pm

The pictures of the linens with red stripes reminds me — and I’ve noticed how many of the very old pieces are made that way — I remember reading once, somewhere, that the Germans had a dye or method for red that didn’t run, but that it was lost in World War One. Wondering if anyone knows more about the history of commercial dyes.

Reply
Phyllis July 28, 2017 - 2:25 pm

Love French Country and your wonderful newsletter. Looking forward to sharing your new book as I display it on my coffee table!

Reply
Marilyn Ligon August 12, 2017 - 4:11 am

Sharon, I am interested in visiting with you and having a tours of Normandy and the areas near by. Some of my good friends from Arkansas have been with you and so enjoyed their stay. It would be my daughter and myself and some others if we can get a group together. Please email me about the tour we could set up in early 2018

Reply

Leave a Comment