Vintage French linen
Elizabeth Baer shares her expertise on hunting for beautiful French linens and
offers guidance on how best to use them for home furnishing
Why do you recommend French linen for interiors?
First of all it is available in many shades and weights so you can find exactly the sort of
linen that you need for any decorating job, whether it’s for lampshades, loose covers or
bed ends. Its beauty is also its quality. It is the national textile product of France: they
have always made linen and used it, just as in England cotton is something we have
done traditionally very well. It has an expensive, attractive look because it is a quality
fabric, which is mostly hand spun and woven; the French do this to a very high and
advanced level. They are skilful at producing linen from the finest see-through variety
called batiste, to the coarsest weight which you can use as rugs on the bedroom floor.
What do you search for when looking for French linen?
I look for large sets of matching sheets that have all come from one household. They would have been bought for one person’s dowry in large quantities a long time ago, and
are usually kept together. This is what I usually sell to decorators or to private people
who are clever at making do.
Can vintage French linen, therefore, be an economical solution?
Vintage French linen is a frightfully good way of making do for those who are clever with a sewing machine and a needle and thread. Large pieces can be used for covering
bigger items of furniture, like sofas, or for long sets of curtains. Leftover bits can be used for cushions, aprons and so on; it’s very economical.
Is vintage French linen suited to furnishing any particular period of property?
The fabric has been used since Roman and Greek times, so if you are decorating an historic house it is correct for every period from the earliest time to the most contemporary. My French linen sheets have been used in Trump Towers in New York and also in Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-Upon-Avon, so it’s suitable for both situations. My vintage French linen is also used a great deal for sets or costumes for films, ballet, opera and theatre. As linen is spun in the same way as much earlier fabrics, it is correct for the particular look and texture of any early era that they are looking for. It falls in beautiful folds, is classic, plain and has enormous appeal, also to men.
How do you wash and refresh vintage linen?
The French often sell the linen dans son jus – in its own stew. This means you buy it
pretty much as it was when taken out of the attics or sheds of an old farm. You soak vintage French linen in cold water with no chemicals for one or two days, then wash it in boiling hot water, lay it out on the grass in the sunshine, if possible, and you will find when it is dry the marks mostly will have gone.
How can you use pieces that do still have flaws?
Lots of French linen sheets do have flaws and that’s what you could use on dining chairs, stools, and short curtains for cottages.
Can you recommend any fairs to buy vintage linen in England?
I never go to English fairs but there are some such as Ardingly, Newark and Kempton Park. There are quite a few French dealers who bring French textiles over here, but English linen dealers are almost non-existent.
Is there a fail-safe hunting tip for vintage French linen?
You need to have a book containing samples, swatches and measurements if you are
searching to furnish a room.
Do you have a favorite linen pattern or era?
I like large, definite patterns of French linen. The best of French patterns were printed by the French house Braquenié, which designed for two centuries or more in large-scale Eastern designs and Indiennes based on Indian fabrics, amongst others. The company was bought about 50 years ago by Pierre Frey. It is very expensive but you won’t find that quality in other makes.
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