Monday, April 21, 2008
I was reflecting on the peculiarly evocative scent of old textiles today when I was listing an antique Chinese silk 'piano shawl' on eBay. It has that distinctive scent which all textile collectors will know and - if you are like me anyway - grow to love! There are, of course, a number of smells associated with old textiles, and not all of them are pleasant. Sometimes, when rummaging through a box of old linens, you can be sent reeling by the horrible aromas of old, stale starch emanating from them. Often, this can result in sinister brown stains on sheets, pillows, tablecloths, but it's surprising how such marks will disappear with a good soaking, followed by thorough laundering - and of course linen is very forgiving. Then there's the sneeze provoking and astringent aroma of old dust, lodged among the fibres. As soon as you immerse these fabrics in water, you can smell it rising to meet you - I always feel triumphant when it has gone, knowing how it can eat into the fibres. Worst of all, I think, is cigarette smoke. You can get rid of it when fabrics are washable, but when - for example - old embroideries have lived with smokers over some years, the stench of smoke (and the yellowing) becomes both hideous and virtually ineradicable.
But there is another peculiar, not unpleasant scent, which is often to be found clinging to old silk and lace. I found myself pointing it out in my listing earlier today and remarking that I love it, although I'm aware that not everybody does! It is a strange, musky and magical scent that I invariably associate with lovely old things, like this heavily embroidered shawl. The first time I became aware of it was many years ago when a Polish cousin gave me an old lace collar from a box of treasured family items. There was this peculiar scent still clinging to it - slightly herbal - a trace of very old lavender perhaps? Musky, feminine, nostalgic. This shawl smells the same. I've aired it and the scent is fading. A little fresh lavender will almost but not quite mask it. To me it is as precious and emotive as the scent of old books - which I also love!
The closest thing I have ever found to it is Hungary Water or "the Queen of Hungary's Water" an ancient perfume distilled from rosemary and thyme with - variously - lavender, mint, sage, marjoram, orange blossom and lemon. Crabtree and Evelyn used to - but no longer seem to - make it, and I used to buy it. You can, however, read more about it here. The other scent which I have written about in a long poem called The Scent of Blue, and which seems to have something of the same timeless quality about it, is l'Heure Bleue by Guerlain, which is one of my all time favourites.
Posted by Catherine Czerkawska at 5:36 pm