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    

Stunning Vintage Hand Embroidered Linen 48" X 45" Floral Posies TableclothVintage Hand Embroidered Arts & Craft 96" X 72" Crewel Work Bed Cover TableclothVintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth - Daisy Fence Delight- 33" X 33"Vtg "simtex Garden Chartreuse"cotton Floral Tablecloth,factory Fold Unused 52x52Vintage Hand Embroidered Art Deco Linen 46" X 46" Clarice Cliff Style TableclothVintage Embroidered Silk & Linen 29" X 27" Russian Folklore Figures TableclothVintage Hand Embroidered Linen 51" X 49" Tablecloth Laburnum Flowers / Branches Vintage Hand Embroidered 45" X 46" Tablecloth + 4 Napkins Pansies & Sweet Pea Vintage Hand Embroidered Linen 32" X 31" Wild Roses & Forsynthia Tablecloth Vintage Hand Embroidered Linen 31.5" X 31.5" Wild Flowers TableclothVintage Hand Embroidered 42" X 44" 1953 Queen Coronation Tablecloth & TrayclothVintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth - Stock Flowers - 39" X 39" Vintage Hand Embroidered Linen 43" X 42" Tablecloth - Vibrant Floral TerracesVintage Hand Embroidered 49" X 49" Art Deco Daisies Linen TableclothVintage Hand Embroidered Linen Willow's & Water Lily 39" X 41" Tablecloth Vintage Hand Embroidered Linen Octagonal Daisies & Trees - 38" X 38" Tablecloth 4 Scenes Vintage Hand Embroidered Tablecloth Crinoline Lady, Cottage Blue Bird Royal Albert Old Country Roses Round Tablecloth 168cm 66" VgcVintage Hand Embroidered - 49" X 52" Tablecloth - Floral Scrolls Vtg Cotton/blend Tablecloth Gardening W/tulips, Hyacinths, Pots, Seeds 50"x 52"Vintage Hand Embroidered 40 Floral Posies Linen Tablecloth 40" X 40" - Vintage California Handprint Tablecloth Picnic-watermelon, Canteens, Pickles Vintage Cotton Kitchen Tablecloth Southwest Pattern 48x52 Fab ColorVintage Tablecloth With Red Roses, Rosebuds & Pink Hydrangea, 63' X 52"Vintage Wilendur 50's Tablecloth. Gray/white/maroon Flower DesignVtg Dervan Patriotic Themed Tablecloth;approx 32'' X 36''Vintage Simtex Cotton Tablecloth Blue On White "blue Willow" Design 51x49Vintage Cotton Kitchen Tablecloth Fab Posies 46x5410 Pcs 120" Round Seamless Tablecloth - Wedding Party Linens - White FabricVintage Crochet Embroidery Lace Round 68 Inch Diameter TableclothVintage 1940's Florida State Souvenir Map Tablecloth Startex Beautiful ExVintage Budweiser Fabric Cloth 70s Size 42" X 52" TableclothVintage Dutch Tablecloth Netherlands Wool Velvet Persian Design TapestryVtg Linen Tropical Style Tablecloth Colorful Feathery Ferns Red,turquoise++44x54Vintage Cotton Tablecloth 56x60 Cherries Strawberries In ClustersVintage 1940s Printed Tablecloth 50x50" Red Green Flowers Foliage Vibrant ColorVintage Wilendure Apple Blossom Tablecloth 54" X 54" Original TagVintage Tablecloth Vintage Hand Embroidered Tablecloth 64" X 116" With Colorful FlowersVintage 1970s Textured Ivory Crochet Medallion Tablecloth Throw 96 X 80 Vintage 50s Tablecloth Rooster Teacup Atomic Turquoise Midcentury 50x50Vintage Kitchen Tablecloth~red Tomatoes~garden Vegetable~retro Cottage Chic CuteWhite Blue Scrolling Bows Roses Vintage 100% Cotton Tablecloth 70" X 82" Large Vintage Tablecloth 46" X 52"- Wluehite/gray/pinks/green/bluesVintage Florida State Map Blue Red Green Souvenir TableclothVintage Retro Pre-1971 Map Of Florida Tablecloth-vgucCream Lace Cotton Blend Tablecloth /70" RoundMoprimitivepast Vintage Big Apples Theme Farm Kitchen Tablecloth Cotton Luncheon Vintage Hand Embroidered 1930's Green 41" X 42.5" Anenomes TableclothVintage Cotton Floral Lace Tablecloth, Cream 80" X 56" Rectangle, Quaker Style10 Pcs 120" Round Seamless Tablecloth - Wedding Party Linens - White FabricVtg Printed Tablecloth ~ Retro Kitchen Motif ~ Teal/pink/tan ~ 53 X 47 ~ CutterVintage Cotton Tablecloth Retro Pink Roses Red BlueVintage Ivan Bartlett Linen Tablecloth~wild West Rodeo Cowboy Theme 50x84 VggGorgeous Vintage White Cotton Hand Embroidered Cutwork Lace Tablecloth 97" X 56"Vtg Tablecloth 1940s Simtex Blue Willow Orient Asia Pagoda River Bridge 58"x74"Gorgeous Strawberries Vintage Print Tablecloth~red White GreenVintage Cotton Tablecloth Red Black Poppy Floral & Polka Dot Print 50x60"Vtg Wilendur Cotton Tablecloth-pink Poppies With Green Leaves~54" X 68" LabelLovely Vintage Kitchen Cotton Tablecloth Purple Lilacs & Pink & White Background