The Person Who Dies With the Most Fabric Wins

I suppose the first and purest connoisseur of cloth is the toddler with a fanatical attachment to a piece of blanket, an attachment destined to be replaced by other, often breakable, things. But for many people it's just the first piece of cloth in a continuing, lifelong collection of much better looking stuff.

The Hoarders of Cloth have what may well be a special insight into life as it was. They read cloth, know which dyes are natural, which chemical, how it may have been printed or embroidered--and where (think of samplers and the schools that taught techniques. Think of quilts and how they can be identified by the kind of stitching or the bit of fabric with the most recent date. Borders are like landmarks; motifs can be a language). The Hoarders haunt estate sales, know textile dealers, and have sharp eyes, thereby adding to their store of soft and colorful riches.

What's curious to someone who doesn't share the passion is the fact that the cloth is retired from service--there are no plans to recycle it into something else. Because of its fragility, it stays in a dark and protected place. A stellar collector in Texas retrieved a cache of old cloth in patterns and colors nobody would think of today from the cushions of an old sofa. It had been used as stuffing. Now it stays in lidded plastic bins to be looked at and admired--and put back. She's the one who still chortles over having found an entire set of antique toile bed hangings in a big plastic bag at a sale. Another long-time collector ("What got you started collecting cloth?" I asked. "My grandmother's scrapbag," he answered) has a schrank stacked with striped and checked homespun, sweetly folded, one after another, no two the same. And that's just the beginning of a collection that includes wonderful printed cotton neckerchiefs, once very common, and little bags for seeds made of cotton scraps and sewn just so, and quilts and coverlets and all manner of things woven, printed, and sewn.

I have only a box full of remnants, cloth I think is so pretty I just save it and go through it from time to time. A printed linen from the 1950s in a print so distinctive it's like the tail fins on a Cadillac. There's a piece of indigo batik from Java in there, made in the wax-resist way that entranced Americans in the late 1700s. There's Czechoslovakian embroidery on a baby dress (grown-up baby, different Czechoslovakia). What I particularly relish about old cloth, apart from its often intrinsic beauty and evoking lost words like mantua maker, cambric, and harateen, is the way in which it can convey decorative priorities and a sense of fashion we don't possess. Colors, alone or in juxtaposition, are a surprise from a time when "drab" was a hue and not a criticism, everybody knew what madder was, and diaper was a pattern, not a necessity. I think patterns were much more interesting. Cloth was valuable in a way we can't understand--that tapes were used to bind edges and fabrics speaks to their value--no big hems and wide seams, no waste. Toiles were seamed without regard to the continuity of the scenery; the shepherd handing a rose to his love will forever be offering it to the tree instead, so as not to waste fabric.

And think of the metaphors--threads of history, fabric of life, weaving a story. The odd expression "made of whole cloth" puzzles me unless it can be explained in the context of a time when whole cloth was rare, and thus cause for suspicion. The Oxford English Dictionary says, without giving a reason, that "whole cloth" means a lie, or a fabrication. How's that for a pun!


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