In the recurring series Souvenir Stories, Emily Spivack asks accomplished storytellers about memorable objects they've brought home from their travels. Here, designer Clare Vivier explains her love of the monogrammed linens she finds on her annual summer trips to France.
When we visit my husband’s family in the Loire Valley every summer, we spend weekends going to flea markets. On Saturdays and Sundays there are traveling flea markets, called brocantes, in nearby town. That’s where I find the linens I collect. I love crisp linen and cotton vintage sheets and napkins, especially ones with hand-embroidered monograms.
I’m constantly looking for my initials embroidered onto these linens but I’ve never found them. The closest I’ve gotten is a long bolster pillow from one of the markets, which I keep on our bed. It’s hand embroidered with GV, a combination of my maiden name, Guerrero, and my married name, Vivier.
When my husband’s mother was first married, she embroidered the sheets for her and her husband with their initials. That was the thing to do back then, personalize the sheets. They’re still gorgeous—white on white embroidery, which is my favorite—and well cared for. When she had children, she embroidered sheets and pillowcases for them too.
I’m obsessed with hand-embroidered napkins as well. The theory behind the embroidered napkins is that you’d have one napkin to use throughout the week and the embroidery distinguished which one was yours. Sometimes the napkins have the person’s initials, or they might have the family’s initials and then a teeny apple, a teeny star, or a teeny fish so one kid will know that she’s the apple napkin for the week and the sibling is the fish. It’s very cute and because you’re reusing them, it also winds up being very ecological.
Some of my linens are from the 1920s and I love how wonderfully cared for they still are after all this time. They didn’t have washing machines or bleach, nor did they live in a disposable culture like we do today, which is why these linens have lasted so long. It was blood, sweat, and tears that got the stains out. It’s the same at my mother-in-law’s house. She knows how to get a stain out of anything and she’ll spend time doing it. Sometimes I’ll feel really guilty because once the napkins come to my house, they get ruined by my son’s chocolate hands and I don’t wash them as carefully as I should. It’s like, “I can’t believe this linen has lived for generations and now we’re treating it like it’s mopping the floor right now.”
What usually catches my eye at the flea markets is the craftsmanship. Because I have a handbag company and I’m working daily with materials, I can appreciate the quality and skill that goes into the embroidery. I’m also obsessed with the lettering and how the initials look together. I probably started monogramming my own bags way back in the day because I was looking at all the different monogrammed linens. When I began my company, I’d paint the monograms, but then I realized I could buy a monogramming machine. It was a really big purchase at the time—I was still working in my house—but it paid off so well because people love a monogram on a bag. The vintage sheets are a testament that monogramming isn’t going out of style any time soon. When you put your initials on something, it makes it personal. It creates heritage. You can hand it down to your daughter, and eventually your grandchild will find it very cool to have her grandmother’s initialed bag.
It is bittersweet that all this beautiful stuff ends up at flea markets. Maybe the silver lining is that people like me find it and love it just as much. Hopefully it means that one day, when all of my stuff ends up at a flea market, somebody is going to love it just as much too.