Monday, May 3, 2010


If you were to have asked me what immortality was when I was a small child I would have told you that it means you never, ever die. As a teenager, the default meaning was that all the horrible things that killed people—like traffic accidents—only happened to “other people” and didn’t apply to you. Now that I’ve reached “advanced adulthood” I’ve come to believe that immortality doesn’t mean that you don’t die—everything dies sooner or later—instead it means that you live forever. And no, I don’t think that’s a contradiction.

This past Easter weekend I drove a few miles down the road from the cabin and poked around the antique show held on a semi-annual basis outside Round Top, Texas. This was the last day of the show, and the show itself would end in just a few more hours. So of course, bargains were to be had on whatever was still left.

I don’t normally go for “vintage linens” because too many times that just means “used.” But for some reason I stopped into see what all they had piled up on countless tables. As I expected, most of it was nothing special. After considerable digging I found a set of four placemats (with their manufacturer labels still intact!) that had been pieced to look like a “flying geese” quilt pattern. Regularly $0.25 each, they were now reduced to $0.10 each. What a deal for $0.40. I then found a silk stole that someone had done some beadwork on each end of it. Regularly priced at a very reasonable $10 (even though I didn’t need it) it was now down to $5.00.

The vendor, meanwhile, was pushing a “stuff the bag” sale. Anything you could stuff into a 13 gallon kitchen trash bag for $30. I politely passed on this option. I simply couldn’t imagine there to be anything I wanted that would make filling a bag for $30 any sort of a bargain.

But then I came to the table holding piles of crocheted items. Doilies and table runners were selling by the pound (generally about $1.00 each) and tablecloths were $10. As you can imagine, it was pretty well picked over and all the “good stuff” was gone. Everything left was stained, damaged, or stained and damaged. The stuff that wasn’t stained and/or damaged was machine-made, so I wasn’t interested. If you didn’t sew or crochet most of what was left amounted to nothing but a complete pile of rags. But since I do sew and crochet I started digging through the piles with an eye to what could be repaired; what stains might wash out and if not, which pieces could be dyed. Didn’t take long and I realized that I needed that bag afterall! I carefully folded and managed to get not just my four placemats and silk stole into the bag, but seven huge crocheted tablecloths. My bag was so heavy I couldn’t carry it by the handles—they tore. I had to pick it up and carry it over to the check-out. No matter, I was charged the $30 and off I went to put this exceedingly heavy and cumbersome bag into my truck.

I decided to start with the piece—I couldn’t tell if it was a tablecloth or a bedspread—that was going to be the easiest to repair. A classic ecru color, it was composed of innumerable crocheted squares individually whip-stitched together. There was only one tiny place where it needed to be re-crocheted and that was very easily done. All the rest of the work was stitching countless squares back together again in the places where all the thread over the years had just finally given out. What amazed me was the weight. This thing was heavy!

Finished, I put it into the washing machine to clean it up and hope the stains would come out. I pre-soaked it with laundry soap for 3 hours. You should have seen the water. YUK! Nasty doesn’t even begin to describe how dirty it was. So I drained it, added more detergent and decided to let it soak overnight. Next morning, incredibly the water was dirtier still. Fast forward an additional three pre-soakings and I finally had the water “clean” enough that I felt comfortable washing it. The surprise came when I put the piece into the dryer. All the stains had come out without any special treatment, and it was no longer ecru—it was white!! Who would have guessed!

It wasn’t until I started to iron and starch it that I discovered it was really a tablecloth sized for a trestle type of table, which meant it would perfectly on my dining room table. But the big surprise came when I realized why this tablecloth was so heavy. It was heavy not because of its size, but because it had been crocheted entirely out of string. Yes, string! I had assumed it was a very thick crochet thread, which was why I thought originally that it might be a bedspread. But no, it was string: plain, ordinary, white string.

So who made this tablecloth, and why did they use string and not crochet thread? String of the weight used in it is more expensive than crochet thread, so that automatically meant the tablecloth dated back to a time when the string was the cheaper choice.

A little more research that included visiting with elderly ladies of the community as well as talking to my father about it has made me come to the conclusion that I did indeed come home with a treasure. Most likely my tablecloth was made back in the 1930’s during the Great Depression. String was the only real wrapping option available, and it was cheap and plentiful. Every household saved string and reused it again and again. Crochet thread was readily available and my grandmother and great aunts used it, but plenty of women who weren’t as financially well off used string.

So who was the lady who made my tablecloth? I’m probably not ever going to know. Apparently she didn’t have the money to buy crochet thread, but she obviously had a desire for a beautiful table. I look at this tablecloth with new appreciation of this unknown artisan taking ordinary string and turning it into a masterpiece of artistry. You can’t make something like that without putting some small piece of your heart and soul into each and every square and each and every stitch.

Bodies grow old and die, but the spirit and soul do not. And that’s what immortality really is. The lady herself is probably long since dead and buried, but this tablecloth is her immortality. As long as her tablecloth survives, those pieces of her heart and soul live on. Immortality is the gift an artisan receives when their work is treasured, kept, and passed on to future generations. Their names may be lost to history, but as long as their work survives they will continue to live on. While I may never know the lady’s name, she is nonetheless, immortal.

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