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”)

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]

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]

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    

Vintage Wilendur Lobster 54" X 54" Linen Tablecloth With 4 Napkins Unused In BoxExquisite Antique Chinese Hand Embroidered White Irish Linen Tablecloth.Sweet Antique French Damask Linen Tablecloth C1900 Red Flower Weave Monogram VvVintage Superbly Hand Embroidered Cream Irish Linen Budgerigar Budgie TableclothPrimitve Bunny Rabbit Doll Tablecloth Lace Folkart Valentine Easter Bunny DollExtensively Hand Embroidered Large Vintage Irish Linen Tablecloth. Madeira StyleVintage / Retro 52"x50" Tablecloth & 17" Napkins With CherriesVintage Tablecloth Hand Embroidered Primorses - BeautifulVintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth=beautiful Delicate EmbroideryRare Vintage Ecru Irish Linen Tablecloth Mary Card Anemone Hand Crocheted EdgingVintage 50s Tablecloth Cherries Floral Fruit Mid Century Block Print 56x44Extensively Hand Embroidered Vintage Circular Irish Linen Tablecloth - MadeiraGorgeous Vintage Hand Embroidered Medium Square Cream Irish Linen Tablecloth VgcPretty Vintage Crinoline Lady Hand Embroidered Cream Irish Linen TableclothSuperb Vintage Hand Embroidered Cream Irish Linen Tablecloth 4 Napkins X StitchVintage Rare Wilendur Tablecloth Hydrangea With Sewn In TagVintage Wilendur Tablecloth Red & Yellow FlowersGood Antique Victorian White Irish Linen Tablecloth Tenerife Needlelace,crochetExquisite Antique Hand Worked Torchon Bobbin Lace Embroider Whitework TableclothHeavily Hand Embroidered Crinoline Ladies Tablecloth. 48x46" Superb Condition.Vintage 50s Tablecloth Tiki Palm Village Mid Century Block Print Travel 52x42Vintage 50's Bouquets Bows Cottage Tablecloth Valentine's Day Kitschy Retro Fab!Bundle 21 Items Vintage Table Linen Tablecloth Topper Pillowcase Hand EmbroiderVintage Pink Rose Tablecloth Valentine's Day Parisian Prints Paper Label Nos WowVintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth=lovely Raised Embroidery Vintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth=exquisite Raised Embroidery Vintage Christmas Tablecloth Great Graphics!! Santa, Snowmen, Antique French Beautiful Hand Embroidered Small TableclothVintage Hand Embroidered Tablecloth- Beautiful Crinoline LadiesVintage Las Vegas Tablecloth Old Hotels 48" X 51"Vintage Red Hand Embroidered Quilt Top Throw Tablecloth-animals Flowers Food ToyVintage Graphic Tablecloth And (6) Matching Napkins, Exceptional!!Vintage Stunning Hand Embroidery Crinoline Lady Cotton Tablecloth & FigureAntique French Cluny Lace & Linen 47" Round Tablecloth TopperLovely Edwardian Vintage White Irish Linen Tablecloth With Hand Crocheted EdgingVintage Hand Embroidered Tablecloth= Beautiful Raised EmbroideryVintage Cotton Tablecloth 48x48 Red & Blue Apples & Flowers On White StartexVintage 40's Cotton Tablecloth 46 X 52 W/red Cherries,green & Gray Design On ItVintage Mexicana Wilendur Tablecloth Bright Colors 54" X 48"Vintage Ecru Quaker Lace Tablecloth. 63 X 82. Rectangle.Superb Vintage Floral Hand Embroidered White Irish Linen Large Square TableclothLot Of Vintage Stunning Tablecloth Red Roses Floral 10+ Piece LotVintage Pink Roses Cottage Tablecloth Valentine's Day Decor Stripe FiatelleSuperb Vintage White Irish Linen Tablecloth Hand Crocheted Edging & Filet PanelsVintage 1950's Tablecloth 62" X 52" Funky Fish PatternFashion Industries Spring Easter Bunnies Flowers Round Tablecloth & 8 NapkinsVintage Black Americana Tablecloth Banjo Watermelon Baking PiesVintage Tablecloth Cotton 30-40's Folklore Red-gray-greensMid Century Cotton Floral Tablecloth 50x62 Vintage Retro Heart Folk Art Red 1950Large White Pure Cotton Vintage Tablecloth With Crocheted Panels, Excellent CondVintage Taj Mahal Silk Brocade Piano Shawl Scarf Tablecloth With FringeSuperb Vintage Norwegian Hardanger Hand-embroidered Tablecloth Handmade LaceDivine Lge Antique French Damask Linen Tablecloth With Double Monogram Cd C1900Simply Shabby Chic 66"round Ruffled Tablecloth Blush Beauty -rachel AshwellVtg Wilendure Tablecloth Nos Royal Rose 54x72 Red Rose Tablecloth & 4 Napkins Table Topper Lace Daisy 33" Sq Tablecloth Valentine Gift Cutwork Pink & IvoryWilton Court Henrietta Hen & Rooster Tablecloth ~ 60x84 Rectangular~country FarmVtg Tablecloth Picnic Bbq Scenes Early One Pink Lilac Yellow Brown 52" X 60" Vtg Cotton Printed Tablecloth Maroon & Pink Roses Light Tuquoise Leaves SwirlsVintage Quaker Style Lace Tablecloth White 100 X 54