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Fabric preservationist brings new life to old threads


ALLEN – Linda Bohan slipped her slender fingers into a bouquet of bubbles in her kitchen sink and ever so gently swished, churned and swirled the fabric soaking in the warm water.

Within hours the once white material, now blotched with yellow-stains, will be transformed.

This is not a routine washing. It is an attempt to save a century-old, christening gown, one of the several hundred items of linen and hand-stitched fabric “antiques” of the past she has restored.

Bohan has been on a mission for the past 35 years to save vintage and antique linens and laces. She sees herself not as a professional fabric restorationist, but as someone focused on cleaning and repairing crocheted items linens of the past. Prized pieces include machine-made novelty items made the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, especially tablecloths and napkins filled with poinsettias and Christmas related images.

“I’ve developed a love for them because that’s what my mother had, so I can personally relate to the memories they bring,” she said.

Crocheted items are of particular interest because they require significant skill to create.

Some crocheted pieces hold thousands of hours of a maker’s life in cotton, where hundreds of thousands of stitches had to be meticulously counted. Making complicated pieces demanded discipline, focus and never faltering optimism of the crochet artist’s ability to complete difficult and tedious creations Some of the thread used in finer work is so small in diameter, Bohan said, it could be mistaken for sewing thread.

In large items, like bedspreads, the crochet artist could use miles of thread. A mistake almost always resulted in pulling apart the incorrect stitches and starting again.

Many youngsters believe everything is machine-made today, and have no understanding of the artistry or skill required to create these cotton treasures. They are pieces that hold thousands of hours of someone’s life, a legacy, in white, ecru and colored threads.

By the early 1900s, Bohan said, women across the nation were crocheting at home, creating the iconic cotton “protectors,” napkin-like coverings for upholstered furniture arms and headrests, and decorative table doilies. Accomplished crocheters were making bedspreads and tablecloths, dresses and hats, and baby clothes.

Many were made by kerosene lamp light as women listened to the “wireless,” and the melodic, slow, tick-tock of grandfather and mantle clocks.

Not all were made by accomplished mature women. Young girls learned how to do this work, even as little girls, as part of their education. Between the early 1930s and 1970s, most young women pending marriage had a trousseau chest full of household linens, ranging from lowly dish towels to fancy crocheted doilies and bedspreads.

“It was all part of setting up a household,” said Bohan. “Linens are part of our history. Many are beautifully done and deserve restoration.”

Generations came and went and these heirloom treasures, some were so treasured they were thought “too good to use,” and remained in dark drawers, cedar chests, closets and attics.

They were made to be passed through the generations and loved, only to be discarded, abused and unappreciated. Almost all those found at yard sales, auctions and antiques shops have no provenance.

Many people deem the fabrics worthless. Others covet them as treasures in cloth from the past, embodying family history and showcasing extraordinary skills of the makers. Like polishing fine silver, cooking a gourmet meal, or tending a flower garden, crocheting, like knitting and cross stitch work, is viewed as too much work in too little time.

To Bohan they are simply beautiful works of art and she wants to save them.

“Before I undertake a cleaning and repair project I study the item. Sometimes these things are so fragile that when placed in water, they dissolve. When I first started cleaning fabric, I had one piece that had a yellow stain. I was impatient, so I put the piece in ‘bleach water,’ and it dissolved. So, I learned a lesson fast — what it really takes is patience. I’ve never had any training in this, counting on books and the internet to teach me and I still have a lot more to learn.”

Bohan also discovered there are seldom opportunities to “spot clean” an item. When dry, the treated area will be obvious, so the entire piece has to be washed.

Many fabrics stored in grandma’s attic for decades have become “yellowed” and stained. Fabrics stored for years in hot attics become “tender,” Bohan said, and will rip easily.

How to get stains out of linens and handwork? “The cardinal rule: never use bleach,” she advised. “Getting stains out safely requires lots of patience. This is not a quick process. What to do, and how to do it, depends on the type of stain, age of the fabric and condition.

“Some people think the tan color of some items is stain damage. Not always so. There were many pieces that were soaked on purpose with tea to get that special shade of tan.”

Even the touted Oxy Clean can be too harsh for fine linens and crocheted period pieces. Her advice is to start out gently and build up, gently, to more aggressive solutions.

