My parents still have monogrammed sheets, table cloths and towels from when they got married in 1965. When I moved to my own apartment as a 20-year-old I got some of them with me. They have started to look a bit worn now, but they have served us well during all these years. Today I celebrate old sheets.
We spent last week in a rented cabin in Tiveden, between the two largest lakes in Sweden. As a city woman I obsess over flea markets and second hand stores whenever I get to the countryside or smaller cities. Stockholm doesn’t have what I’m after: Old textiles, especially bed linen.
There is a large flea market a 45 minute drive from the cabin. Last year it was closed due to the covid restrictions, so I was extra jazzed about going this year. During the past years there has been a giant table with textiles at the flea market. A woman traveling the countryside collecting old textiles from forgotten linen cabinets runs the table and has a trained eye for the good stuff. Previous summers I have bought sheets and pillowcases of remarkable quality, some hand woven. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were over 100 years old.
A dream of the future
The material of the old sheets is thick and dense and filled with the promise of a good night’s sleep. Most of the sheets have monograms and some lace edgings and embellishments. Some are hand sewn, some even hand woven. You can barely see the mid seam that joins the left and right side of the weaves of a narrow hand loom.
Who made those monograms and laces? What was going through her mind as she stitched them? How late at night did she work with the needle? What were her dreams of the future? Did she sleep happily on her sheets? Did it occur to her that some of her sheets would be forgotten and some cherished by new generations?
The sheets my parents got back in 1965 were store bought. My father designed the monogram and they had them machine sewn at a monogram service before the wedding. It took me many years to realize that the mysterious stitch formation was actually my parents initial letters. As a child they were just there on all sheets, as natural as the sheets themselves.
When I asked my mother about her and my father’s monogram I also asked of she could look for older family monograms in their linen cabinet. She found some from the late 19th and early 20th century from all sorts of great-great aunts.
Many of you may have heard of Berta’s flax. This is a project started by Christiane Seufferlein who got an old dowry chest from a relative to Berta, a woman who got married in Austria in the 1940’s. The chest was filled with processed flax, which worked as a security for a woman. Christiane decided to share the flax with the world and spends her free time shipping flax all over the world. Berta’s flax is long gone, but after came Maria’s, Rosa’s and other women’s flax chests.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s many of these chests were burnt since nobody was interested in their contents. Much like the old sheets I find on flea markets. But these are true treasures. Made with love, hopes and dreams and remarkable skills.
Top and bottom
Through the years on the flea market visits we have bought mainly bottom sheets – machine woven, hand woven, with or without monograms or lace. The important thing is that they are old. A lot of top sheets have been displayed on the textile table too. A top sheet is a longer sheet placed on top of the sleeper, directly under a blanket or patchwork quilt. The top of the top sheet – traditionally embellished with some sort of lace and, of course, a monogram – is folded over the top edge of the blanket.
We haven’t bothered with the top sheets for sale since we use duvets and duvet covers (I don’t even think top sheets are made anymore). But after thinking just a tiny step outside the box I realized that we could use the top sheets as bottom sheets too. Even if the pretty lace would be tucked underneath the mattress they would still be high quality old sheets.
Bad and good fortune
When we got to the flea market this year I went straight to the textile table. Only to find it empty. Empty as in she was not there at all. Not even a thread in sight. We really didn’t need more sheets, but I still love going through her textiles, imagining the lives behind all the monogrammed treasures. And she was such a textile heroine, collecting treasures and saluting women’s skills.
As we came back to the cabin we went for another ride. This time to a hembygdsgård, sort of a homestead or folk museum. At the gate was a tiny table with old monogrammed sheets. Another textile heroine had saved treasures from the past. I fondled them and saw in my mind our cramped linen cabinet. The sheet section is abundant. However, the duvet covers are not enough and those we have are thinning out.
Old new duvet covers
The oldest duvet covers I have seen are from the 1960’s. Not with the bad quality of today, but still not near the quality of the older textiles. Therefore I don’t bother looking for them on flea markets. So my problem was how to get hold of high quality duvet covers without buying new ones. With another step outside the box I realized that I could make duvet covers with the top sheets! I found two reasonably matching pairs of top sheets (these were made long before standardized sheet measurements) and sewed them together into two smashing duvet covers. A little too narrow for our duvets, and with the four different monograms upside down, but still, heavenly to sleep under.
So why is the quality in old sheets so much higher than in modern sheets? Well, this is connected to the fashion industry. The pressure to buy more and new clothes every turn of the season has led to a pressure on the cotton industry. The cotton fibers are shorter to make way for more harvests. The yarn is more loosely spun and the fabrics are woven at a wider sett to save fiber.
For the past 20 years or so I have slept on an Austrian giant pillow of 80×90 cm. For this reason none of the Swedish pillowcases, old or new, match my pillow. But now, as we have these dreamy pillowcases I have decided to retire my Austrian pillow and buy two Swedish size pillows instead. Filled with wool from Swedish sheep, of course. Soon I will dream sweet dreams on pillowcases thick as cardboard, tied together with sweet bowed ribbons.
A new generation
When Dan and I got married in 1998 we didn’t have monogrammed sheets. We did however get new linen sheets as a wedding present. They thinned out many years ago. We still use one of them, though, as a back curtain to a wool/linen curtain I wove a few years ago for our front door.
Our children won’t have the same memories I did of parents’ monogrammed sheet. For the past years, though they have got used to sleeping on high quality old flea market sheets. They are 16 and 18 now and will move out sooner or later. When they do I won’t get them new sheets for their new homes. I will get them old sheets.
So if you haven’t already, next time you go to a flea market, look for old sheets and bed linen. Get all you can and save these sweet treasures from oblivion.
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