Monday, April 28, 2008

Pretty Linens on the Line

I bought a fabulous box of vintage linen tablecloths at auction last week, all very beautifully embroidered, and here they are hanging on the line! I've been using the dryer for my linens all winter, but now that the weather has improved, there's nothing like a little fresh Scottish air - and it's environmentally friendly as well! Nobody up here in Scotland rates these much at the moment - dense and clever floral embroideries which are so evocative of the 1940s and 50s. I remember my late mother working on cloths like this, and still have her old 'Stitchcraft' pattern books - so I love them for the memories they bring if nothing else. But in fact the home magazines this year - particularly those of a 'rural' disposition have been full of glowing pictures of kitchens and dining rooms and conservatories adorned with lovely old embroidered linens like these - there is nothing quite so simple and beautiful as one of these cloths on an old pine kitchen table with a vase of flowers - gorgeous tulips at this time of the year, or even drooping bluebells from the woods - to pick up the colours in the cloths.
You can also use them as picnic cloths for those special occasion outdoor meals! Picnics fall into two categories in my book - those ordinary everyday sandwiches in a plastic box and tea from a flask affairs where you've taken the kids, the dog, or just yourselves on a hike and need sustenance - or those more elegant summer events where you might indulge yourself with nice food from a wicker basket, and dare I say it - champagne in glasses - all served on a cheerfully retro tablecloth. Not that we manage it very often, but when we do it's always memorable. I'm about to list a heap of them in The Scottish Home - so why not spoil yourself and make plans for an old fashioned civilized picnic?

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Scent of Old Textiles and a Chinese Silk Shawl

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.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Edwardian Scottish Beach Scene

Here's another of Alan's nicely evocative and faintly nostalgic paintings - an Edwardian beach scene, with children paddling - inspired by Barassie Beach. These naive and colourful paintings are - slightly to our amazement - selling well although admittedly the prices are highly competitive. I think people find them cheering - as I do myself - pictures you can live with, pictures that remind you of a long lost world where the pace was slower, and pleasures were simpler. Well - that's what we like to think anyway!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Alan Lees in The Scots Magazine

There's a lovely piece in the new edition of the Scots Magazine - an article by Hannah Adcock about Alan's woodcarving and willow art work. Oddly enough, we switched on the Scottish television news this morning to see a shot of Alan's huge carving of 'Tam and Meg' at the Burns Centre in Alloway. Alloway's 'Auld Haunted Kirk' is being reopened today after extensive renovations, and the film crew were obviously looking for an interesting indoor shot. The carving has - sadly - been a bit of a sore point for us since the shop which comprises most of the centre has been using it as what probably amounts to the most expensive 'point of sale' fitting in the history of the world. This huge and beautiful carving that represents many months of work for Alan has invariably been surrounded by souvenir miff maff - tartanalia in other words. We have had various enraged Australians and Americans fetching up on our doorstep to complain that they wanted photographs of themselves with Tam and Meg, but couldn't get close enough to the statue. And this is a woodcarving which is meant to be stroked and touched - half the charm of woodcarvings is in their tactile quality. Latterly, because the future of the centre was in doubt, and because the carving is very firmly set into the floor, we had even begun to wonder if whoever took the centre over might decide to chop it up. However, since the National Trust are set to take over Burns Centre, and undertake extensive renovations, it doesn't look as if this is going to happen. Alan has offered his advice - essentially the statue would have to be moved (with extreme difficulty) and stored under cover - it's made in lime, so can't be left outside - until a new setting in the new building can be found for it. We noticed to our amusement that the statue appeared to be completely in the clear today - perhaps for the benefit of visiting dignitaries?

The First Minister is due to be in Alloway for the opening - good for him. Was Alan invited? No way. However, I may be sending a wee note to Alec S, pointing out that the statue has been somewhat sadly treated over the years. I don't have a picture of it online, so can't post it here - but I'll post one of the impressive willow stork instead.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Ironing Old Linens

When you deal in old linens, ironing always looms large and isn't my favourite occupation. Or wasn't until now. I have to confess here that the 'ironer in chief' for The Scottish Home is my husband. Well, he's an artist and there has to be something artistic about ironing hasn't there? But over the years we seem to have accumulated a collection of steam irons, none of which have worked well, or for very long.

When people see me buying old linens at auction, their most frequent comment is something like 'oh yes, lovely stuff, but what about the ironing?' In the old days, of course, the linen tablecloths would be processed by commercial laundries - most of them have their old laundry marks or tapes still in place - or perhaps by servants in the bigger houses, working mangles, to realign the fibres before pressing.

Wash an old linen tablecloth these days (a process made much easier by modern stain removers - they can even cope with ancient teastains, with a little care) but once dried it will seem crumpled beyond redemption. It's one of the ways of telling the difference between good cotton - which, whatever anyone tells you, can feel as smooth and dense and cool as linen - and real linen. In fact a little investigation online shows that on occasions the only way to tell is to examine the textile under a microscope. But if you wash it, linen will mostly crumple as it dries. Cotton will mostly stay reasonably smooth.

But now, we have discovered the steam generator iron, and our lives have been transformed.
These are, it has to be said, expensive. We bought one for the business, and we keep it for the business so that the lovely smooth ceramic sole plate stays clean. It sits on a reservoir of water, which generates steam under pressure. This comes down a cable and you literally iron using pressured steam. It works, even on crumpled linen, which comes out unbelievably smooth and beautiful. But it's a temptation to use it on everything, because the difference is truly amazing. Never has ironing been such an effortless pleasure - friends, I could SELL these things. We bought ours from Tefal and although it was one of their cheaper models, (the Tefal Pro Minute, if you want to look for it online) we have been absolutely delighted with it.

So if you want to use wonderful old linens in your house, on your tables, and beds - and really, there is nothing quite like them - perhaps you should consider investing in something more sophisticated by way of an iron. Never thought I could be this enthusiastic about ironing, but I suppose it's all about having the right tools for the job!

Sunday, April 06, 2008

In a Cold Scottish Springtime Garden

April, and I'm thinking about our small kitchen garden, the one we established last year in a couple of raised beds. The beds have been dug over and are waiting to be raked. I've bought seeds - lettuces and salad stuffs of all sorts, radishes, red and white, salsify, kohlrabi, mustard, parsnips. I've planted courgettes indoors - they were hugely successful last summer and for quite a long time we ate courgettes with everything - a friend gave me a pasta sauce recipe consisting mostly of fresh courgettes and creme fraiche and it was wonderful: green and delicate and delicious. The chives are growing, as is the rosemary I established last year. The little blueberry bush has survived the winter. I've bought a white currant bush that I'm hoping to plant this week. But at the moment there seems little point in sowing any outdoor seeds since the ground is just too cold. Instead I planted some lily bulbs, and repotted some chocolate mint (smells just like Mint Chocolates, fabulous!) and a big pot of basil. Can never sow basil without thinking of Isabella and Lorenzo in the story - and in Keats' poem - and the Holman Hunt Picture . Gruesome but wonderful all the same!