Today I discovered something that changed my life. The scales have fallen from my eyes. Mind blown. Everything is changed, changed utterly.
I found out what doilies are for.
Doilies – [also doiley, doyly, doyley, or even erroneously d’Oyley, d’oylie according to the OED] are weird lacy napkins-type things that look like soft tea-saucers.
My childhood was haunted by doilies – specifically by the doilies that adorned my Auntie’s sitting room – every table, every chair, every solid surface had one – one long runner-one along the back of every armchair, one small round one on the arm of each chair, one underneath every ornament on the mahogany shelf, one in every place where you might conceivably put down a cup or rest your hand. Even the lampshade had lacy etched glass that look (to my young and foolish eyes) like a see-through doily. The only thing Auntie hadn’t got was a doily-shaped ceiling-cosy. I’m pretty sure she would have got one too if she knew where to buy them.
I always thought they were pointless – worse, they were a nuisance. They were always slipping onto the floor and crinkling up and then they’d have to be taken away and washed and fresh doilies, stiff from the hot press would be laid down. I hated them. And the doilies hated me too. I only had to look at them and they’d get grubby. Then I’d get blamed. When it all was the doilies’ fault. Or, really, let’s be honest, Auntie’s fault. She bought the doilies in the first place.
But then, today while doing some teaching prep: a revelation. Once upon a time, doilies had a function.
[In the 19th century home] coal residue was omnipresent, both as dust when coals were carried to each fireplace and then, after the fires were lit, as soot thrown out by the fire, blackening whatever it touched. The most common system of protection was to cover whatever could be cover, and wash the covers regularly. (Judith Flanders, The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed (2004), 10)
Doilies were part of a whole system for fighting against coal dust
…housekeepers simply had to accept that soot and ‘blacks’ [flecks of coal dust] were part of their daily life. Latches to doors – both street and inner doors – had a small plate or curtain fitted over the keyhole to keep out dirt. Plants were kept on window sills to trap the dust as it flew in; or housewives nailed muslin across the windows to stop the soot […] tablecloths were laid just before a meal, as otherwise dust settled from the fire and they became dingy in a matter of hours. (Flanders, The Victorian House, 70-1)
Far from being totally useless, doilies are exactly as useful as houseplants.
Actually, there seems to have been a craze for putting aspidistras and doilies together.
There’s even a doily on the cover of Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying
I think I’ll do a post about Aspidistras soon. Flora Klickmann had some very severe opinions about them. Maybe I’ll even design a doily based on an aspidistra. Probably not though.
If you do decide to make a doily, there are some really beautiful patterns out there. As well as crochet patterns for home-decorating doilies like the Crocus Doily from JoAnn and this giant crochet rug made out of t-shirt yarn, there are lots of patterns for knitted lace shawls like the gorgeous Queen Anne’s Lace Shawl from Men Who Knit, Jared Flood’s lovely Hemlock Ring Blanket, and these doilies from Yarn Over. I’m sure any one of them could be adapted to make a fine ceiling-cosy.
I’m still slightly afraid of doilies so I won’t try making one anytime soon. Maybe when I buy an aspidistra and need some to stand it on, I’ll give it a go.
This week, I’ve been mostly working on winter scarves (woo! Layers!)
This one is based on Rose Anne’s Braidheart pattern. I made one ages ago in a dark charcoal grey and I wear it all the time so I decided to make something of a similar weight and style. I’ve also started working on a shawl pattern from the book I found in the bin. It took me a while to decipher the handwriting and make sense of the pattern but I’m getting there…slowly.
 A hot press is like an airing cupboard but in Ireland.
 Real work, I swears it on the precious.