She relies on one main cleaning product, a powder called Restoration. Allowing plenty of time for the powder to work, coupled with multiple rinsing, most stains gradually disappear. Many items are too big for the sink, so she resorts to wrestling heavy, thick and bulky items, like bedspreads, in the bathtub.

“Getting a wet 60-pound full size bedspread out of the tub takes muscle work,” she laughed. “You can’t hand-wring these pieces. I gently press them with my hands and fingers to get as such water out as I can before removing them from the tub.”

She lifts items from the tub and centers them on a beach towel, on the floor, in her south-facing sunroom. Then each item is placed on flannel sheets, also spread on the floor, and every so carefully she tries to ‘shape it’ to its original configuration. Two days later, the piece is dry.

It is an ever so humbling experience to watch Bohan work on her knees beside the tub to hand wash bedspreads and tablecloths.

“If I were to do this as a full time business, instead of a hobby, I’d have a big sink so I wouldn't have to bend over so often,” she said.

It’s typical to wash items up to three times, and that process alone can make for a full day’s work. Then, too, there’s the slow, tedious task of ironing everything. A traditional ironing board is much too small for spreads and table clothes.

“What I desperately need is a big flat table, like a ping pong table, to spread out tablecloths and bedspreads to iron them.”

She wants everything perfect and perfection comes with a time cost. One pillow case, with crocheted edging, was pressed firmly with an iron and meticulous attention and care was paid to every detail, a process that took her about 40 minutes to complete — to her standards.

Most of the time she can look at a piece and just know the level of difficulty getting stains out. It is such a hand-on process it looks like all that is missing from doing it the “old fashion way,” in a sink or tub, is a washboard. It is a long, long way from her career in the professional world from which she retired in 2005.

“What I do now, working with these things, is just an extension of the personality that’s required for research. Perfectionistic work is tedious, time consuming and slow,” Bohan explained. “My married name is Linda Bohan, but my professional name is Dr. Linda Berlin, former Director of Research for the American Association of Colleges of Nursing in Washington, D.C. Prior to that I was a nurse practitioner, in the vanguard of nurse practitioners, having been once since 1971. I served on the on the faulty of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School and Albany Medical College.”

Bohan has a doctorate in Public Health from Hopkins, a master’s degree in Preventive and Community Medicine from Albany Medical College, a doctoral degree from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and a postdoctoral fellowship at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

While she applies years of discipline and attention to the work at hand now, she knows there is a limit to her abilities.

Bohan offered Antiques Roadshow-type advice to laymen contemplating restoration.

“If the pieces are really old and really exceptional, I would not attempt to work on them, but trust them in the care of a professional fabric restorationist, like someone at Colonial Williamsburg.

“I think I do pretty good work, but I don't think I’d want to clean the Shroud of Turin,” she said with generous laughter, “or Lincoln’s shirt with a blood stain on it.”

She has saved the handiwork of hundreds of strangers. “It’s an art form and to know the work and skill someone put in an article that was made for a loved one is touching and I want to preserve that history. You can go to yard sales or auctions and find tons of this stuff. People ignore it, especially if it's stained. But I can bring it back to life and preserve it.”

“The market will not bear the price of the time it takes to do this special kind of work.” All are works of love and in the end a restorationist can find himself or herself working for pennies on the dollar per hour.

A bedspread can need $200 worth of work, she said, and the paradox is that, while these items were expensive to make initially, they simply aren't valued enough by modern folks to justify even the cost of repair and restoration.

“If I charged what it really costs to do the work, the pieces would be sitting in a shop for months or years before they were sold,” she said.

She does what she does not for financial gain or even to “break even” on out-of-pocket expenses, but because she is compelled to save grandmas’ heirlooms.

Typical pieces include the traditional array of doilies, and couch and chair covers for head and arms, pillow case trims, and then there are some things so special, so sentimental and so dear, words can not capture their essence, their power to touch the heart.

Bohan’s finger tips glided over the surface of a white cream-colored smooth textured crocheted fabric.

“This is something a woman kept for almost 70 years. It’s a dress her mother crocheted.” Bohan explained. “Things like this are so special,” she noted with emotion in her soft voice. “A lady gave it to me and said ‘some little girl might want to wear it.’ It is a beautiful piece and will turn out gorgeous.”

There are treasures from attics that find their way into her loving hands. A decorative box from the attic of the famed Clifton House in Somerset County contained children's items and a crocheted christening dress or gown and a crocheted hat. They were probably made a century ago.

