In today’s world, the word doily conjures up images of dark and musty homes filled with stuff and doilies scattered here and there; under lamps and vases and things we can’t fathom what they are. Except of course if you are an antique dealer or collector and then that daydream is quite pleasant.
In fact doilies have played an interesting part in our history, albeit small. In order to understand a bit more about them, we are going to have to take a look at crochet and its history.
Amazingly enough, crocheting has not been around very long. There are different points of view of the origin of the craft and exactly when it began but we are not going to travel that path today. Let me just point out a couple of things.
The earliest mention of crocheting found is in 1819, in the Swedish magazine “Konst och nyhetsmagasin for medborgare av alla klasser”.
Cotton was mercerized in 1844 by John Mercer (England) which made the thread stronger. This one very important process allowed for a much sturdier end product and no doubt gave a real push to the crochet home industry.
The Complete Book of Crochet, 1946, describes the work of crocheting as a convent art and not until the Irish Famine of 1846 that the nuns taught it to their students who then sold their wares and thus helped to alleviate existing miseries.
Let’s just say that doilies got a foothold in our everyday society in the mid to late 1800s. It became a skill that well-born young ladies were taught and the end product, the doily, became a part of the late Victorian home.
The Victorian young woman was expected to have a supply of doilies in her hope chest to be used when she set up home. These doilies were used most often for serving food and protecting furniture. In the 1847, “A Winter’s Gift”, a publication, provided detailed instruction for performing crochet stitches.
In 1866, Something For Everybody; and a Garland For The Year mentions a small wine-glass napkin which bears the maker’s name (Doiley).
According to Good Housekeeping, 1905, doilies were used when serving hot toast, rolls or muffins. The doily was placed beneath the food. The doily was always supposed to fit inside the rim of the plate. They are sometimes called dessert doilies where the dessert is served on the doily and then on a small plate.
In a New York times article published in 1909, doilies were placed beneath the finger bowl. According to the article, “For less formal use the finger bowl is set upon a doily on the dessert plate and is removed with its doily and set at one side of the plate until needed. It is bad form to pass a finger bowl without a plate and doily under it. The latter should never be omitted, though it is sometimes done ignorantly.”
In The Etiquette and Service of the Table, written by the Department of Domestic Science, Kansas State Agricultural College, dated 1916, it states that “At breakfast and at luncheon the table-cloth is sometimes discarded, and a center piece, with an individual doily for each article to be set upon the table, is used.” It also states that the water pitcher is placed upon a small plate or tray, on which there may be a doily. The assumption is for the doily to soak up ayn condensation.
In 1920, Everyman’s Encyclopedia of Etiquette by Emily Holt discusses the use of doilies at the luncheon table. “…the service plate must be laid upon a doily of suitable size which in its turn rests upon an asbestos pad. The water glass also stands on a small doily toward the centre and at the right of the service plate, and on a slightly larger doily at the left stands the bread-and-butter plate with a small silver knife lying flat across it.”
Keep in mind that the types of uses for the doilies could also be made out of other materials. It was not always crocheted. An example would be Antimacassars.
Antimacassars were a type of covering or protection for the back of stuffed furniture as well as the arms in the 1800s. They were made specifically to keep the furniture clean. One of the main problems with keeping furniture clean in the 1800s was men’s use of Macassar which was used to groom and style hair. This solution was basically made of oils. It made sense that furniture had to be protected.
Later, these Antimacassars were known as chair sets (United States) and were promoted to not only help keep your furniture clean but as an appealing way to make your home welcoming and that using crocheted doilies was a way to encourage people to linger. Of course these doilies were also used to cover worn spots on the arms of the chair.
So we know from written history that doilies were made to protect furniture or china but there was another use for crocheted doilies. They were often used in Tussie-Mussies.
Tussie-Mussies was basically a specific grouping of flowers and herbs. The stems were often wrapped with a doily and then tied with a ribbon. Although it is unclear as to when, the doilies used for Tussie-Mussies began to have a hole in the center permitting the doily to act as a base for the flowers, flaring out further than the flowers in the bouquet, creating an additional design element.
Now that I have shared the story of the crocheted doily, you may find yourself thinking you want one or two or ten. It is important to understand that crocheted doilies are mass produced and it depends on whether you want a handmade doily or not. If you opt for handmade, how does one tell?
Perfection. If it is perfect, it is machine made. When I say perfection I am referring to the idea that machine made does not allow for any skipped stitches or change in tension. On a handmade doily the tension often differs from one stitch to the next. This is a dead giveaway on whether something is hand or machine made.
Doilies have a rich history and played a role in everyday life for over a hundred years. In my opinion they are under appreciated and undervalued but then, that is just my opinion.
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