Dear Fiona: how do I get out of a ‘saving things for best’ mindset?

House & Garden's friendly resident decorating columnist and agony aunt Fiona McKenzie Johnston advises on how to make the most of our loveliest pieces to bring a little joy to every day
Dear Fiona how do I get out of a ‘saving things for best mindset
Christopher Horwood

Dear Fiona

I’ve realised that I’ve been living in a way that I don’t want to: I eat off stainless steel and plain Ikea plates while the family silver is kept in a series of plastic bags in the attic alongside a gold-rimmed set of china (I used to think I’d bring it out for special occasions but I never do.) I’ve got tablecloths I’ve inherited that I’m too frightened of staining to ever use, and I bought some exquisite Chelsea Textiles cushions at their annual sale – and then couldn’t bring myself to put them on the sofa. They’re on the spare room bed where I barely ever see them. Seemingly without meaning to I have turned into my mother. She still hasn’t ever used the monogrammed linen pillowcases she was given as a wedding present, and she’s been married for almost fifty years. It was her who gave me the tablecloths, having inherited them from her mother – neither of them ever used them either, incidentally.

I want to get over this ‘saving things for best’ mindset and live in a lovelier way – and yet I don’t know how to. I tried to start with some soap but at the last minute I couldn’t bring myself to open something so lovely because I thought that I would be sad when it was used up, which I recognise as being ridiculous because technically I could afford to buy more. Please help!

Thank you,

Love Stuck-in-a-Careful-Rut XX

Dear Stuck

Have you ever read Edith Wharton’s 1911 novella Ethan Frome? Admittedly it is not one of her better-known works; it’s not set amongst turn-of-the-century New York society, and it’s not her (excellent) guide on decorating houses. Rather it takes place in a small town in Massachusetts and tells the tale of a man – Ethan Frome – and his grim, miserable, and sickly wife Zeena who seems years older than she is and is in too much pain ever to cook or do anything else, thus necessitating the arrival of her younger, livelier cousin, Mattie. Ethan and Mattie are irrevocably drawn to each other, and one night when Zeena is away (consulting another doctor) Mattie prepares a special supper, setting Ethan’s favourite pickles in “a dish of gay red glass.” Half a page later, the cat breaks the dish, and we learn that Mattie had brought it out despite the fact that Zeena “never meant it should be used, not even when there was company . . . . it was a wedding present [that] came all the way from Philadelphia, from Zeena’s aunt that married the minister.” From there, everything goes wrong.

A tablecloth used for Christmas breakfast at Skye McAlpine's Venice home

Owen Gale

But however much nobody wants to be Zeena, it’s not always as simple as choosing to be Mattie. Up until a couple of years ago, should a member of the royal family have dropped in for tea and offered to wash up afterwards, I could have given them one of several brand-new Volga Linen drying-up cloths that I had been given as an engagement present ten years earlier. I also had an entire shelf of never-lit scented candles, a collection of unused embroidered napkins, and secreted in a drawer between a couple of unworn nightdresses was a little lace bag containing a pair of rose-scented ballet slipper-shaped soaps that one of my aunts gave me on my sixth birthday. In other words, you and I had a lot in common. But I’m using the past tense because I have, in the intervening years, succeeded in using those drying-up cloths and napkins, lighting the candles and wearing the nightdresses – small acts which have brought enormous joy. And while yes, reading Ethan Frome was partly to do with this shift in attitude (truly, there’s nothing Edith Wharton can’t teach us), other things too have played a part – specifically conversations with several designers.

At the crux are four essential lessons. The first comes from Bridie Hall who, in reference to living with things that she describes as “bigger than yourself and culturally weightier” (which includes inherited items, such as your silver and those tablecloths) says “you can’t let [them] overwhelm [you].” The second is courtesy of Pandora Taylor, who asks “why can we not celebrate beauty every day, all day, and eat off the ‘best’ even on a Monday?” And the last two come from Lucy Hammond Giles of Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler, who points out the importance of things being accessible, confessing she might not use her most precious china “were I to have the luxury of an attic instead of our flat roof,” and then underlines the difference between “saving things for best and using things judiciously.”

