For centuries, when one was in the market for a fine tablecloth, the material that immediately came to mind was linen. Woven from the flax plant, linen dates to ancient Egypt—mummies were wrapped in the stuff, while the living wore linen clothing. Today, linen is used to describe a specific type of fabric as well as a generic term referring to everything from sheets and pillowcases to napkins and tablecloths.

Damasks, which can be made from linen, silk, wool, or even cotton, represent the height of formal tablecloth art. Originating in Damascus, Syria, damasks utilize special weaving techniques to produce patterns that appear to shimmer above their background cloth, even if patterns and their background are the same color (eg: white on white). Irish linens, including damask tablecloths, have been an important part of Ireland’s economy since the 17th and 18th centuries.

Just as venerable as damask linen is lace, be it of the needlepoint or bobbin varieties. Sometimes a piece of lace would be inserted into a linen tablecloth. In other cases, cutwork and drawnwork would be employed to create voids that produced lace-like patterns—the edges of the voids would often be sewn with buttonhole stitches to keep the background fabric from unraveling and to define the voids.

During the Victorian Era, embroidered tablecloths, sometimes fringed, grew in popularity. Embroidery is most frequently seen in decorative florals used as accents in the corners or center of a tablecloth, or along the borders. Geometric patterns were also embraced, but so were tapestry-like tablecloths with intricate borders. Woven on jacquard looms like damasks, these multi-colored coverings were often made of silk and wool.

By the end of the 19th century, crochet techniques arrived in the United States with the waves of immigrants from Europe. One type of crochet, the filet, imposed the handwork of crochet on an underlying, manufactured grid. Simultaneously, applique tablecloths with floral motifs that took their inspiration from Art Nouveau were becoming fashionable.

Woven, lace, and crocheted tablecloths continued to be produced and used throughout the 20th century, but by the 1930s, inexpensive printed cotton tablecloths, often featuring cheerful or even amusing patterns and designs, seemed a tonic to the austerity of the Depression. Art Deco pastel patterns went nicely with dinnerware such as Fiesta, while cotton feedsacks with existing designs and imagery were recycled into tablecloths.

One of the most popular types of printed cotton tablecloths from the middle of the 20th century were those bearing cartoony renditions of U.S. states. These souvenir tablecloths ...

During World War II, patriotic tablecloths promoting everything from victory gardens to reverence for the Statue of Liberty found their way into many kitchens and dining rooms. And before and after the war, decorative Wilendur tablecloths brightened rooms with their Pennsylvania Dutch or Mexico motifs, as well as blocks and arrays of flowers or fruit.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

LACMA Luxury Textiles

LACMA Luxury Textiles

Textile collectors shouldn't miss this microsite from the LA County Museum of Art, a great reference on European an… [read review or visit site]

Feeding America

Feeding America

This archive of 76 influential American cookbooks from the late 1700s to early 1900s, assembled by the Michigan St… [read review or visit site]

Tupper Diva

Tupper Diva

Kristian McManus’ fresh, airtight collection of Tupperware catalogs and related ephemera from the 1950s and 6… [read review or visit site]

