Monday, September 14, 2009

Hidden Treasures

Happiness is an unsuspected paisley shawl. And it's not just a good line for a poem either! Let me explain.
Last week, I bought a couple of boxes of old linen at auction. Even after so many years of buying things at auction, there is still nothing quite so thrilling as sorting through a big box and wondering what you are going to find there. Of course on viewing day - if you're wise - you have a good rummage, but sometimes the boxes are big, and stuffed with items, some of them in less than clean condition - marked with teastains or even mould, because people have a habit of putting things away while they are not especially clean, or even still damp from a cursory wash - and then forgetting about them for the next fifty years. Part of our job, as dealers in old textiles, is the careful laundering of precious items. Or knowing when not to launder at all, but to freshen up a little and leave things as they are, for the experts to deal with if they wish. If I were a better seamstress, I might do repairs, but I'm not and I don't - again, I leave that to the experts.
Last week, I staggered home with just such a box of not-very-fresh old linen, and had the extreme pleasure of sorting through it and finding a number of interesting pieces. But somewhere in the middle of the carton was one of those re-sealable plastic bags that people use for storing woollies, and in it was what looked like one of those coarse 'dust sheets' that DIY stores sell for home decorating. Now when I'm sorting through a box of old linen, like this, I have a 'charity shop' bag ready and into it I put all the smaller bits and pieces which are in reasonable condition, but which I don't want to either sell or to keep. I lifted this plastic bag and thought 'hmm, charity shop'. I hadn't opened it in the saleroom, because it was very firmly fastened, and I already knew I wanted to bid on the box. But a wee voice whispered in my ear 'don't be daft, open it and see what it is!'
Which was just as well, because when I unzipped the plastic, and unfolded the linen cloth inside, what emerged, like a butterfly from a chrysalis, was a vibrant printed paisley shawl - silk gauze, summer weight, light as a feather and stunningly beautiful! At some time, a few years ago, somebody had very carefully stored it away - but what she hadn't done was label the bag. So when - presumably - her house had been cleared (and it's a sad task for relatives, I know - I've done it myself) nobody had realised what was lurking beneath the plastic. How could they? It had simply been lumped in with all the other linens. What makes me shudder is that this gorgeous 150 year old textile might have finished up in a skip. It's safe now, and it will eventually go to somebody who will love it as much as I do. But it's an object lesson in not getting complacent - when you are buying at auction you quite literally never know what might be lurking at the bottom of the box!