Let’s break that last idea down further. The “things you save for best tend to be the best things you have,” says Lucy – and certainly that sounds like the case with the silver that is languishing in your attic, which is a good place to start when it comes to your intention to start living in a lovelier fashion, for that silver is not going to cease to exist or wear out through use. Nor, providing you treat it with a little respect, will silver-plate suffer (which, by the way, can be re-plated), or the gold-rimmed china. Respect, incidentally, translates to not putting it in the dishwasher – Lucy explains that she uses her grandmother’s blue Irish Crown Derby tea set “only when I can be bothered to wash it by hand.” True, china can break, just as that dish did in the Edith Wharton tale, but that is part of its beauty; “there’s an interesting tension between its being eternal, and being ephemeral – an early Victorian piece could exist as it is for another thousand years, or you might drop it,” says Benedict Foley. (If you do drop it, there’s always eBay, which was not a resource available to Mattie and Ethan.)

Soaps – however fancy – are for use, not for show at Wolterton Hall

Christopher Horwood

Moving on, “we have a million cushions,” says Lucy, “some of which the children are allowed to just sit against on the sofa, and others which are allowed to be co-opted for garden-based obstacle courses. The former are antique textile and Fortuny, the latter have literally had the stuffing knocked out of them.” Which leaves only your tablecloths in this particular grouping of items. I do understand the terror of potentially staining something that has been looked after so carefully for so long – with my embroidered napkins, I use them only for meals when I know that risk is minimised, so it’s yes to fish pie washed down with Champagne, or dressed crab and white wine, or even children’s (vanilla) birthday cake with milk, and a hard no if there’s so much as a hint of tomato, red meat, red wine, or chocolate. Often the occasions of their use are not the most elaborate of celebrations, when their beauty might in any case go unnoticed in the excitement, but average mid-week suppers with a couple of girlfriends, or Saturday lunches with visiting aunts.

The soap, I acknowledge, is harder and it requires a concerted effort to affect the necessary mental shift. You may find it easier once you have got to grips with the silver, china and tablecloths, and it may become easier again once you conclude that such little luxuries are an essential and begin bulk buying them (potentially, along with Volga Linen Tea Towels, which are a pleasure to use, and maybe even Chelsea Textiles cushions, though in my experience they’re surprisingly indestructible.) Before you accuse me of wanton profligacy, I’d like to introduce you to the concept of the cost-happiness ratio. While I’ve yet to find out where to acquire more of the ballet slipper-shaped soaps of my childhood, I’ve had one of Bridie Hall’s Intaglio marvels in the soap dish on my basin for two months now. It cost £11.25, which you may think is steep for soap, but I reckon I’ll get another month from it, and affords me a burst of delight five or six times a day; at a conservative estimate, that’s a £0.015 for every moment of near rapture. In contrast, my children’s mattresses bring me absolutely no sense of gratification (though I concede they probably make life more comfortable for them) but it never occurred to me that I shouldn’t spend however much I did on them. (Somewhere in the region of £400. Each.)

Having said all of this, please go at your own pace – there is no deadline for making these small, considered changes, and thus altering how you live. Though if you ever find you do need impetus, ask yourself what you’ll do with the china and the table linen and the cushions if you don’t ever start to enjoy them. “It seems a bit of a pity to steadfastly not use things and then pass them on for someone else to repeat the process,” points out Lucy (which you’re only too familiar with). And what’s important is that alongside you learn to live with the occasional accident, which can be reframed as becoming part of these items’ histories – for I can’t promise that a child isn’t going to accidentally smear a precious tablecloth with strawberry jam that you didn’t know was in the shop-bought vanilla birthday cake (though you can probably get that out, eventually.) Lucy recounts that her bedside table is “a Queen Anne chest of drawers. It came with a glass top which, after a week or so (and with some trepidation) I took off – I can now see the beautiful wood and that makes me much happier. I confess there is now the odd water mark, but the beauty of really best is that it wears in, not out.”

Oh – and do read Ethan Frome, for there’s a final (cautionary) lesson in how it ends.

With love,

Fiona XX