Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Research Point - Looking at a Textile Piece at Home

When was the piece made and how long has it been in your possession?
This tablecloth was bought by my uncle around 1970.  As far as I know it was new when he bought it. He brought it to England as a present for my Grandma.  When she died in 1994, this, and a few items from her sewing box were passed onto me. 

Who made it and where was it made?
I am fairly sure it was bought in either Hong Kong or Singapore where my uncle was based with the Royal Navy at the time. I don't know, but imagine it was stitched by a local home-based worker then sold at a shop or market.

What is it made of?
Fine white linen cloth (I can count 48 threads per inch) with two strands of brightly coloured cotton for the cross stitch design.  There is some pulled thread work around the border that looks like it is worked in either beige cotton perle or a single strand of cotton.

Can you identify the techniques that have been used?
I wondered whether the design was printed on using a washable transfer then stitched, or whether a chart and counted cross stitch was used.  I've concluded that it's probably a washable transfer. I think using a chart is unlikely, as counting over so many fine threads would be extremely time consuming and tricky to get the positioning correct.  I've found a set of four vintage transfers with an oriental design for sale today. One transfer is used for each corner of a square tablecloth design and I could imagine something similar to this being used.

The crosses are worked over five threads.  Inspecting the direction of the stitch on the reverse, I can tell that a row of half crosses have been worked first, then the top stitches.  Surprisingly the top half of the stitch is not always worked in the same direction, which breaks the first rule of cross stitch.  Only small areas are worked at a time with the thread only being carried over a maximum of three stitches and consequently the back looks neat.  I think maybe only one thread has been used, doubled up and secured using the loop method as I can only see one end for each colour area. The ends have been secured by running under just one stitch and cut close therefore some stitching has come loose through wear over time. Perhaps all these techniques have been uses to be economical with thread?  Barely any back stitch has been used, except to highlight the flag on the junk in the corner where the crosses are worked diagonally. The pulled thread border appears to be a variation of a hemstitch. 

Look closely to see the direction of the top half of the cross varies

Looking closely at the blue flower border, I thought at first I saw errors, then I realised they were adjustments. For example, by increasing the number of crosses from four to six in the flower centres, this made sure that the corners met and altering the colour repetitions ensured no two flower centres of the same colour are adjacent.

Was it made by hand or machine? How are you able to determine this?
This is definitely a wholly hand-made piece.  On the reverse of the cloth you can just see the tiny slip stitches on the hem, the knots on the pulled thread work and how the ends have been secured by threading under other stitches.  These are not techniques that could be done by machine.

Evidence of hand stitching

What is it's purpose? Do you still use it? If not, how was it used and by whom?
It's a cloth 118cm square, so presuming a standard 20-25cm skirting at each end, then it would be suitable for a small table around 80cm square. I have never used it as I've never had the right size or shaped table.  I just like to get it out every now and again to look at.  I've seen vintage tablecloths recycled into aprons and other items and I've thought about it but I don't feel able to cut it up as it reminds me of my Grandma who taught me to sew.  I can't remember specifically seeing this tablecloth being used in her house but the linen reminds me of the tray cloths she had and I can remember she always used a tablecloth when visitors came for tea as the table underneath was pretty shabby!

What does it tell you about the maker or the user in terms of gender, role in society, wealth or environment?
There is not a huge amount of skill needed to produce one of these, just endless patience. I don't have any more details on the story my uncle's purchase unfortunately and I've searched for images of similar cloths to try to find out more about the maker, with little success. The handful of comparable cloths I have found, seem to have ended up in the UK and US and have been sold by vintage linen shops on auction sites. They are all square, with an almost identical colour palette, a drawn thread border and a version of the blue inner flower border. They also all have a set of matching napkins, so mine was quite possibly part of a set originally.  Most are slightly smaller than mine and described as being ideal for a tea or bridge table so perhaps this was the intended market? One of the most similar I found is described as 1930s. Perhaps mine wasn't bought new after all, or were these cloths being produced over many years?

Being stitched on fine linen, I feel that the cloths were made for a reasonably wealthy or overseas market, where I can imagine the vibrant images of pagodas, junks and willows looked wonderfully exotic. The tablecloth owners I have contacted, all seem to have come by theirs second hand, so unfortunately they couldn't tell me any more.  Why the top crosses go in different directions is bothering me.  Is mine perhaps a copy of a higher quality product? Zooming in on a photo of another cloth for sale, if I look closely and see this also has stitches going the wrong way. I wonder how much the cloths were bought for originally, as considering the hours of work involved, their value is very low today.  If anyone has any thoughts on my questions and theories, I'd love to hear them.

What do you particularly like about the piece?
Besides the memories of my Grandma's house it evokes, I like the feel of the white linen, which is quite soft and I love that the fabric holds the clean smell of washing detergent.  The design is friendly, the colours are still bright and fresh and I imagine being somewhere civilised enjoying drinking tea from china cups and eating cake on a table with this cloth.

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