Monday, March 11, 2013

Help Solve a Vintage Thrift Shop Embroidery Mystery!

I have a bona fide textile mystery, and maybe you, or someone you know, can help me solve it.

In my many years as a vintage fabriholic (modern fabric, too), I have found many stitched treasures in thrift shops. But nothing compares to this one. And, in fact, this one didn't even  happen to me, directly. My Arizona cousin Nina  found it in a thrift shop (for $2), and she sent it to me for my birthday last month. 

The more I look at it, the curiouser I get, and I think you will, too. It's about 12.5" x 24" single layer, with raw edges. The backing is a coarse red linen, almost burlap.  Here's the overview.   
All the stitching is done by hand. There's a big sun, the words "happy birthday" chain-stitched across the top. There's a couple on the right side. The woman is wearing a glorious gold print that has a French Provincial look. She's probably awaiting limbs.  The man holds what appears to be a golf club in his right hand,
and an eggplant in his left. No, I'm not kidding: 
If that's not an eggplant, then I don't know what.

At the center left, there's a floating appliqued blue linen shape that looks like it was meant to be a dress for another, buxom figure.
The outfits are appliqued with a dense, remarkably even blanket stitch. The skin is executed  in a chain stitch.  These stitches look big on your screen, but they're actually tiny. 
Pretty darn cool, no? This stitcher had talent. 

 Down along the right side, there's what is probably a date, chainstitched in Roman Numerals. 
It reads 9-7-38. Was that the birth date of the giftee, or the birthday at which this textile was to be presented? Or the date of an eggplant-themed golf tournament? Or something else entirely?  

Because the mystery is about to deepen. Down the left edge, there's a large beige silk rectangle:
At the top of the rectangle, there's a purse or treasure chest, executed in incredibly tiny stitches, with a single elongated diamond shaped rhinestone sewn in it. It's a very old-fashioned rhinestone, not shiny at all, with a black metal backing and tines.
Below that, there's a sort of cross of dark and light purple and rose. I can't even guess at what this was supposed to be. Crossbow? Esoteric Masonic symbol? Weirdly dissected eggplant with pink smoking pipe hidden inside?  
Below that, there's something that looks like a mug with an unfinished brown handle, and a sign or a teabag hanging down from it.  And now it gets really good: 
The hanging sign says: USSR!!! 

USSR?!? Are you KIDDING me? Could this be, like, a SPY textile? Is there a secret message? Will the FBI be knocking on my door soon? Should I run from my house like Alan Arkin, screaming "Egermancy!  Everybody to get from street!"? (Thanks, Howard.)

As if to acknowledge the ignition of my burning questions, two inches below the cup, there's this:   
A purse with a question mark, hanging from a tree. Is this like Whittaker Chambers' microfilm pumpkin patch? Except it's an eggplant patch? 

Don't laugh: There's more agriculture coming. To the right of the question mark suitcase, the word "if" is  executed in purple cursive. After the 'f' comes something that is almost but not quite a dollar sign (brown borders with white stripes); and the black cord looks like a hose, with a gold nozzle, spewing out silvery blue bugle beads. 
The hose appears to be watering crops. And there's foliage with delicate 3-D green leaves that appear to be remade from green ribbon.

And that's it! The only other information is that the back is a little messy, but not too bad. Did a talented child  or teen make this?
So I'm throwing this mystery open to the world! What do you think? Have you ever seen anything like this? Does it ring a bell? Do you know anyone who might have an idea?

40 comments:

  1. How fun! Thanks for sharing!

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  2. Hmm ... got no clues on this, but if your cousin in Arizona finds a vintage one-eyed, one-horned flying purple people eater worked in (what else?) purple floss on white background, I want it back.

    :Diane

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  3. 1. Another interpretation of the date could be from a European mode, reading July 9, 1938

    2: The guy could be a sailor holding a grenade.

    3: Or a medic in white scrubs.

    4: Russians wouldn't use USSR. They said CCCP
    5. I think a child made this using newly developed skills with a variety of stitches just learned. The white item could be an anchor or a musical clef sign.

    Quite a lovely piece of folk art.

    5.

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    1. Excellent points, Nancy! You're so right about CCCP.
      I did think about a musical clef. But it's not quite right. Of course, if a child did it, they could badly misfire a musical clef....Thanks for your thoughts!

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  4. No help here other than the purple/pink thingy reminds me of an Iris and the thing you see as a hose looks like a boat anchor that a sailor would have tattooed on his arm. Fun and funky!

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    1. Sherri, you may be onto something. The male figure is dressed entirely in white---like a sailor! Thanks for the clue!

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  5. Hi Cathy. What a cool and unusual piece! I'd guess 1920s/30s by the style of the embroidery, but i can't readily put my hands on something even remotely similar. It certainly is a mystery...and what it made me think of is a rebus...where the pictures are supposed to sound out a message...but i sure can't figure out what it is, if it is one.

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    1. A rebus - excellent point, it does have that kind of word.image alternation. I'm working on sounding it out....Thanks for the insight!

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  6. Diane, you'll be the first to know!

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  7. You are so special. Maybe..
    Fun to look at and comtemplate.

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    1. Thanks, Juanita, I am loving the mystery!

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  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  9. I am physic,(grin) so I'm saying this is a hand sewn birhday mememto that says, Happy Birthday! 7-9-38 is the birth date, and the hose and flowers mean "may your garden grow, and flourish, may you have leisure for tea, with friends and family (some from Russia) many gifts of great value," (purse with rhinestone) The dress and arms weren't finished because the maker ran out of time and had to get themselves off to the party. The question mark since it too is in a breifcase or purse or suitcase is "many surprises in store on this happy day. The end.

