Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Faith from roanoke, VA. Faith Wonders, “Why did women in olden times sew doilies for a wedding trunk?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Faith!

Have you ever seen a fancy meal set out with lacy white papers under plates or glasses? What about visiting someone’s home and noticing white lacy fabric on tables or over the arms of a couch? Did you WONDER what those items are called? If you didn’t already know—they are doilies! Let’s WONDER together—what is a doily? And why do we use them?

First, let’s figure out that funny name, doily. Historians think that “doily” comes from a man’s last name, a cloth merchant named Doiley, or Doyley. He lived in the 1500s and sold a type of lace. Over time, his name became used to describe fancy napkins—much as we often use the brand name “Kleenex” to describe tissues, or “Band-aid” for sticky bandages. Doilies were originally fancy napkins.

Now let’s travel back in time to Victorian England. Many items that were once made by hand were made by machines, including cotton thread. In 1844, a special technique was developed to make cotton thread even stronger. Crochet became popular as a quick, relatively easy way to make items with this strong cotton thread. This thread was often used to make “openwork” textiles that looked like lace. Openwork means something created with decorative holes or gaps.

Making and using these cotton “doilies” became very popular. Doilies were used mostly to protect furniture. They were used like coasters to protect wood tables from heat or water. They were also used on the arms of sofas or chairs to keep the furniture looking new. A special kind of doily called an “antimacassar” was used for the backs of chairs or sofas. Macassar was a type of hair oil that many men used—the “antimacassar” protected the furniture from oily stains! Doilies were useful, but also decorative. They were used to cover dressers or other flat surfaces. On dining tables, people used doilies instead of tablecloths. They might use different-sized doilies for each dish or glass, no matter how small!

Have you noticed that doilies are almost always white? That’s because crocheted doilies were made to be well used, and would need to be washed often. Since doilies were used to absorb sweat, dirt, and oils from people’s hands and heads, they would pick up stains quickly. White cotton was easy to bleach, whereas colored threads would have needed more careful laundering. Doilies with stains that would not come out might have been dyed with tea or other natural dyes.

Crocheting doilies was a business for some women. For others, it was a fun pastime. During the Irish Famine, groups of nuns taught Irish women to crochet. This was a way to help them earn money and support their families. Crochet later became more widespread. Women’s magazines published patterns for its readers. Women used other fiber arts, like embroidery, to add on to their doilies and make them even more decorative

Doilies were popular for many years. They began to go out of style in the late 1930s. Architecture and design styles became more modern and less ornate. The extra fabric of doilies began to seem out of place. Doilies made of paper took the place of crocheted doilies. 

Crocheted doilies never really went away, though. In the 1970s, some feminists became interested in doilies. They saw doilies as an art form. They argued that many kinds of “domestic” art have never been seen as true art. They organized exhibitions of doily art to change that point of view. There, doilies were displayed along with other traditionally female art work like needlepoint, embroidery, and quilting.

Today, many enjoy using doilies in new ways. People frame doilies as wall art, sew them to make pillows or quilts, and use them as lampshades. Some even dip them into clay, glue, or concrete to make three-dimensional art. And, of course, many still use them for their original purpose.

You may often see paper doilies used at fancy occasions like weddings, where they are used for serving food. Paper doilies are also used for crafts, especially around Valentine’s Day. You can find ideas for doily Christmas trees, paper fans, snowflakes, lanterns, and envelopes. Doilies were made to be both useful and decorative. Now, both fabric and paper doilies are used for many new kinds of crafts and art.

Have you ever seen a doily? How would YOU use one?

Standards: CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.3, CCRA.R.8, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.SL.4, CCRA.L.1, CCRA.L.2, CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.4, CCRA.L.5, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.W.1, CCRA.W.4, NCAS.CR.1, NCAS.CR.2, NCAS.CR.3, NPES.1

Wonder What's Next?

Join us in the Wonderopolis kitchen tomorrow as we roll up a delicious treat!