Textiles: The Last Frontier

Is there value in those boxes under the bed?

by Newbold Richardson
The Costume and Textile Specialists

Textiles are unique in the greater world of the decorative arts. Long under valued and intensely personal, generations of orphaned historic costume, needlework, laces, linens, and quilts have been carefully stored away by people loathe to dispose of family history.

Americans have been collecting and documenting the material objects of our past since the mid-nineteenth century. We pretty much know where the important pieces of art, furniture, and ceramics are. Not so with the artifacts of our textile heritage. At least 60% of our historic textiles are still hidden in attics and the bottoms of trunks.

The relocation, downsizing, and death of the “Greatest Generation” is bringing many of these family heirlooms to light. Many of the heirs are ignorant either of their existence and/or clueless as to what they have. It is much like a big treasure hunt: so may “ponies” under the hay of those boxes under the bed!

But do any of these pieces of cloth have any value? As a category, textiles cover a lot of territory. There is historic clothing, accessories, fabrics, laces, fancy linens, coverlets and quilts, as well as needlework and embroidery. Over the past five years the value of some textiles has risen considerably. The single highest valued item found by the P.B.S. television series “The Antiques Road Show” was a textile: a Navaho chief’s blanket.

It sold at auction for over $500,000. Boxes of fancy linens, beautiful laces, historic, vintage, and haute couture clothing fetch considerable sums at the bi-annual costume and textile sale held by the Charles A.Whitaker Auction in Philadelphia. Dealers Stephen and Carole Huber regularly feature samplers and school girl embroideries for six figure prices at the New York Winter Antiques Show.

So, before carting off that box full of great grandma’s table linens, underwear, and embroidery projects to Goodwill, check with someone who knows textiles – you might be pleasantly surprised.