Handmade: Downsizing and letting go of family heirlooms

Jocelynn Brown
The Detroit News

We live in a very different world today -- unlike the one of not so long ago when beautiful crocheted finery such as doilies, bedspreads, tablecloths, aprons, and dresser scarves were used to add feminine touches throughout one's home.

Judy Quinlan and some of the crocheted, knitted, and tatted heirlooms she has collected from her grandmothers over the years, in her Farmington hills home, August 9, 2018.

Having grown up in that world, Judy Quinlan of Farmington Hills remembers watching her grandmothers spend long hours crocheting such delicate lace pieces.

About 40 years ago, she inherited both of her grandmother's handiwork, and has kept them neatly stored in drawers and boxes. But now, Quinlan and her husband (Jim) have reached a point in their lives where they feel it's time to downsize, and she's found herself faced with a painful dilemma -- what on earth to do with all those lovely handmade items with so many wonderful memories attached to them?

"I feel like they did such beautiful work, especially those bedspreads," she said. "I don't imagine doing that myself. I wish they fit my queen size beds. (They're) thick and it takes a lot of thread and a lot of time to do those. I did use some of the pillowcases with the crocheted edgings, and the dresser scarves and doilies. And, I used to use some of the doilies. I'd put a plant out and I'd have a circular one to use (beneath the pot). It reminded me of them whenever I used them -- fond memories."

One such memory is of her maternal grandmother who lived on Alter Road in Detroit, back when Quinlan was just 8 or 9. "She used to knit argyle socks, and she was also a baker and made wonderful raisin bread from scratch," said Quinlan.

If you happen to be a needleartist, Quinlan's story may leave you wondering what's going to happen with all those complicated and time-consuming items you've made, with hopes they'll someday become family heirlooms. Will they be appreciated and preserved by the next generation, or even generations to come? Will they be repurposed, or cut and reused by creative family members, or strangers who purchase them at resale shops, with visions of a sewing project? Or, will they simply be put out in the trash to make room for something modern, machine made and mass-produced? 

Quinlan is hoping her grandmothers' vintage crocheted linens and other textile pieces find their way to either a "good home," or a museum where they can be showcased as exquisite examples from the past of what's often been referred to throughout history as "women's work."

She said, "They're all good. They're not tattered. It would seem a shame to take these huge items (tablecloths and bedspreads) and cut them, but if that's how they want to use them... (Yours truly once repurposed a vintage lace tablecloth to make a shower curtain, and there was no cutting necessary!) But, I want to do something with them, especially the crocheted bedspreads. I want somebody to appreciate them as an art that's lost, like tatting and lace-making.

"Not very many young people are interested in them," she continued. "We live in a throw-away society. They (young people) don't want anything you have to iron or polish, like silverware and silver platters.They don't have time for that now."

In spite of all the wonderful memories, Quinlan doesn't think she'll be keeping anything from the rather large collection for herself. "There's too many things," she lamented, referring to the whole downsizing process. "I can't keep everything I like." 

But since my interview with Quinlan, there's been a bit of a change in the situation. She emailed to say, "Lately, there has been somewhat of an interest by a cousin and my children, to the point of looking for some special item that would remind them how talented and special the work of these ladies was, even though many of them were not born, or were too young to have known them. They made some selections last week."

Among the many remaining crocheted items are about 50 pillowcase edgings (perfect for dressing up doll clothes!), doilies, tablecloths, potholders, dresser scarves, and also linen tea towels, dinner napkins, and hankies, all with fine crocheted lace trim.

So, if "a spot of tea," served on a lace tablecloth with a crochet-embellished linen napkin at the side, suits your fancy, you may be just the person to provide a "good home" for some of these handmade treasures. If so, Quinlan will be more than happy to hear from you. Just email her at judyaquinlan@gmail.com.

Detroit News columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150, jbrown@detroitnews.com or facebook.com/DetroitNewsHandmade. 

Contact Judy Quinlan at judyaquinlan@gmail.com.