Most watched eBay auctions    

Superb Vintage Heavily Hand Embroidered Cream Irish Linen Tablecloth Outstanding 5 Vintage Chic Floral 1950s Printed Tablecloth Lot Shabby CottageVintage Autumn Leaves Large Cottage Tablecloth Fall Colors Pretty Classic ColorsPretty Vintage Cotton Print Tablecloth 54"x50"Vintage Cotton Tablecloth Wilendure Tag Blackberries & VinesSuperb Vintage Madeira Work Coloured Hand Embroidered Tablecloth & 12 NapkinsDivine Antique Edwardian 1910 - 1920 Hand Embroidered Bed Spread Or TableclothGorgeous Vintage Madeira Style Cream Embroidered Linen Medium Square TableclothVintage Tablecloth - Mimosa & Daisies - Hand EmbroideredBeautiful Vintage Superbly Hand Embroidered Floral White Irish Linen Tablecloth Vintage California Hand Prints "mardi Gras" Rayon Floral Tablecloth 53" X 72"Amazing Hand Embroidery Vintage Madeira? Large Tablecloth 12 Napkins SetVintage Genuine Tablecloth 48" X 53" John Madsen Wilendur Hand PaintedWilendur "victoria " Aqua Mwt White Roses Tablecloth 54 X 54"Antique Hand Made Italian Figural Reticella Lace Linen Tablecloth 100"×64"Wilendur Vintage Used Green With White Lilacs Tablecloth 48 X 54"Lovely Antique Victorian English Handmade Lace TableclothVtg Quaker Lace Cream-white Cotton Floral Lace Tablecloth Sz 72 X 90Vintage Square Tablecloth Cotton Fiesta 1950's Shabby Chic Colorful 44 X40"Antique Hand Worked White Vologda Russian Bobbin Lace Tablecloth.Vintage Tablecloth-hand Embroidered With Small FlowersVintage California Hand Prints Cottage Tablecloth Green Caladiums Midcentury FabVintage Wilendur Mixed Floral TableclothVintage Cotton Tablecloth 46x52 Pussy Willows Great Color!Vintage Mid Century Cotton Print Tablecloth Blue Flowers Red Cherries 42" X 48"Vintage Tablecloth Broderie Linen Mint 4 Napkins Dutch Ladies Geese MushroomsVintage Tablecloth Cactus Cloth The Shores Of Historical Massachusetts State MapVintage Tablecloth-hand Embroidered-irish Linen-crinoline Ladies.Vintage Christmas Tablecloth - 56" X 70" Rectangle - Beautiful ConditionVint Print Cotton Tablecloth W/floral-morning Glory? Wilendur?-gorgeous Quality!Vanilla Rose Doily 27" Doily Table Runner Flower Tablecloth CreamFabulous Vintage French Tapestry Tablecloth / Panel - Aubusson StyleCrochet Tablecloth Pineapple Pattern Lacey Handmade Vintage Cream 80" X 56"Le Jacquard Francais Tablecloth Argentine 47"x 47" Cigar 100% Cotton Nwt Vintage Large Hand Embroidered Irish Linen Tablecloth - Floral Bouquets.Vintage Mid Century Cotton Print Tablecloth Red Yellow Green Flowers 46" X 48"Stunning Cottage Garden Embroidered Vintage TableclothVintage Heavy Cotton Christmas Tablecloth - 52" X 64" Estate FindLe Jacquard Francais Tablecloth Jardin Exotique 47"x 47" Moss 100% Cotton Nwt Old Country Roses Floral TableclothLovely Vintage White Cotton Embroidered Cross Stitch Tablecloth Crochet InsertsVintage Faltex Daisies Tablecloth 52 X 52" NwtVintage 50's Souvenir Usa Vacationland Tablecloth 60 X 72 (48) StatesIrish Linen Double Damask Large Oblong Tablecloth Unusual Marine Design VintageVintage 1950's Floral Tablecloth Red Poppies With Yellow Checks 51 X 63Vintage Linen Beautiful Hand Embroidered Tablecloth 33" By 33"B'ful Vintage Madeira Richly Hand Embroidered Cutwork Flower & Dot TableclothVintage White Cotton Hand Embroidery Floral Bobbin Lace Tablecloth Shabby ChicVintage Tablecloth Floral Blue Pink Red 48”x54” Pleasant Company ~ Molly's ~ Birthday Tablecloth ~ Used Condition Stained ~Antique Creamy French Normandy Lace Tablecloth 34" X 34" Sheer Lawn W EmbroideryVintage Tablecloth 53"x48" Pink With Grey White Brown Flowers Vintage Mcm Geometric Tablecloth ExcVintage Christmas Tablecloth~veraVintage Hand Embroidered White Linen Tablecloth FuschiaVintage California Hand Prints Iconic Chicken Rooster Cottage Tablecloth FowlVintage Vera Neumann Tablecloth Aqua Floral 42 X 52 Vintage Cotton Tablecloth Tiny Pink Roses 54x66 WilendurVintage White Cotton Print Tablecloth Blue And Red 56" X 46" Floral Cutter/craftPretty Vintage Cotton Print Tablecloth Red,white & Blue Floral Print 50"x50"