“You can tell a mother, or grandmother, put this stuff away to keep it in the family,” she said, and then paused. “This almost makes me cry because someone kept this and then was forgotten. These are the kinds of things I want to save.”

She admits she is drawn toward handmade baby clothes, christening gowns, and hats.

“I cleaned and repaired a handmade christening that was worn by a friend's grandfather as a baby. She wanted it to be worn for the christening ceremony of her first grandson.

“I spent hours and hours on it. When it was finished, it was beyond gorgeous. It was breathtaking. She showed me a photo of her grandson wearing it and he looked angelic in it. It made all those long hours worth it.”

Aside from custom cleaning and repair services, Bohan consigns some of her work at the Somerset Choice Antiques Shop in Princess Anne, which provides financial support for the Teackle Mansion. She also does work on linens for the shop, to sell on its own, to raise additional money for the mansion.

“I contribute my services to the shop as my contribution to the Somerset County Historical Society and the mansion. I’m dedicated to the Society and this is my way of supporting them, and I say that humbly.”

“Her contribution to our shop and the Society is of considerable importance," said Sharon Upton, Society member and manager of the shop. “Many stores can’t sell ‘old linens’ but when Linda works with them, people really want to buy these pieces,” she said. “They are pristine; cleaned, repaired, ironed, wrapped in cellophane, and presented beautifully. And they are priced to move” Upton said.

“I see it as a limited market, and yes friends do ask me ‘Why do you do this?’ When someone who values and appreciates looks at these things and ‘oohs and ahhs’ over them, it makes my day,” Bohan noted.

There is another side of the fate of quality linens and handiwork. They are purchased by the “Shabby Chic’ clientele. Tablecloths and napkins, doilies and in-between quality items like kitchen tablecloths with gaudy large flowers, sell at a brisk pace to be used by brides at receptions and by wedding and event planners. Some choice pieces are selected specifically as photography -props. “It’s often more about ‘the look’ than the quality,” Upton said. “The combine these items with certain glass accessories, too. They want the ‘retro’ look. A consistent top seller is linen kitchen or tea towels.”

Not all once treasured handiwork is admired or treated with respect.

“I visited a shop in New York state where a huge amount of these types of things were offered for sale without any work being done to them. They were in demand, the shopkeeper told me, as props for plays and theatricals.

It is called “repurposing,” a modern day word formally known as recycling, and before that, as reworking In the end, it all means the same to a degree, where an items is cut up to be “reinvented.”

Torn, heavily stained or damaged items can be transformed into a utilitarian item. “I had some white table linens that had numerous holes in them that I cut up and made into costumes for a church play,” Bohan said.

Crocheted vintage clothing for children is also “repurposed’ in a peculiar way. “Some doll collectors buy items crocheted for children to dress dolls,” she said.

Upton sees it as a “new use for the old,” by designers and creative mothers of the bride. “A lot of good stuff would otherwise go to the dump,” Upton said.

“When young people clean out their parents or grandparents' things and find a pile of lines, it’s usually the first thing they throw out. They pitch the linens,” Upton said.

 “Right,” Bohan confirmed. “They don’t want ‘that stuff.’ The young generations don’t want to, God forbid, iron things either,” she said, laughing.

So many handmade and linen specialties share a common story. Some were wedding presents that were never used and stored for 60 years or more. Many were inherited items that were deemed out of date, “old fashion,” and stored long-term. There are beautiful handmade pieces that owners found too “high maintenance” for routine use, and into drawers, chests and attics they went.

“This is for a very select audience for items like this, but when this stuff is gone, it's gone. That's why it's important to take care of it. I think people appreciate it, but don't want to buy it.

Today’s young eyes may fail to appreciate exactly what it takes to transform a line of thread into a visual work of art. “They don't know because they have not seen anyone do it and assume they were made by machine,” she said.

There has never been, and probably never will be a machine invented, that’s capable of replicating the premier work of crochet masters.

These works of art, especially bedspreads, even christening gowns, were made to be used, so do so, Bohan advised. As for fine period table linens, they still make a statement of luxury. They impart a sumptuousness and feeling of quality and pamper a dinner guest. Few people today know the experience of dining with the finest of handworked linens.

“I love it all. Doing this gives me such joy, the opportunity to save history,” Bohan said. “When someone who values and appreciates these things and ‘oohs and ahhs’ over them, it makes my day.”

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