Crocheted doilies rose to prominence in the Victorian era, when cotton thread began to be industrially produced. They were intricately crocheted and crafted for centuries, predominantly by women who never received the recognition or praise their art deserved. After over a century of solid popularity, somehow, between the mid 20th Century and now, doilies fell out of favour.
Today, it's a widely held belief that they are old-fashioned, dust-collectors, that serve little to no purpose in the interior decoration of contemporary homes.
With all due respect, that's bullshit.
I believe that many contemporary audiences are scared off by doilies, simply because they do not know how to style them. But the tide is changing, more and more people are interested in using and celebrating handmade, vintage, sustainable and women-made art. So this article is for all you out there.
Below is a list of ways that doilies were traditionally used, and a few contemporary suggestions.
Traditionally, doilies were used to decorate dressing tables, side tables, and the arms and backs of upholstered furniture.
The Etiquette and Service of the Table, published in 1916 by the Department of Domestic Science, Kansas State Agricultural College, even suggested that tablecloths were to be discarded completely in favour of individual doilies being used for “each article to be set upon the table”. The publication described doilies as “charming,” “dainty,” “gay,” and “conversation provoking” pieces that would lead to “memorable table talk.”
Suggestion: Use a bunch of doilies instead of a tablecloth to create an amazing dining display. This would look particularly amazing in white tones for a wedding or in pastel tones for a summer dinner party.
Others were intended to serve a function by protecting surfaces by from wine glasses, water pitchers, hot food and serving plates.
Protecting food and drink
Doilies can also be draped over objects such as bread baskets, cake stands, sugar bowls and water glasses, to protect them from collecting dust and bugs.
Before we called them doilies, we called them doily napkins. People were using doily napkins for over a hundred years before the openwork style of doily, which we most commonly associate the word with now, rose to prominence in the Victorian Era.
Doilies were once used to decorate and hold together Nosegays or Tussie-Mussies - these are small bouquets of flowers in a cone, originally intended to be worn or carried around in the hands during the smelly Victorian era. Today, this small bouquet is popular for all occasions, particularly weddings. The stems of the bouquet can be wrapped in a doily and tied with a ribbon. With the ability to be washed and reused, this is not only super friggin' cute but also a sustainable form of floral decoration which is well due for revival.
Upcycle and repurpose
Although they were traditionally intended to be draped over other objects, there is nothing stopping you from using doilies in unconventional ways. For example, frame a piece and hang it on your wall, appliqué them onto cushions or quilts or clothing, dye a bunch and sew them into a table runner, or use papier-mâché glue to turn them into bowls or lanterns. The world is your oyster, baby.
I hope these images have inspired you to incorporate doilies back into your decor, for style and sustainability's sake. So now you want some? If you are talented you can make your own (there are plenty of patterns online), if not, there are so many of these crocheted masterpieces in thrift shops that need rehoming. But before you head to the thrift shop, check your and your parents' linen cupboards... you might just find some treasures tucked away.