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My mother was cleaning out an old trunk recently and gave me three sets of pillowcases embroidered by my grandmother, Oma. I had never seen embroidery like this before, and it made me think of a time when handcrafting was taught to everyone as a necessary skill and that creating everyday things by hand was once common.

As I examined the pillowcases, it became obvious that they displayed a progression of her skills. This type of work is called white on white embroidery and is a traditional folk embroidery found in many countries.

The first set of pillowcases, above, has plump little flowers and dots with a delicate open border, which my mom tells me is created by teasing the threads of the white linen fabric apart, then rebinding them with white thread. The flowers and raised dots are formed with tightly clustered threads. I imagine that there’s a tiny piece of fabric or balled up thread inside to provide such lift, but that’s just a guess. Below, I’ve inserted a piece of dark paper into the pillowcase to better see the stitches.

The three flowers below are about 2 inches/5 cm wide.

Here’s the simple monogram, 2.25 inches/6 cm tall.

The second set of pillowcases is a whole new kettle of fish. Suddenly, there’s a leap in skill. The borders on these pillows have opened up, loose, confident and playful, but at the same time absolutely precise. The second photo below has a green sheet of paper inserted.

The square sunburst motif below is about 1.25 inches/3 cm across. Look at those tiny little stitches! I know nothing about embroidery, but clearly the detail is painstaking.

Here’s a close up of the borders; width from top border to bottom one is 3 inches/7.5cm.

At first I thought these stars must be machine made and sewn in. They seem impossibly small and perfect, less than 1 inch/2.5 cm tall. But everything else is impossibly small and perfect, too, so I’ll trust they’re handmade.

The monogram is similar to the preceding one, but a touch more graceful.

Finally, the pinnacle: a full-on virtuoso performance! Each pillowcase in the third set has two 10-inch/25 cm wide triangular motifs, one in each upper corner, displaying a traditional heart design.

Yes, hard to see. Paper inserted inside pillow case again.

The level of detail is excruciating. I can’t imagine how long it takes to create a pattern like this. Look at the different types of stitches and the patterns they produce.

Notice how in the flower detail below, each petal has been separately created, then layered to create a cluster. The circle around the flower measure 1.5 inches/4 cm across.

Look how much the monogram on this set of pillowcases has changed from the previous sets: graceful, elegant, balanced. And bigger! It’s 3.5 inches/9 cm tall.

Even the buttons are meticulous.

Oma was born in Germany in 1910. She probably created the first set of pillowcases as a child, and embroidered throughout her teenage years. The monogram represents her maiden name, so this work was completed before she married at 19 and was probably part of her bridal trousseau.

My mother remembers taking Handicraft Class in school, also in Germany, between the ages of 9 and 11, where she learned embroidery and knitting. In my Home Economics class in high school in Canada, we learned baking and general sewing. I love the precise learning required to develop the skills of my grandmother, and although I realize few women would like to return to a time when hand-embroidering linens was expected, the magic of it is bewitching.

I wonder if Oma enjoyed embroidering, or if it was a dreaded chore. Did she relax as she stitched, or was she hunched over in frustration? The patterns are so skillfully rendered that I hope she found it fun to pick up her needle and lose herself in the patterns.

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