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    1. Fran, I love it, you've told a wonderful story, and tied up all the loose ends very neatly! Thank you!

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  10. This is so intriguing! I sort of thought the golf club might be a hoe, which fits in with the garden on the other side. But who wears a white outfit to garden in!? It looks like he's wearing scrubs...could he be a gardening doctor?

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    1. A gardening doctor? We once had a citrus Ph.D. consult on our grapefruit tree...But he wasn't wearing white scrubs, LOL!

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  11. Update: Quilter Alan Kelchner wrote me directly with these very useful thoughts:

    "Cathy -

    " I've had lots of dealings with needlework along with my vintage quilt collecting. I once owned a dresser filled with antique linens :) I'm going to address the questions one by one.

    "First, this comes under the category of outsider art. Art that didn't have any training, just like a child.

    "I have no idea what the age of the person was, but my gut says 8-13.

    The date is the birthday of that year, 9/7 being the actual birth day.

    "The gold dress is feedback which is appropriate for the age.

    "I think the man is holding a gardening tool, probably a hoe since he's holding a vegetable. I agree it's an eggplant.

    "I also agree the blue shape was supposed to be someone else.

    "The purse is probably a jewelry box.

    "Which leads me to what I think this actually is. A child's home made gift to her mother since she probably didn't have her own money to buy something. I think the figure in gold is the mother and the man her father. The blue shape was probably supposed to be her but she didn't finish it in time. The box and necklace were the real gift.

    "The purple and pink image looks like an orchid so maybe the father bought flowers as well?

    "The mug and red square looks like a cup of tea, though I could be wrong. Salada Tea Company was the first to sell tea bags, in 1930.

    "USSR, SSUR, RUSS, SRUS, SRUS, SSRU. It's any guess what the letters stood for.

    I haven't a clue what the question mark and the word if mean.

    "The squiggle is actually a tree trunk. The green lines underneath is grass and the embroidery around it branches and leaves.

    "And finally, I love it. It's something I'd buy without a second
    thought. Lucky you.

    Alan"

    Alan, you are making such good points. The florid "s" probably is a tree trunk. It does have a very young feel, though I can't imagine an 8 year old who could make such tiny, neat stitches. I could see a 13 year old doing it. Thank you so much!!! I'm proud to know I now own a piece of "outsider art." (Uh oh, something else to collect?)

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    1. Alan is a knowledgeable quilt collector and he used to do restorations of vintage quilts. Obviously, he's also very generous with his knowledge. Thank you, Alan, for this fascinating break-down of the embroidery elements.

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  12. I have no idea what any of it means, but the piece is wonderful and thanks for great read...haven't laughed so hard in a while!!

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    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed it, Gisela! Thanks for stopping by!

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  13. Cathy, this appears to be a lovely gift from the heart! A lot of needlework was done on preprinted cloth and patterns. It appears this was devised from the stitcher. I think it is a gift from a child to a parent and it appears to be a gardening theme. When confident, the stitcher uses even, careful chain stitches. When creating something unknown, the stitches are more free form. Typical child, she ran out of time to complete herself in the scene. ( Blue dress!) Charming and precious.

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    1. I agree, I think it was a very confident young person who made this! Thanks for visiting!

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  14. Alan's comments got me to thinking some more ... maybe the squiggle with leaves is a money-tree. The dollar sign is imposed on a tree trunk and the stitcher is watering it to make it grow more riches.

    :Diane

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    1. Diane, I think you've hit the nail on the head!!!! I think it's totally a money tree!!! The maker is wishing the birthday person profitable crops! It explains the squarish little ribbon leaves. That also almost explains the purple "if". Like, "if" he made a lot of money with agriculture, they'd all be rich? And the question mark purse. The money explanation totally would explain the slightly off shape of the dollar sign. Thank you so much for the insights! I'm starting to get a handle on this thing!

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  15. Cathy, I don't know anything about your piece but it is very interesting. Maggie

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  16. Thanks for visiting, Maggie, I'm glad you found it interesting!

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  17. I think the man is holding a hoe and the white curly stitched part with the green below is a trellis and the green is the plants growing up it. Looks like bean shoots. Great piece. So much fun when you find something like this. Peace and many blessings, Annie

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    1. Anne, I hadn't thought of a trellis! I think you may be right! Thanks so much for the insights!

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  19. As always Cathy --- your blog is so much fun. What an intriguing and interesting puzzle. Thanks so much for sharing!

    Debbie

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  20. As always, Cathy, your blog is so interesting and intriguing. Thanks so much for sharing this entertaining puzzle.

    Debbie

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  21. Glad you enjoyed it, Debbie - I did too! It gives me an excuse to continue my bad thrift shop habits!

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  22. Cathy, I tried to leave a comment the other day and my computer locked up so will try again. I'm surprise that no one has come up with the phrase, "if money grows on trees". Looks to me like that would be a good possibility for the "if" tree, and hose. What do you think?

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  23. Cathy, I will try once again to get this comment down. Having a problem. How about "if money grew on trees" as an explanation for the if/tree/hose? Just a thought.

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  24. Marilyn, thanks for your persistence! To paraphrase Professor Higgins, By George, I think you've GOT IT! If money grew on trees! It makes sense! Thank you!!!

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