Marking the linen

Old cookery books are often subtitled with something about household management. It’s fascinating to read through these helpful hints for things we no longer do and in some ways might seem a mystery.  I’m looking at the section on ‘Preparing for a Wedding’ – not that I am mine was over twenty-six years ago, and there’s no sign at all of my children planning any such event! In past times people did not live together before they were married so a wedding was not just a ceremony but the start of living in a new home, no longer with parents, but with a new husband or wife. It was seen as the wife’s duty to prepare the household, and the part of the preparation is buying the trousseau and then marking the linen. Does anyone have a trousseau any more? I somehow doubt it – I’m sure my children wouldn’t even know the word – the clothes, linen, and other belongings collected by a bride for her marriage.

The purpose of marking linen was to identify it because of course for middle class and upper class households the laundry would not be done at home but sent away. My grandma sent her tablecloths and bed linen to a laundry – she had a busy pub to run and could only manage to wash the family’s clothes, once a week in the copper boiler in an outhouse.

 What an exciting time it is buying a trousseau! How lovely to peep into a cupboard and see the new clothes all ready to be worn, but perhaps what is nicer still to be able to look with eyes of pride on the piles of snowy sheets and pillowcases and the neat dusters and tea cloths.
You realise then that you are soon to become the mistress of your own establishment.

Women of a certain class in those days would not have gone to work – their work would have been looking after the family and the household. Even before the wedding the bride-to-be would be busy – and one of the jobs would be marking the linen – ‘not a boring job, there are so many different ways of doing the marking that it need not be monotonous.’ Apparently, however there were superstitions about marking before the wedding – but the writer of my book dismisses the, she doesn’t exactly say nonsense! but she certainly implies it. She (I’m sure the writer is a she) mentions that traditionally the table and bed linen should be marked with the husband’s initials, and only ‘personal linen’ should be marked with the wife’s new initials, her new surname – of course all women took their husband’s name then! (spell check has just offered me ‘sub-human’ instead of ‘husband’!)

  • sheets, pillow-cases and table cloths – apparently it was difficult to do it neatly with marking ink; much better to buy woven labels from the draper’s
  • blankets – what a rigmarole! I’m sure no-one ever did this, although they have got a servant to – the suggested way is to cut out a square of course canvas, tack it to the blanket, work your name in cross-stitch, then pullout the threads of canvas
  • huckaback towels (I had to look it up –  have a good grip, are sturdy and extremely absorbent; towels made of huckaback weave fabric dry the skin very effectively) embroider large initials in a thick outline stitch in white embroidery thread with French knots inside
  • table napkins – embroider an initial
  • odd cloths (cloths for the slops, lavatory etc) cross stitch in bright colours ‘B‘ for bath, ‘L‘ for lavatory etc
  • dusters and tea cloths – don’t bother marking (as if you would!)
  • personal linen – many girls like to embroider their initials on their underclothes. Many lovely sets have the initials beautifully worked and intertwined with lovers’ knots
  • handkerchiefs – (I defy you not to laugh or be outraged) hankies need dainty working in fine cotton. If you send your handkerchiefs to a Society for Distressed Gentlewomen… you can have these most beautifully embroidered very inexpensively

Now you know all about marking linen…

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