By Emily Rock, Registrar
Cataloging artifacts can sometimes lead you down a rabbit hole of discovery. Part of the process can be a little rote, such as measuring the item and data entry, but researching the item can be exciting. Recently, as I was cataloging some lovely table linens and lace donated by Andrea Taylor-Brochet, a descendent of the Sawyer family, I was intrigued by one rather intricate tea tablecloth.
The tablecloth in question is a forty-one-inch square made up of square panels pieced together as a checkerboard of cutwork embroidery and filet crochet lace, surrounding a central linen square with the embroidered monogram of Nia Sawyer Chase. Each technique was a popular ladies’ parlor craft in the 19th and early 20th centuries (perhaps you have seen these types of lace on pillowcases or antimacassars), but it was the filet lace that was most intriguing on this piece.
First, some background on filet lace. This type of lace dates back to the 17th Century and was known as Lacis. It is usually made with one color of thread that uses filled-in and negative space to form an image or symbol, which was often figural. This technique saw a revived interest as a parlor craft in the Victorian Era as middle and upper-class women looked for productive ways to fill their time. Filet lace is based on squares, called meshes. Formed from fisherman’s knots to create spaces and blocks, the blocks create the pattern or image, sort of like pixels. (Everything comes down to math!) Filet can be created with different types of stitches, but crochet was a popular way to achieve it.
During the 19th Century, pattern books became widely distributed for all types of needlecraft, and filet lace was no exception. Antique Pattern Library, an online nonprofit database of scanned patterns and booklets in the public domain, has about 150 patterns that come up in a search for “filet.” Common motifs include flowers (of course), animals, fairy tales, and classical imagery such as Aesop’s fables, Greek gods and goddesses, and the personification of seasons. There are even patterns based on the Bayeux Tapestry!*
The Sawyer tablecloth has several filet lace patterns. They might be purely decorative but could have some special meanings (symbolism was everything to Victorians). There are three rabbits. Rabbits often symbolize…fertility. So do the two acorn patterns (acorns also represent strength and potential). There is also a griffin, which is on the Chase family crest, but griffins also symbolize courage and leadership. Another animal appears to be a lion, which could represent strength and courage. The fleur de lis has many meanings: French royalty does not seem to fit in this case, but it can also represent the holy trinity, the Virgin Mary, new life, or purity. Another floral ring pattern could be thistles, which has many meanings including endurance and nobility.
There are also lace panels of figures with words—more obviously symbolic. One is of a woman holding scales and a sword, with the word “Iustia” (Corsican for Justice) at the top of the square. Clearly, this is the symbol of Justice. Another square has “fide,” Corsican for “trust.” There is also an image of a woman holding what appears to be a mirror and an anchor, with the letters “Idda” above. This one stumped me. It is also hard to tell exactly what the letters are since the square mesh can distort them to look too blocky. I tried a few variations, but came up with nothing except possibly that it is the Corsian word for “she.” But in a circa 1900 filet French lace pattern book, Le Filet Brodé, there was an almost exact pattern, except with the word “esperace,” which is a form of the Spanish word used to mean “wait” or “hope for.” My gut feeling is that the original design is supposed to represent Penelope, Odysseus’ wife who faithfully waits for his return from the Trojan War. (Perhaps a French company republished some patterns found in a Spanish pattern book, which would explain why the words used in the pattern book are not French).
Figuring out the meaning of the words and symbols led to more questions: where was this tablecloth from? Why are the words in Corsican, a language only spoken in Corsica, a French island off the coast of Italy? My hypothesis is that this tablecloth was purchased by Nia Sawyer Chase or another member of her family as they toured Europe in 1897. Their vacation took them through Spain, what is now Italy, and Egypt. Perhaps it was an anniversary gift--all the symbols together seem to point to wishes for a happy, strong, and fruitful marriage. This theory is not confirmed, but reading between the stitches and deciphering the symbols shows that there was certainly a special meaning behind this tablecloth. Perhaps one day I will stumble upon some more information to add to this lovely puzzle.
*For those unfamiliar, the Bayeux Tapestry is a 224 feet long narrative embroidery that tells the story of the Norman conquest of England through 70 scenes, like a comic strip. It was created in Eleventh-Century England by persons unknown, to commemorate the victory.