While cleaning closets last year, I stumbled across three large unmarked cardboard boxes. As I opened the tops, I found a large collection of beautiful old linens –– dinner and cocktail napkins, tablecloths, lace-trimmed bedsheets and hand towels. All of these belonged to my late mother, who was partial to Irish linen and damask (a salute to her Irish roots, no doubt), and my late mother-in-law, who preferred an eclectic assortment of elegant, colorful and festive linens, mostly of French origin.
As I sorted through the boxes, a warm feeling of nostalgia crept over me. I thought of the dinner parties and cocktail parties when these much-loved linens were used and even wondered about my in-laws’ lace-trimmed trousseau sheets, bought more than 70 years ago. I knew most of the linens could be brought back to life or given a different life, and preserving them was a phone call away. Enter Bryce Reveley, owner of Gentle Arts in Uptown New Orleans.
For more than 30 years, Reveley and her small team of textile conservators have preserved lace table linens, wedding dresses and veils and other antique textiles for collectors all over the world. She has been a consultant to the Louisiana State Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Currently she appraises lace and textiles for William Doyle Gallery in New York City and through Gentle Arts.
Reveley’s fascination with lace began as a young child when she watched her grandmother make bobbin lace by hand in her Arkansas home. As an adult, Reveley furthered that passion. Today, she appreciates the intricacies of the art form and its investment value.
“Lace is the last bastion of undiscovered collector’s items,” she says. “There is still great value in lace, particularly if it was made before World War I.”
Before the war, men designed lace and women hand-made their designs from their homes. After that time, the whole industry of handmade lace dried up. Many of the men who once designed lace were killed in the war, and women sought higher-paying factory jobs. With the industrialization of society, homemakers now desired machine-made lace because it was the trendy
New Orleans has always been a great lace city, says Reveley. For generations, New Orleanians have loved to entertain in their stately homes and relied on their beautiful china, silver and linens to help create an elegant ambiance for
Add to that the French and Irish roots of much of the citizenry: “So many of the women in New Orleans had family members who still lived in France and Ireland, and they received beautiful linens as gifts from relatives in their mother countries,” Reveley says. “Many New Orleanians still have these textiles as they have been handed down through the generations.”
These heirloom linens could have great value. For example, Reveley recently appraised a Point de Gaz lace handkerchief for a client whose family had had the piece for five generations. The handkerchief, still in its original box, had been used by family brides for decades. Its original price was on the box in francs. She appraised the handkerchief at $5,000.
In another instance, Reveley traveled to a Southern city to appraise a lace collection for an estate. The owner obviously knew the worth of the pieces –– as all were kept in a bank vault. The table linens, wedding veil and other items were appraised in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the heirs were stunned. “What began as a lovely collection for one family became a very nice investment and inheritance,” she says.
Since Katrina and the levee failures, Reveley and her daughter, Leigh, and their small staff of conservators have restored much-loved linens, quilts and other treasured textiles for New Orleanians who know the true value of these fabrics. Some preserved their pieces because of the intrinsic value, knowing they were irreplaceable. Others preserved out of sentiment because the textiles brought back memories of loved ones and great family experiences. “There is no way to place a value on the memories those linens hold,” she says.
My boxes of linens were lovingly cleaned, ironed and prepared for parties I will host in my new home. With each tablecloth and napkin that is placed on the table or hand towel that hangs in the powder room, I’ll think back on the times I shared with my mother and mother-in-law, and I’ll know that, in a small way, they’ll be with me when my guests arrive.