Thursday, April 30, 2009

Marghab Linens—The Finest Embroidery Ever Made
by Lynda Kolski (04/23/09).

Yellow and white Margandie and linen placemat and napkin in the Iris design.
Close-up of the Iris napkin showing the intricate detail Marghab Linens are known for.
Imagine a tablecloth of the finest Irish linen, embroidered with the best French embroidery floss in a design of exquisite colors and flowing lines. Not a stitch out of place or less than perfect; a design so intricate that it consists of more than 85,000 tiny stitches. Only one company ever produced such magnificent work—Marghab Linens.

Started in 1937 by Emile and Vera Way Marghab on the island of Madeira—a Portuguese archipelago in the mid Atlantic Ocean—Marghab produced the finest hand-embroidered linens in the world. The company produced nearly 300 designs, many of which had several variations. Until the company closed in 1980, Marghab reigned as the finest of the Madeira embroidery houses. Several competitors, such as Imperial and Jabara, also produced fine linens in Madeira, but they were always second to Marghab. To date, no other linen house has been able to match Marghab’s exquisite workmanship.

A native of South Dakota, Vera was the driving force behind the quality and design of Marghab linens. Her insistence on the most perfect embroidery and the finest materials was unparalleled. Every piece was inspected bdfore being sold. She was known to have rejected an embroidered piece that took months to create if just a few stitches were missing or not to her very high standards.

A tablecloth with matching napkins in the Hibiscus pattern. Some tablecloths had 100,000 stiches.
A close-up of the Hibiscus pattern. Photos do not do justice to this exquisite needlework.

At the height of their business, Marghab employed nearly 90 people in its Madeira facility. However, the majority of the embroidery was done by hundreds of highly skilled women throughout Madeira’s countryside. Then, needlecraft was a skill passed down through the generations from mother to daughter. Only the most skilled embroiderers worked for Marghab. These ladies usually worked outside in the island sunlight. Few wore glasses, and almost none used any kind of magnifying glass to do their needlework.

The embroiderers were paid by the stitch. Some of the tablecloths contained nearly 100,000 stitches. Many of the designs took months to complete, and some of the more intricate took as long as a year.

Marghab used only the finest fabrics and threads. Many of the linens were woven in Ireland specifically for Marghab. Emile and Vera made frequent trips to Ireland to supervise and ensure the quality of their linen. Marghab is also known for its own trademarked organdy fabric, called Margandie. The organdy available on the market at the time was not up to Vera’s standards, so she partnered with Swiss weavers and developed Margandie, made from Egyptian cotton. To ensure the perfect colors for their embroidery thread, Marghab had thread dyed specifically for them in England and France.

A set of Dancer cocktail napkins, which came in several colors.
Two fingertip towels in the Water Leaf pattern.
In keeping with the high standards of quality that Vera demanded for her linens, she allowed them to be sold only in chosen stores. Vera personally inspected each store to ensure it met her standards. Fifty-four stores in the U.S. were granted the right to sell Marghab linens. These salons had to agree to very strict guidelines set forth by Vera. For example, Marghab linens could never be displayed with other linens and were never to be put on sale.

Marghab linens were not signed. When new, they had a paper label pinned to them. Although you can occasionally come across a piece with the original Marghab tag still pinned to it, or still in the original Marghab box, it is unusual and a real find. The best way to identify a piece of Marghab linen is to become familiar with the designs. While some patterns have been copied, such as Rose Tree, Jacaranda Tree, Knight and Ponto Grego, there are often small details that give them away as a copy.

The book, “Perfection, Never Less – The Vera Way Marghab Story,” by D.J. Cline, is the only published reference available on Marghab linens. Unfortunately, a great deal of the book is spent on Vera’s personal life, and not on the making of Marghab linens. It has some nice full-color photos of about 30 of the Marghab designs, so it is a fairly limited resource.

Jacaranda Tree placemat and runner, one of Marghab’s more popular patterns.
A Marghab Linen cocktail napkin with the Calla Lilly design.
The largest and most complete collection of Marghab linens is in the Marghab Gallery at the South Dakota Art Museum. Vera was instrumental in organizing this gallery, which opened in 1970. In 1995, Vera died at the age of 95, and left her personal collection of Marghab linens to the South Dakota Art Museum. Its web site has photos of a few of the patterns on exhibit there. There are also a few pieces of Marghab in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Another good resource for Marghab designs is the WorthPoint website. Go to Research Your Items and under the Price Guides, do a search for Marghab linens. Susanin’s Auctions held a sale of Marghab linens for the South Dakota Art Museum in 2005, and most of the items sold are shown here with a description and photo. This is one of the most reliable resources, since these descriptions were provided by the South Dakota Art Museum, the pre-eminent authority on Marghab. If you are a registered member of WorthPoint, you will also be able to see the prices realized for each item.

Because of their limited numbers and the high quality of workmanship, Marghab linens command high prices. If you are buying them online, be sure to deal with a knowledgeable and reputable dealer. I have seen a number of embroidered linens described as Marghab that were not. I have also come across embroidered linens described as “Marghab-style.” There was only one Marghab—a piece either is Marghab or it isn’t. Once you have seen firsthand some of the exceptional embroidery done by Marghab, you will understand why it stands alone as the finest embroidery in the world.

Lynda Kolski is a Worthologist who specializes in vintage textiles.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Bold, Vibrant Vintage Wilendur Tablecloths and Kitchen Linens
by Lynda Kolski (03/26/09).
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Wilendur’s popular dogwood pattern came with several different colored backgrounds, including dark green and white. The Begonia pattern is typical of the bright colors found on Wilendur tablecloths. This one still bears the original tag.
An early Wilendur paper tag, which, if still attached, adds value to the piece.
Wilendur tablecloths can still be occasionally found with its matching napkins.

