The best place to find exceptional vintage linen is a Sunday morning flea market in France.
The best markets are small-town affairs where local organizations rent space to families wanting to empty their attic. Few dealers attend those events which means prices are lower than at permanent markets. But patience is key, so is an adventuresome spirit: you must dig deep to find the goods.
Now let me tell you this: I will snatch all the napkin holders I can get my hands on.
The napkin holder or “porte-serviette” is a simple rectangular linen pocket with an embroidered flap closure. It is the most precious, interesting and underrated piece of vintage linen you can acquire.
The napkin holder held a family member's napkin between meals at a time when linen was laundered just once a week on Mondays. A napkin holder, with the napkin inside, would be placed on the dinner table at the beginning of the meal and the used napkin would be placed back in the holder at the end of the meal. Since napkin holders were items of daily use, they were not used for special occasions and very rarely for guests. Napkin holders were decorated with specific patterns or pattern variations for easy identification.
The simple structure and small size of the napkin holder (a folded rectangle with partial seams and two hems) made it a perfect beginner’s sewing project; its intimate nature also made it a perfect gift.
You can find napkin holders from the mid-1920's to the mid-1970's. Many are the work of children and I love the tenderness of these samplers with their tentative stitches and heartfelt designs. Many napkin holders are embroidered with full names, and sometimes with words. My absolute favorite is a delightful matching set embroidered with the words “Toi” et “Moi”, (you and me) in contrasting patterns of pink and blue flowers. The choice of words and color says it all: you and me, pink and blue, the only two people in the world; a household so small, nothing else is needed.
I have written before about the invisibility of women's work. At a time when few women could hope to leave a lasting testimony of their presence, the humble napkin holders offered tiny pockets of creative freedom. These were items on which women wrote name of loved ones, left marks and messages and, where, as children, they made their first attempts at creativity.
By the 1970's, napkin holders disappeared from dining rooms. There were many reasons for the change: co-ed schools eliminated the teaching of embroidery, washing machines were made efficient, inexpensive linen flooded the markets. Napkin rings became the rage. Paper eventually replaced linen.
But dig to the bottom of the linen piles at the flea markets and you will find a treasure trove of napkin holders. Some will be hand-embroidered heirloom gifts, some the rough works of seven-year olds. Be certain that each napkin holder will hold the remnants of two lives: that of the embroider and that of the intended recipient, in a particular bond that will touch your heart.
Soon enough, the napkin holders will disappear for good. Save the ones you can find. Give them a place in your home. In doing so, you will preserve the anonymous yet important work of a woman. The word or name she embroidered will often be the only utterance left of her. Do not ignore her.