Home & Garden: Organizing the Attic Home & Garden
Week Six: Organizing China, Crystal, Linens and Silver

More than halfway through this 11-week project to clean out my attic, I've come up with my biggest challenge so far: sorting through the fancy tableware I inherited when my parents died a few years ago. The collection includes two sets of formal china, wineglasses and other crystal from the turn of the last century, dozens of hand-stitched linen napkins and tablecloths that had never been used, and silver so tarnished I had no idea what it really looked like.

With a full-time job and two young children, I entertain infrequently, and when I do, it's not exactly a linen-napkin event. So you'd think I'd want to donate all of it or send it to a consignment shop. But I was curious. The stuff had been packed away for so long, I didn't remember what was there.

Even if the tableware is more ornate than my lifestyle, it may still be worth keeping, according to Caitlin Shear, the professional organizer who has volunteered to help me sort through my clutter. Why buy extra silverware or plates when you already have it? She says part of her job as an organizer is to encourage clients to economize by using what they already own, instead of bringing more stuff into their homes. So I began sorting it all out.

China: When I got married 11 years ago, I skipped the formal china part of the bridal registry, opting instead to use the almost-complete set that belonged to my grandmother. The Crown China pattern was bought by my grandfather at the turn of the 20th century and has a blue band with rose swags and green trim. It's not my colors or my style, but I was very close to my grandmother, who died when I was 16. Looking at this china reminds me of her apartment in Brooklyn and all the great Syrian dishes she cooked for my parents and me. I use it one to three times a year, so it's definitely worth keeping.

My mother's china is a Mikasa pattern, white with an ornate green border of bells and bows. It's not as cutesy as it sounds, but I don't really like it. My mother didn't really like it either. When she married my father in 1963, she did not register for anything. Instead, she went to Macy's New York flagship store about three weeks before the wedding and bought the entire set of china. She used it three times a year for 35 years and had absolutely no sentimental attachment to it.

Neither did I, until Caitlin suggested I sell it on eBay.

At first I was excited at making a bit of cash for dishes, bowls and a gravy boat I had no interest in. Then, I began remembering every Thanksgiving dinner at my house, even recollecting which foods were presented in which platters and bowls. Maybe, I thought, just maybe it's good to have some extra dishes around the house. The entire set, wrapped in quilted storage bags, is still sitting on the attic floor. I don't know what to do. I'd love to hear opinions on whether I should keep the china or sell it. E-mail me at organize@washpost.com.

Crystal: I was surprised to open one box to find 12 inexpensive wineglasses carefully wrapped in newspaper dated one week before we moved into our house in July 2001. I forgot all about these, but they're good to have around to use instead of plastic at parties. I washed them all and then repacked them in a new cardboard storage box for glasses. To go with their china, my grandparents must have had a full set of crystal. Now, just a few pieces are left: four goblets, five highball glasses and 12 old-fashioned round champagne glasses (not flutes), all with elaborate etching. Again, I took the easy way out: Washed it all, bought lovely damask cloth storage boxes and put it away.

A good tip from Caitlin on this issue: A teacup storage box is a perfect fit for round champagne glasses.

Linens: So far, I'd gotten rid of nothing, so it was time to get serious. I found a box filled with ugly, stained cotton place mats and napkins I bought for my first apartment in the early 1990s. Why didn't I get rid of them three moves ago?

In another box, I found more place mats and napkins, but these were linen, hand-embroidered and nearly 45 years old. They were beautiful, yet had never been used. The napkins were still pinned to the place mats, and the sets were wrapped in plastic. I bought a clear plastic box and gathered all these beauties together. I am never buying cotton napkins at the store again! I'm storing my linen napkins in a pantry closet near the kitchen because I intend to use them more frequently than the china or crystal.

Silver: I should really call this section "Charcoal," because that's the color of most of these treasures. I vaguely remember my mother dipping an old rag into a jar of a pink something with a chalky texture and smearing it all over a tray or ornate cup of some sort before a holiday dinner. But it's clear that hasn't been done in years, because this collection of platters, cups and vases is now mostly black.

Caitlin advised me to buy a cloth box for silverware to prevent tarnish, and I emptied my grandparents' set of silver-plated knives, forks and spoons into it. I've been trying to polish one piece a day, despite the foul smell from the tarnish remover that sends my preschoolers running out to the screened porch for safety.

I donated to Goodwill nearly a dozen pieces of silver, including trays and bread baskets. How many of these do you need? My only memories are of them sitting in the kitchen cabinet above the refrigerator. They never even made it as far as the kitchen table. I have saved a few things that I hope to polish in the next few weeks to see if they're worth keeping. A large ladle, for example, has potential but is so black it looks like the victim of a hideous fire.

The E-box: Finally, I was down to the last few random items. They include the Limoges divided appetizer tray that my mother once told me she got when it "fell off a truck"; a pretty but chipped oval pottery dish that she used to hold celery stalks stuffed with blue cheese; and a trio of brass candlesticks or goblets, depending on which end is the bottom or top. I just couldn't decide what to do with them, so Caitlin put them in what she called the E-box. E stands for emotion. She says I should just let them all sit in this box for a few weeks. Eventually, it will become clear what I can part with and what I want to keep. I suspect I didn't get rid of enough this week. But I'm so full of great memories I don't even care.

Next WeekOrganizing Furniture Last WeekOrganizing Baby Gear


Photo Gallery
Watch Home Deputy Editor Liz Seymour transform her 700-square-foot attic.
» Photo Gallery
11 a.m. ET
Talk paint chips and decorating tips Thursdays at 11 a.m. ET.
» Submit a question now and join the discussion

About the Series

Got an attic abandoned to clutter and chaos? For the next 11 weeks, join Home staffer Liz Seymour and professional organizer Caitlin Shear sort through, toss out, tidy up and reclaim the space -- one step at a time.

About Liz

Liz Seymour, deputy editor of The Washington Post Home section, grew up in a four-room apartment in Brooklyn with two very organized parents and almost no closet space. Now she lives in a center-hall Colonial in D.C.'s American University Park neighborhood with her husband, Bob, children Margaret and Charlie, and one appallingly overstuffed attic.

More in Home

House Calls
Getting the most leverage from a redo of a room.

PHOTOS: Organizing - James M. Thresher; COPY BY: Liz Seymour - The Washington Post; WEB EDITOR: Janet Bennett Kelly - washingtonpost.com

© 2008 The Washington Post Company