by Deborah Erbach Burger
“Sold!” declares the auctioneer, banging his gavel down, and I grin with the delight of success. The bidding for “lot 46” has been intense, but I am the victor, and after the auction finishes, I will collect my booty and take the precious contents home.
What are those contents? What is the prize for which I have bid so avidly? A box of antique crocheted doilies and placemats– mismatched, some in need of repair, some stained from years of use. Why would a person get up early on Saturday morning to fight for the opportunity to buy these things? It’s more than just a love for old stuff in general.. there’s something special about antique crochet. I not only buy “box lots” of old crochet at auctions, but also scour yard sales and church rummage sales for these items, because of their intrinsic beauty, because of what they symbolize about women in America, and because they often “need a good home.”
Many old crocheted pieces were worked without a paper pattern, copied from even older pieces. They use stitches and techniques that have been in and out of fashion repeatedly and cyclicly over the decades. The beauty of symmetry and the elegance of line they exhibit make them works of art in and of themselves, regardless of original function. My home is not decorated in a 1930’s style, with antimacassars on the chairs, but the antique crochet pieces are part of the rotating collection of art that we proudly display in different rooms. I have found that filet placemats, in their starched stiffness, make beautiful decorations for a picture window, and create lovely patterns in the room with light and shadow, positive and negative space. Often an antique doily finds its home between a tabletop and a piece of small sculpture or a vase of flowers. The play of light and dark, solid and air, always delights our eyes. The connections between stitches and motifs mirrors the connections between individuals and communities.
Another reason I collect old crochet is that this body of work is evidence of several traditional and continuing truths about the lives of women. For generations, most crochet has been created by women, whether for the pleasure of creating something beautiful, or out of the need to provide extra income while also managing a home and raising children. The need to create beauty in our personal spaces is as real in the 21st century as it was in the late 19th! Women have held, and continue to hold, the primary responsibility for comfort and beauty in the private spaces of family life. We also balance and juggle the same set of commitments and obligations: to be creative and whole persons, to provide for our families’ financial needs, and to do that in a way that also honors the needs of children and other dependents. Today’s “cottage industries” and “telecommuting” are current waves in the same ocean that produced this older art form that I love. When I cherish a piece of antique lace, crocheted for profit or for pure beauty in another century, by a woman I’ve never met, I participate in a kinship, a sisterhood larger than my own life. And while no one would think of selling an early Rembrant for a nickel, the art of women is often deeply undervalued in our society. When I purchase and display the art of other women, it’s a part of my own declaration of the worth of “women’s work,” in all its forms and variety.
For this last reason, I often find myself buying antique lace to “rescue” it from an ignominious end. I find lace that was lovingly stitched in dim lighting by weary hands, lace that slowly created beauty from string and a stick…. Now for sale at the same price as scrap paper for recycling. There is an injustice here, and when I make sure that the pieces I rescue are cleaned, repaired and displayed when possible, I honor the value of all Art in a culture that increasingly seems to place value only on efficiency and practicality. Crocheted lace has always been a statement that the simplest and most functional things can also be opportunities for beauty and blessing, an expression of both love and creativity. When I choose a stained and slightly ragged doily from a pile of rummage sale rags, I am saying, “NO! This one is different. It’s not a rag; it’s a work of love and deserves a better end.” When a national flag wears out, there is ceremony to the means of disposal, although, on one level it’s just a piece of cloth. When I find crocheted lace that can’t be repaired or reused, or restored to beauty, I carefully burn it, just as if it was a flag. It is also a symbol of the strength, creativity and determination to rise above the mundane, of women who have gone before me. It’s the flag of MY people, in a sense, and I determine to give it either a “good home”, or a dignified end.
There is history, art, style and beauty to be found in the antique lace at sales of all sorts, and my collection continues to bring joy and a sense of connection to me and to my daughters and granddaughters. So I’ll keep collecting.
Some Ways to Display Antique Lace:
Edgings and lace insertions make great ribbon for the wrapping of special gifts, or napkin rings for a special meal.
A single doily, stretched and sewn over dark velvet and framed, can beautify a wall. Laid on dark wood, it accents whatever is set on top of it.
Joined together, many smaller pieces can become a lamp shade, window drapery or bedspread.
Edgings and insertions can also be used in new-made clothing!
A bit of lace can top the jars of home-canned goods we give as gifts, or become a bookmark!