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Dear Misty,

I have a perplexing problem for you. I recently acquired a homespun tablecloth that is hand pieced and beautifully worked. It has been marked with a pattern for what was probably intended to be embroidery. The marking seems to have been applied with an indigo transfer ink of some sort as it is not permanent and rubs onto the hands when handled. The design is of 4 evenly placed dragons and gives a very English decor to it overall. Because the marking for the embroidery is not permanent, it cannot be laundered. The piece has an area-on the fold-with what appears to be a rust stain. Do you have any suggestions in removing the rust stain? Also, do you think one should attempt to embark on completing the needlework on a piece such as this or maintain it as is for its historical value as is in tact for its "process value'?

Anxious to hear any advice you may have.

Sherry Iorio

Dear Sherry:

What an interesting question you have about your homespun tablecloth! I have seen embroidery patterns transferred onto tablecloths, napkins, pillow cases, etc., with a blue paper and a tracing wheel in which the design is permanent enough as a guide for the embroiderer, but will wash out when laundered. It sounds as if your dragon pattern was put on in a similar manner.

Now for the tricky part; what to do? "Use" the piece and risk loosing the dragon pattern (which can easily rub off and will most certainly wash off) or keep it in its original condition due to its historical value? First, I must give you five gold stars for considering its historical value. Most people would dive ahead, use the table cloth, throw it in the washing machine, dump in the detergent and then write to me in tears asking how they might be able to restore the table cloth to its original condition.

The first thing to do is to find out exactly what you have. What is the historical value of this tablecloth? Is it rare or typical? Remember, sometimes finding the typical in mint condition is rare. The fact that the table cloth is homespun and handworked makes it interesting, but what else do you know about it? People working with historical objects refer to this as its provenance. For example, do you know who made the piece and where did it come from originally? Many historical institutions will add something to their collection unless you can document its provenance. Exception to this rule are unless it is really rare or if they need something to fill in a gap in their collection to interpret other pieces The fact that this piece was in "progress" might be a gap that needs filling if for example if they were doing an exhibit about 19th century domestic needlework. Not being able to see the tablecloth makes it hard ! for me to know how much historical value it might have. My advice to you is to show it to people. Show it to your friends, show it to people who appreciate needlework and handmade things, show it to people who don't and then show it to people at your local museum, historical society or antique dealers. If you gets lots of ooo's and ah's....then you might have something that should be kept just as it is, rust stains and all. The opinions you will gather certainly will be another adventure in itself!

If there is little interest and you find out that the tablecloth is pretty, but not historically special, what you chose to do with it is entirely up to you. When I was a museum curator, I saw lots of domestic linens. The emphasis here is on the word LOTS. Nineteenth century woman were very busy making all kinds of things for their homes. I have seen boxes and boxes of unfinished quilts and half finished embroidery projects. I have friends who are textile lovers (and museum curators) who have purchased and completed these projects with great success. They have rescued "land fill bound pieces" and made beautiful quilts and embroidered tea towels that their families want to keep because mother or grandma "made that", even though they originally bought the half-finished project at a yard sale.

I know I have given you a lot to think about, so let me recap. If the tablecloth has lots of historical interest, (this is me wearing my museum curators hat here) enjoy it as it is. Do nothing to change its condition. If the tablecloth turns out to be nothing historically special (although it will always be special to you) embroidering it might be an interesting option because the tablecloth will take on new value to your family as something YOU made and it will be treasured in a new way. The rust stain is easy to address. Do nothing. Pretend it is not there. Many foods darken as they age. It could be rust or it could be oxidized something else. A professional textile conservator would have to evaluate the piece before a treatment could be recommended. At home recipes for removing rust stains usually result in removing the stains and leaving behind large holes.

Best of luck with your tablecloth treasure. I would love to know what you decide to do with it in the future.

All the best.

Michelle "AskMisty" Oberly has worked for many years in the education and museum fields. For nine years, she was a senior faculty member at Ray College of Design (now the Illinois Institute of Art) teaching fashion history and textiles. She also worked as executive director for the Mt. Prospect Historical Society, Mt. Prospect, Illinois; curator of costumes at Germantown Historical Society, Germantown, PA.; and guest curator at numerous exhibits at local history museums. She has lectured and organized workshops on the preservation of historic clothing and textiles for a number of historical organizations. Oberly currrently lives in Yardley, Pennsylvania and is writing a "help" guide for collectors of historic clothing.

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