The French seem to have the innate ability to blend beauty and utility creating wonderful everyday items like beautiful monogrammed metis linen.
Often the linens you see in French antique markets are metis sheets, meaning mixed, which are made from at least 35% cotton and the rest linen. First available in the 1900’s they were woven in large factories on bigger looms which were then able to produce wider widths of cloth. They were designed for heavy duty wear, much easier than linen to wash and iron and certainly not so heavy. The customary creamy ivory-white colour of metis gets whiter and softer with frequent washing. Quite often they are monogrammed and the edges finished in ‘ladderwork’ or sometimes lace inserts.
Beautiful linen once formed part of the trousseau for young girls. These would be placed in a wardrobe or chest in readiness for the big day. They would often be embroidered with the initial of the future bride-to-be and once a husband had been chosen, his initial would be added to hers. It would therefore be a bit sad (although rare and probably expensive) to find antique linen that has been monogrammed with only one initial! Wealthy families during the 19th and early 20th centuries may have commissioned the nuns from the local convents for their embroidery skills.
These initials could be simple red letters in cross stitch for poorer girls or beautiful embroidered letters in satin stitch. For the finest quality linens there were floral embroideries or crests.
Personal linen such as handkerchiefs and chemises were embroidered with the initials of the first and second name of the girl. The husband’s handkerchiefs, often in lace, would be embroidered with the young lady’s initials, his first name and the date of the marriage.
From the Nineteenth Century needlework was an essential part of the education of young girls to become skilled mistresses of the home. Their mother, governess or teacher taught them the art of sewing, lacemaking, crochet, embroidery and knitting and equally to weave, wash and recognize different types of cloth.
From the age of 5 or 6 young girls had a sewing box similar to that of their mothers. They began by making a sampler which was a piece of white linen on which they did sewing exercises and L’abécédaire (the alphabet) in red cross stitch which also helped them to learn their letters. Alongside the sampler they would keep an exercise book with instructions and notes.
Labelling the linen wasn’t only decorative, it was also the means to identify one’s linen after the laundry was done. The beauty of the labeling was a way of displaying one’s talent and social standing.
These beautiful linens of the past, patiently sewn, embroidered, washed, ironed and starched have been passed down from generation to generation for us to treasure. What better smell than dried lavender in amongst freshly laundered linen?
The French linens of the past have now become collectable antiques of today. Not by any means limited to sheets there are also beautiful napkins, aprons, chemises and tablecloths. For those who are nimble with needles and thread, some can be transformed into curtains, pillows, cushions and even upholstered furniture.