GRAB THAT DOILY off your grandmother's bureau. Sneak that crocheted linen placemat out of your great aunt's linen closet. And rescue that heirloom tablecloth from the attic.
Some of the most attractive and feminine dresses in stores today look like they were lifted off a dining room table with their delicate embroideries, crinkled linen, faggoting and scalloping.
Students at Barbara Hillerman's advanced design class at the University of Maryland picked up on this direction and designed a series of garments each incorporating a household linen as its main pattern piece. What they came up with were pretty clothes with unique details made from what were, in effect, discarded household tablecloths, hand towels and napkins.
Starting with old linens from their teacher's mother's garage, and later own, eight students designed and sewed sundresses, blouses, tunics, pinafores and vests, working around rips and stains in the linens. Similar versions of their finished products are currently on the racks of most of Washington's department stores.
A drawer of old linens too dear to throw away, yet too out of date or stained in spots to use on the table, is a good kick-off point. The pattern you choose may have to be adapted to the peculiar problems of the linen you're using. It's best to choose something loose and unconstructed, with a minimum of pattern pieces - such as a simple sundress or blouse. (Ttake your linen with you when you look for a pattern and try to figure out how you'll place it before you buy.) A T-shaped garment is really the best.
When you're sewing with linens, it's essential to stay stitch or use seam binding on the edges of the fabric to keep it from unravelling. Or you can zigzag the edges of all the pattern pieces after they are cut.
At the outset, remove stains on the linen, if you don't plan to cut them out. Try soaking in a cold water wash solution. If this fails, and the item is neither old nor very valuable, bleaching should be tried. For old linens, put the item in the sunlight and keep it moist until the stain bleaches out. If the stain is stuborn, dye the whole piece in a solution of warm tea - this will make your garment all one shade and add an "antique" look.
University of Maryland students offer the following hints for working with household linens:
Don't cut on the bias as the garment will loose its shape while you're working on it. (Linens stretch more than other wovens.)
If you need to match fabric to your napkin or doily, it's best to stick to as light a weight linen fabric as possible. (Some of the students also combined their piece with a soft cotton or crepe de chine.)
Because linens are often see-through or have open crochet work, a thin lining may be necessary on the bodice. However, don't line the whole garment or it will lose its easy, loose, uncontructed look.
Clothing made from table linens can be washed in the machine in cold water. Delicate embroidery requires hand washing.
Don't be concerned when you can't iron out all the wrinkles. That crumpled feeling shows you that your dress or blouse is really made of linen. (Witness Calvin Klein's natural linen blazer or blouses hanging wrinkled in the stores.)
"You will appreciate your homesewn linen creation even more when you see the imitation linen looks they are selling in the stores," says Anna Kuzmiw, who made a sundress, a two-piece dress and blouses out of assorted linen pieces.
"I wouldn't buy anything like this in a store," says another student in the class, Brigid Dougherty. "The workmanship is very low and the prices are much too expensive."
And what better way to clean out your linen closet.