Some of the most popular items in collectible linens today are the brightly colored printed tablecloths of the 1930s-1960s. These vintage table linens take us back to a simpler time, often evoking fond memories. Perhaps the best-known of printed table linens is the Wilendur brand produced by the Weil and Durrse Company from 1938-1984.

Weil and Durrse actually produced several lines of table linens, but Wilendur is the most popular and most sought-after. The company first began manufacturing table linens in 1924 with its “Pride of Flanders” table linens, made of fine European linen, primarily from Belgium. When importing products from Europe became difficult during the run-up to World War II, the company shifted to a heavy cotton or sailcloth fabric, and in 1938 introduced Wilendur tablecloths.

When most people think of vintage tablecloths, the heavy, durable cotton fabric for which Wilendur and other early brands are known is what comes to mind. Decades later, however, Wilendur tablecloths were actually made from a variety of fabrics, including lighter cotton, synthetic blends, terrycloth and even plastic.

There are hundreds of Wilendur designs, but the name is closely associated with the classic repeating patterns of 14-inch- and 16-inch-squares of design. This is sometimes referred to as the “array design” or “three-across.” Typically, there were three squares of the same design repeated across the tablecloth. The number of rows depended on the length of the cloth. Wilendur also made traditional border patterns, in which the design formed a border around the cloth or a solid color bordered the design.

Wilendur’s American Beauty pattern was one of several rose patterns offered. After 1958, Weil and Durrse added an e to the end of the Wilendur name. Royal Rose was yet another example of the popular Wilendur rose pattern. An early Wilendur fabric tag. Not all Wilendur tablecloths had fabric tags.

Few of the Wilendur designs were patented, so they were often copied by other companies. Sometimes Wilendur linens had a cloth label attached, but not always. It’s not unusual to find a classic Wilendur “American Beauty” rose pattern on a tablecloth bearing the label from another company. Wilendur patterns were often used on other brands made by Weil and Durrse, such as Setting Pretty, America’s Pride and Oppa Tunity. Although design can be one clue to identifying the maker of a tablecloth, because so many designs were copied, it is not a definitive identifier.

Wilendur tablecloths are commonly found in smaller sizes, such as 54-inches square or 54 inches by 72 inches. Like other printed cloths of the time period, they were meant to be used on the kitchen table, which seated four to six people. I often have customers looking for larger sizes to accommodate farm tables or today’s larger tables. However, during the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, kitchen tables were much smaller. It’s difficult to find a vintage printed tablecloth longer than 72 inches. There are some reproductions made from vintage designs that are sized for today’s larger tables. A vintage tablecloth can work on a larger table, however. Often people will lay the tablecloth at an angle, allowing the wood corners of the table to show. Another way is to cover the table with a larger solid color cloth and drape the vintage cloth over top of it.

This Wilendur Aster tablecloth has the original tag and has never been used, but has significant storage soiling. Wilendur did a number of fruit prints, including this handprinted strawberry design. The tag on a Wilendur handprinted strawberry print design. This is an early Wilendur paper tag that was used only on towels.

Besides tablecloths, Weil and Durrse also produced placemats, napkins, runners, towels and aprons in matching patterns for their Wilendur tablecloths. Luncheon sets or tea sets, consisting of a small (usually about 34- or 35-inch-square) tablecloth and four napkins, were also available. The company also sold its fabric from bolts. Housewives could buy any length of fabric and make tablecloths, napkins, placemats, towels or curtains. The bolt fabric was either 44- or 54-inches wide with two selvage sides. All the lady of the house had to do was hem the two ends.

Wilendur tablecloths always had two selvage and two hemmed sides. This provides an easy way to spot Wilendur reproductions, as most are hemmed on all four sides. Also, reproductions are usually 60-inches square; a size that Wilendur never manufactured.

Although Wilendur is known for its vibrant and colorful floral designs, it also had patterns with fruit and vegetables, Christmas, southwestern motifs, stripes and solids, home décor, and barnyard themes. A number of classic Wilendur patterns came in several different colors. For instance “Dogwood,” a 1950s pattern, came in at least eight different color backgrounds that showcased a white and gray flower. While several of the colors—such as pink, green and red—are readily available, finding the Dogwood pattern with the black background is difficult. There were a number of rose patterns, which also were available in several colors. Roses were very popular, so this design was used widely among many of the tablecloth manufacturers. Wilendur’s “American Beauty” came out in the 1940s and was one of their best-selling designs. Red rose patterns are still abundantly available.

The back of the Wilendur label declares the company’s commitment to quality. A Wilendur yellow rose towel with an early paper label still attached. This southwest design is another example of the vibrant colors used by Wilendur. Towels manufactured by Wilendur will sometimes have a sewn-in tag. In 1958, Wilendur added an “e” to the end of its name on all its labels. Finding a tablecloth with Wilendure on the tag will date the cloth to 1958 or later.

There are many variables that affect the price of Wilendur tablecloths—condition, design, color, size and fabric are the most important. Unused tablecloths that still have their original paper tags attached command a higher price, even with minor storage soiling, which many will have. Certain designs or patterns, such as Wilendur’s 1950s lobster and clam pattern—which is hard to find and still very popular—will bring higher prices. Prices can range from $30 to $150 or higher for a pristine, unused, hard-to-find pattern. Towels generally sell for $10-25.

The bold, vibrant colors of Wilendur tablecloths and kitchen linens are still quite popular today. And thanks to the exceptional quality of the fabric used, there are many cloths still available in good condition despite the fact that they are anywhere from 30-70 years old.

Lynda Kolski is a Worthologist who specializes in vintage textiles.