Meet the Collector: Melissa's Heirloom Linens
As celebratory table settings go, our own favorites play into a mix: old with new, neutral palettes with pops of bright color, and solids with simple but beautiful patterns. The result tells a story, and one that few love better than our own visual manager, Melissa B. A longtime, and dare we say fervent, collector of new and vintage textiles, Melissa's linen chest is filled with finds from thrift stores in Amsterdam, shops in the English countryside, local artisans, and her family's cupboards. As our own striped, solid, and block-printed linens arrive for summer, Melissa gives us a look at her collection, the story behind her heirloom linen habit, and her tricks for setting a show-stopping table
terrain: How did you decide to start collecting linens?
Melissa: It was never really a decision – I can’t help myself when I see something beautiful. It began mostly when I was traveling-- the wonderful stories, histories, and personalities in linens that I found just made them irresistible. I think people often overlook linens as an heirloom gift. The truth is, once you have pieces that you love, you’ll use them forever.
terrain: Your collection pairs heirloom linens with new pieces. How do you select new linens that complement your heirloom favorites?
Melissa: When selecting a new piece, I look at the material, which helps me understand how a piece will react with washing so I can use it without worry. I always choose neutral tones that can take on supporting roles for my heirloom showstoppers. I also look at the weave and colors, and stay away from patterns that indicate a date or an era; mostly I stick with classic stripes or no pattern at all.
terrain: What are some of your favorite ways to display your linens or style them for the tabletop?
Melissa: As far as new linens, I try to tell a color story. I like to repeat the colors of the linens in new and old pieces, rather than mixing too many patterns and colors. New linens make a base that you can build upon with vintage pieces. I love my red striped tablecloth from terrain as a base layer-- I've washed it over 50 times and it just looks better and better.
I rarely use my vintage linens for the tabletop, because I'm too afraid of red wine! Often, I use vintage pieces for adjacent settings at a party and pair them with new pieces that can be replaced if the party gets too wild. When you use an overall color story for an event, repeat the colors of the linens in new and old pieces, rather than mixing too many patterns and colors. I like to lay out polished wine glasses on a gorgeous heirloom runner on my bar; if clean glasses are staged on a piece that I don’t want to chance ruining, I won’t have to worry.
I also have vintage pieces hanging in my home as wall art, and I switch them out seasonally. Sometimes, I blend linens into my decor around the house. For example, I might place a stack of favorite napkins (still bound with baker’s twine from the shop in Amsterdam) in my china cabinet, to soften a display of mid-century modern pitchers.
terrain: Can you tell us about some of your most unexpected finds?
Melissa: In the town where I live, the owner of a local shop is selling her mother’s Finnish woven flax. Every time I go in, I leave with a new purchase! I happened into her shop one day and was taken with the gorgeous colors and patterns on tablecloths, bolts of fabric, and wall-hangings. Her mother grows the flax, soaks it in the river, spins it, dyes it with natural dyes from plants on her farm, and weaves these incredible pieces. She also teaches Finnish flax weaving to keep the art alive. With such an amazing story to accompany the work, I had to have it. I have two of her pieces hanging in my house as wall art, and even more in my linen drawers.
terrain: Do you have a favorite story from your collection?
Melissa: I have a piece that my grandmother stitched. It's really just a bed sheet that she hemmed to fit a card table for her bridge games, then embroidered. She was an impeccable seamstress and you'd never know at first glance that it was a simple sheet with her own design added. She lived on a soybean farm and I like that this was a piece that she put out for her leisure time after a hard working day in the Midwest!
Melissa's Linen Collection: 1. 1950's napkins (l), Hungarian waffle weave towels (r); 2. Finnish Flax (l), vintage napkins from Amsterdam + terrain striped tablecloth (r); 3. vintage napkins from Amsterdam; 4. Finnish flax
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What town is the local finnish store you mentioned and the name of it?
I inherited the flax linens made for her trousseau by my paternal grandmother in Italy. Some are monogrammed with her maiden name initials. She also incubated silkworms under her mattress to spin silk bedspreads which were then hand dyed with vegetable dyes. I've treasured these items my whole life but am now at an age where I'd like someone else to enjoy them and I have no children. These are things that should be loved and used every day.