Heirloom Storage Boxes and the Doily Problem

In the corner of my parents’ living room stands a highboy (chest of drawers on tall legs). When you open the drawers, a pile of antique pillowslips, napkins, dresser scarves, and doilies erupts. In a small family, handmade textiles accumulate, and my mother is the delighted collector. However, nineteenth-century chests of drawers are a far cry from heirloom storage boxes.

heirloom storage boxes

A highboy full of textile treasures.

What a Pest!

Lifting out a few layers of fabric, you come across the occasional piece of dog kibble. There hasn’t been a dog in the drawers; this is just where the mice hide their stolen food. The house and furniture are as old as the textiles, and mice, moths, and damp get in anywhere. Some pieces have pronounced creases, discoloration, or holes from heaven knows what.

heirloom storage boxes

The towel of two mysteries: Whose monogram is that? And what pest took a bite of it?

Who Made This, Anyway?

Several of the linens have carefully stitched antique monograms that I can’t quite decipher. My mother sometimes knows who left her one piece or another, but we puzzle over them: Is that a T for Trilson or an L for Leonard? One of these days we really must write these things down. Smartphones make this task easier: I can take a video of my mother telling me about the piece, photograph it and add a note, and then make a catalog. (And maybe I will, some day . . .)

My mother is so keen to pass along these treasures to her only child, who lives thousands of miles away. Once I called her and said, “I’m going to ask the question you’ve been waiting years for: May I have a doily? I need one for the top of a table. Don’t send more than three.” (She sent nine; she couldn’t help herself. Some of them are on long-term loan to a friend who also needed a doily.) They deserve care and skilled preservation; the women who made them put so much skilled effort into them. We’re just at a loss for how to start.

heirloom storage boxes

Just three of the pieces my mother sent me. I can identify the crocheted one but not the others.

I think my mother will find PieceWork’s Home Care for Your Heirloom Textiles Kit under the tree this Christmas. Along with an acid-free storage box and tissue paper, the advice in Linda Moore’s detailed article (available as a downloadable PDF) on caring for heirloom textiles, she might appreciate something else even more: my help in preserving and recording these treasures.

—Anne Merrow
Editor, Spin Off Magazine

Featured Image: One of my favorite pieces, this may be embroidered or woven. Sadly, it is discolored. Photos by Anne Merrow.

Discover more about caring for your heirloom textiles in these issues of PieceWork!



  1. Elizabeth M at 6:47 am August 22, 2017

    Dear Ms. Merrow,
    Thank you for the piece on antique textiles, but I am confused. By identifying, did you mean you do not recognize the burgundy and white piece as huckcloth weaving, sometimes called Swedish darning, and the white piece with the pulled borders as Norwegian (though there are other forms) pulled thread embroidery? Or did you mean that you don’t recognize the makers?

    The surnames and the techniques tell me your family is at least partly Scandinavian in origin, and these are great displays of the the traditional, mostly 19th century and early 20th century, examples of those decorative arts. Preservation of these items by gently washing and drying them, rolling them in acid free paper and making sure the area around the chest is liberally treated with anti-moth and rodent treatments is critical, though! Getting them out and in use is great, too. Dating them can often be done by checking the old books and ads for types of cloth, kits, and popular colors. I’ve literally a cedar chest from 1909 full of objects that parallel the century in their histories.

    Good luck!

    • Anne M at 2:43 pm August 25, 2017

      Thanks for your note! To be honest, I don’t know much about the needlework techniques used to make these or various other pieces in the collection. Regarding the red-and-white piece, there is some debate about whether it’s weaving or embroidery. (The commenter below suggests it’s handwoven/overshot, which may be but looks like a lot of threading and patterning for a piece that’s otherwise plain weave.)

      My mother’s family is largely Swedish with some Norwegian and Danish, so you’re right on! It is a bit embarrassing to air my dirty laundry this way; of all people I should know how and why to preserve these pieces. It’s a bit overwhelming.

  2. Phyllis C at 9:13 pm August 24, 2017

    I think the mystery linen is hand woven with an overshot border, because of the small halftones in it.

    • Anne M at 2:45 pm August 25, 2017

      Interesting idea! I’ve showed it to several people in the office and there is no consensus. I don’t know of weavers in the family (besides my father, who is related to this towel only by marriage), but it would be fun to find some. Thank you for your thought!

  3. Martha K at 3:49 pm September 11, 2017

    I have some linens that look exactly like that! Right down to the monogram (ours are C or D; yours could be an I) and the satin-stitch dots in the scallops! And like that tablecloth with the drawn work. But I am not positive that the holes in the towel are from a pest. Some of my towels came to me with holes like that already darned. I suspect instead that the old washers and wringers (and perhaps the mangles) were not especially kind to fabrics; in fact, some of my modern towels have developed similar holes from abrasion. WIth the old agitators, if a piece of fabric got caught under the agitator together with a pebble, it wasn’t good. And if something got caught at the edge of the wringer, where the clearances were not great, it could grab…

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